The race for the third striker spot on the U.S. men’s national team World Cup roster had grown into one of the biggest storylines surrounding the roster for months, and Haji Wright’s emergence as the winner of that competition to join Jesus Ferreira and Josh Sargent in Qatar was one of the most surprising developments from Wednesday’s roster reveal.
Wright, who made his USMNT debut in June, has enjoyed a strong first half of the European season with Turkish club Antalyaspor. The 24-year-old has totaled nine goals in his first 12 Super Lig appearances, picking up where he left off while on loan with Antalyaspor last season.
Wright earned the nod over both Pepi and Jordan Pefok for Gregg Berhalter’s third and final striker spot, despite Pepi’s impressive run at Dutch side Groningen and Pefok’s success since completing his move to Union Berlin.
“If we would have made the decision mid-September, Jordan Pefok probably would’ve been a lock to be in, based on his form in [the Bundesliga with] Union Berlin,” Berhalter said in a conference call Wednesday. “But since then, it’s a different story.” Pefok hasn’t scored at all. “Haji is in great goalscoring form. They’re both physical strikers. Jordan maybe a little more so, but Haji has pace, he’s got the ability to go 1-v-1, he’s finishing with his head, both feet. And he’s performing really well.”
Pepi’s arrival in the Netherlands this season has given the 19-year-old a major confidence boost with the Augsburg loanee excelling for FC Groningen. Pepi has scored five goals and added two assists in nine combined appearances for the Eredivisie side, rebounding from a tough debut European season in the Bundesliga.
Although Pepi has enjoyed a strong loan spell this fall, Berhalter decided to go with both Ferreira and Sargent for his versatile striking options.
“Ricardo was up against Josh [Sargent] and Jesus [Ferreira] and we thought it was valuable that Josh was playing in that competition [the Championship] where two of our opponents are coming from,” Berhalter said of the decision not to select Pepi. “The Dutch league, I think it’s a great league, but it doesn’t bring the same physicality that the Premier League or the Championship brings. That was something that went into the decision.
“Ricardo Pepi has had a great run of form and maybe he should be there, and I can understand that, but we have to choose and we chose to bring three strikers and these were the ones we chose.”