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Pepi, Dike Moves Kick Off Key January Transfer Window for USMNT Players

With players looking to settle before the World Cup qualifying stretch run, two forwards have found new homes.

It didn't take very long at all for two of the U.S. men's national team players most likely to secure moves abroad this winter to cement their futures.

In the opening days of the January transfer window, Daryl Dike and Ricardo Pepi have headed to Europe, with the former landing a transfer from Orlando City to West Brom in England's second tier and the latter leaving FC Dallas for Augsburg in the Bundesliga. Both are signed through June 2026, when the U.S. will co-host the World Cup with Canada and Mexico, and given their age, ability and trajectory, these moves serve as the jumping-off point for the most influential years of their respective careers in the build-up to that competition.

But the 2022 World Cup comes first, naturally, and these moves kick off an important window for U.S. players who are both looking to advance their club careers while also settling into productive situations through which they can develop further and remain firmly on the national team radar. 

Pepi may have supplanted Dike in buzz, hype and national team standing over the last year, but not in recent productivity. The 18-year-old's last goal came nearly three months ago vs. Jamaica on Oct. 7, though FC Dallas missing the playoffs limited his opportunities to play deep into November. He took part in the U.S.'s training camp and friendly vs. Bosnia-Herzegovina last month, but it didn't end with the kind of performance befitting of the superb year Pepi had.

"We believe in Ricardo. We believe that he's a very good talent. We believe that he's got a really high ceiling," U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter said following Pepi's goalless showing in the 1–0 win. "He's a very good goal scorer, and for him it's just about getting a little bit of rhythm. 

"He's been off also for a while, his last game for the national team was against Jamaica and before that Mexico and then he's been off with Dallas not making the playoffs, so it's a stop-start for a guy like that, and I'm sure this break is going to help him refocus and get ready for January."

There's going to be heightened expectations that come along with the reported $20 million price tag for Augsburg—by far the record outlay for the club—which is ultimately a good thing. Pepi may have been linked to plenty of upper-echelon European clubs over the last few months, but he finds himself in a position where his club will need him to perform. Augsburg has just 17 goals in 17 matches and is clinging to survival in the top flight halfway through the Bundesliga season. It's the kind of sink-or-swim moment that can harden Pepi, who remains the USMNT's top choice at center forward after a year in which he garnered both MLS and U.S. Soccer young player of the year awards.

“We are delighted that Ricardo has decided to join FCA despite interest from a number of top clubs around the world," Augsburg sporting director Stefan Reuter said in a statement. "We were able to provide him with a clear sporting plan for his future development that convinced him to come here. We are certain that he will continue to improve here in Augsburg and that we’ll have a lot of fun together over the coming years.”

Ricardo Pepi and Daryl Dike are on the move overseas

Dike, who was once touted as a $20 million player not that long ago, is the one who finished the MLS season on fire, though, with goals in eight of his last 10 games (including one in the playoffs). And he's joining a club in a league where he has previously excelled and will be playing for a manager for whom he accomplished said excelling. While on loan at Barnsley last winter and spring, Dike scored nine goals in 19 games under Valérien Ismaël, who subsequently left to take charge at West Brom. 

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Once again, Dike will be in the thick of a promotion battle, and another goal-laden showing in a tense setting can only increase his profile as a potential contributor for the U.S. If the Americans secure qualification to the 2022 World Cup, Dike, whose move reportedly cost West Brom $9.5 million, could play himself back up the pecking order at a position that is still unsettled–it's easy to forget that Pepi only seized the role in recent months.

“I’m delighted we have completed the transfer of Dike," Ismaël said in a statement. "He was always our first target and priority. Dike has everything we need from the No. 9 position. He has energy, strength, he challenges defenders and he scores goals.

“I worked with him at Barnsley and I know him very well. He has the mentality. He is 21 years old and is still a young player, but he has a lot of experience.” 

The two forwards join a slew of U.S. talents who are on the move this winter. Some moves had already long been sorted. Caden Clark's transfer to RB Leipzig (although a short-term loan back to the New York Red Bulls is reportedly in play), Jonathan Gomez (who is still eligible to represent Mexico) and his leap from USL Championship to Real Sociedad, Kyle Duncan's free transfer to Belgium's Oostende and Chris Mueller's departure from Orlando to Hibernian in Scotland were all set in motion months ago. 

Other high-profile players could be joining them on the move as well—James Sands, Justin Che, George Bello and Cole Bassett are prime candidates to leave MLS and go abroad, while Sergiño Dest and Weston McKennie have featured prominently in the transfer rumor mill at a time when securing club stability is imperative to fostering the kind of growth and rhythm that Berhalter referenced when discussing Pepi and another one of FC Dallas's academy products. 

Bryan Reynolds has been left in the cold at Roma, unable to get meaningful playing time under José Mourinho to the point that he was released for the U.S. friendly vs. Bosnia-Herzegovina, despite it taking place outside of the FIFA calendar. Belgium's Anderlecht and Club Brugge are among those reportedly linked to a loan for the 20-year-old right back, whose 28 minutes in that friendly vs. Bosnia-Herzegovina were 28 times the amount of Serie A minutes he's experienced this season.

"You can surely see the rust today, and that's something that he can't help that," Berhalter said following the Dec. 18 match. "He's doing his best in training and he's doing his best to get on the field and it's been difficult for him. You can see he lacks rhythm. He's a player that we believe in as a staff. We think he's a top talent and he has really high potential. But he needs to be playing regularly. He needs to get rhythm if he's going to help us in qualifying."

Playing regularly, securing rhythm and aiding in qualifying: those are the three highest-priority items on any U.S. national team hopeful's to-do list at the start of 2022. For two young forwards for both the present and future, they'll be aiming to utilize their lucrative transfers to achieve just that.

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