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Pefok’s Bundesliga Move Adds Wrinkle to USMNT’s World Cup Forward Puzzle

With no striker truly emerging as clear-cut favorite to start in Qatar, the race is on for the candidates eyeing a place at the World Cup.

After a season in which he led the Swiss top flight in scoring, Jordan Pefok is heading to the Bundesliga—and with it is adding a new layer to seemingly never-ending hunt to anoint a starting striker for the U.S. men’s national team.

With the World Cup mere months in the distance, the U.S. still has a few pressing roster questions, and the lack of clarity surrounding the identity of its center forwards remains at the top of that list. Pefok, 26, scored 22 league goals for Young Boys, with five goals in his last five games to end the season. 

Regardless of whether it affects his USMNT standing, the move to the Bundesliga is a step up for Pefok in his career. After time in France with Reims and Rennes and after his success in Switzerland, he’s joining a team that finished fifth in the German top flight last season (missing UEFA Champions League qualification by a single point) and will play in the UEFA Europa League. 

It’s true that Pefok was in the Champions League group stage last season—even scoring a game-winning goal against Manchester United and another tally vs. Atalanta—but the game-to-game competition should represent a greater challenge and be a more indicative proving ground for the striker, who hasn’t quite replicated his club success with the national team. 

“After two successful years in Bern, where I had the perfect environment to develop as a young player, the next step in my career is now ahead of me. I want to prove myself in the Bundesliga and I’m sure that I have found the right club in Union. Their style of play suits me well,” Pefok (whose Twitter handle demands his last name be referred to as “Pefok” and who U.S. Soccer says prefers Pefok, yet identifies himself as Siebatcheu in his Union Berlin introduction) said in a statement.

His top moment with the U.S. came in the Concacaf Nations League semifinals over a year ago, when his late goal against Honduras sent the U.S. to the final. That was a big moment in the progression of this national team, given what happened in the title match vs. Mexico and everything that followed over the ensuing 10 months. He had a chance to cement his name in U.S. lore in a World Cup qualifier against Mexico in March at Estadio Azteca, but he completely shanked his opportunity to score what would have been a famous game-winner. The U.S. drew 0–0 anyway, and that point proved vital in securing a ticket to Qatar, but from an individual standpoint, that was a chance that needed to be taken. He was omitted from the U.S.’s camp roster earlier this month.

Nevertheless, with nobody truly seizing the position throughout qualifying, there’s still time to make a case. His new club will face the likes of RB Leipzig and Bayern Munich before the U.S.’s last pre-World Cup camp, and if he’s still in the picture for U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter come October, there’s a date with Borussia Dortmund looming as well. Telling data points could yet be generated.

“Jordan is a striker who will fit in well with us with his style of play and can operate in different systems. We are excited about him, his goalscoring ability and that he has chosen Union,” Union Berlin director Oliver Ruhnert said.

In some ways, Pefok’s place in the U.S. pecking order depends on his own performance as much as it does on those of his counterparts. Jesús Ferreira, who scored four goals for the U.S. vs. Grenada earlier this month in a Nations League match, is MLS’s leading scorer and likely has the inside track on starting vs. Wales in Qatar on Nov. 21. He scored again for FC Dallas on Wednesday night, although he was aided by a goalkeeping gaffe from LAFC’s Maxime Crépeau for his 10th goal of the season.

Elsewhere, Ricardo Pepi, who learned that simply moving to the Bundesliga does not equate to success, is seeking a hot start to his first full season at Augsburg. He scored against fifth-tier competition in preseason this week, and perhaps the simple act of seeing the ball go into the back of the net in a match will get the 19-year-old Texan going in the right direction.

Haji Wright entered the U.S.’s June camp in sizzling scoring form after his run in Turkey but then did little with his opportunity (and was singled out by Berhalter for his performance, in a direct and pointed way). Wright is in club limbo, linked heavily to Hull City in England’s second tier. Further on the periphery, Matthew Hoppe is another player who could be on the move, with his transfer from Schalke to Mallorca not resulting in the windfall he was anticipating. With the right landing spot and set of circumstances, perhaps a return to the fold is on order.

There are a couple of others who are just one goal-scoring run away from finding their way back into the good graces. Josh Sargent (Norwich City) and Daryl Dike (West Brom) are two that come to mind, with injuries behind them and opportunity ahead of them in England’s second-division championship.

Ultimately, that’s what this roster race comes down to: individual opportunity and making the most of it. Pefok now has his chance, and time—and the scoresheet—will tell whether a ticket to Qatar is the reward.

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