Jordan Pefok may currently be the most in-form striker in the US talent pool…but is he the best one? And more importantly, is he the right one for our team?
It’s no secret that striker is a point of weakness for the US Men’s National Team. In particular, during the soon-finishing World Cup qualification cycle, the “Number 9” has been a revolving door with no one locking the position down.
USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter seems to be alternating between two strategies when it comes to his selections; playing the hot hand with whoever is in form at the moment, or going back to his “comfort pillow” by playing his longtime Columbus Crew colleague Gyasi Zardes.
Before anyone gets too riled up on either side of the debate, let me just preface by saying that this is not going to be a #BerhalterOut piece, nor will I be bashing MLS. I am also not here to say what should have been done differently in the qualifiers up to now.
What I am here to do is to make the argument that Jordan Pefok should not only be called up to be part of the WCQ rosters, but that he should be given a run of games to prove he deserves to be the regular starting striker ahead of the team’s still-likely trip to Qatar in November.
Who is Jordan Pefok?
For those of you who have been either living under a rock or are too cool to pay attention to the unglamorous Swiss Super League, I’ll give a short bit of background.
Jordan Pefok (AKA Jordan Theoson Siebatcheu) is 6’3, 25 years old, and currently plays striker for BSC Young Boys in the Swiss top division. He was born in Washington, D.C., and was eligible to play for France and Cameroon before committing to the US in 2021.
He played two friendlies with the France U21 team in 2017 and reportedly turned down USMNT call-ups before, having explained, “the best thing was to focus on club soccer and not international at this moment”. Since committing to the US, he started calling himself by “Pefok”, which is his mother’s maiden name.
He has one goal in 277 minutes over eight games with the US, with his last appearances coming in the opening two qualifiers in September against Canada and El Salvador.
If it doesn’t sound like he exactly lit the place on fire in his time wearing the national crest, it’s because he didn’t. However a lot has happened since his short run of games in 2021.
What he hasn’t done with the US so far, though, he has done with BSC Young Boys in Switzerland. He has scored lots of goals.
How many? So far in 2021/22, Pefok has scored 20 goals in 34 games across all competitions. That includes three goals in UEFA Champions League Qualifiers and two goals in the Champions League (one of them being the winning goal against Manchester United).
Having played 2292 minutes, that breaks down to about a goal every 115 minutes. He also scored 15 last year in 1748 minutes which breaks down to a goal about every (…double checks math…) 116 minutes. That stat right there shows something that no other striker in the US has, and I’m not saying lots of goals (though he has that too).
No, Jordan Pefok shows CONSISTENCY.
Is Jordan Pefok “The Future”?
Pefok didn’t engineer a hype train like when Pepi scored a brace against Jamaica in quaifying. We didn’t watch him push for the Golden Boot in the U20 World Cup at 16 like Josh Sargent. At 25 years old, already in the early parts of what are typically an attacking player’s prime years, so it’s hard to label him as “the future of US Soccer”.
Rather, he’s the opposite. Jordan Pefok is the present. He’s professional striker right now. It’s his job, and it has been his job for years now. He’s already been tested as a professional to fight back through long goalscoring droughts.
Before Switzerland, he was playing in Ligue 1 with Stade Rennais. He joined that club in 2018, and left after two years having scored only eight goals in close to 1700 minutes. He came to Young Boys and has turned that around in spectacular fashion.
Let’s step back for a second and whip up a hypothetical comparison. Imagine if, after two years at Norwich, Sargent only scores 8 goals, then he changes teams to a lower, albeit respectable level, and starts lighting it up as the best scorer in the league, with critical goals in the Champions or Europa league against strong teams from England or Italy.
Imagine he’s now 25 years old, he bangs in over 20 goal in a season, and teams in Serie A start getting interested. If that were where Sargent was now, Berhalter would be criminally negligent if he didn’t start him over Pepi or Zardes at the first opportunity.
Well that’s where Pefok is NOW. He’s learned what it is to come in hot, be humbled against quality opponents, change clubs, change managers, change tactics, and is now consistently scoring goals.
Should we really count goals in Switzerland?
Let’s come back to the real world now, and tackle the elephant in the room: Pefok is scoring goals, but he’s doing it in Switzerland, right?
Sure, it’s Europe, Switzerland puts teams into the Champions League, but it’s not exactly the top tier in England, Spain, Italy, or Germany. This raises valid concerns. Those goals aren’t as impressive as they might seem, are they? It’s the same or worse than MLS, right? What’s the big deal?
Well, Pepi was the top American scorer in 2021 with 13 goals. Zardes scored 14 in 2020. Pefok already has 19, and they’re nowhere near done with the season yet! If we are comparing apples to apples…counting goals in non-top-five-leagues, Pefok’s goalscoring performance is head and shoulders above our other options.
Also consider the fact that BSC Young boys were in the Europa League last season and the Champions League group stage this time around. No matter how you slice it, that is an incredibly important experience for a player going into an elite competition like the World Cup.
Less time on the ball, more precision, faster thinking, faster moving, big-name opponents…these are all important game conditions that Pefok is already experiencing. He scored the winner against Manchester United in September, for crying out loud! It wasn’t only McKennie, Pulisic, and Dest who had moments on Europe’s biggest stage; Pefok took his chance and ran with it in the UCL this year.
He can score goals, and he plays against top competition, but would he “fit the team”?
Simply putting the “best” 11 players together on the field doesn’t necessarily make the best team. Berhalter loves his system, and we hear about it all the time:
We need verticality from our players. We want a high work rate. We love a guy who makes the unselfish runs. We want someone who will press the ball. These are things that we get from a player like Gyasi Zardes.
But what exactly do we want from the press? We want to win the ball, of course. A successful press comes from limiting the opposition’s time on the ball, cutting off passing lanes, and forcing turnovers. The argument against Zardes in this situation is that, even though he will run his head off, the ball will always move faster than him.
A quality player that is used to being pressed by the best in the EPL won’t get nervous with someone who just runs fast at them. They won’t second-guess themselves and make a weak backwards pass for Gyasi to run straight on to.
We won’t be able to force the same mistakes some of these players can force in MLS or in CONCACAF. “Put pressure on them and they’ll crack” isn’t going to work for much longer. If we’re going to make a high press work against great teams, we’ll need tactical pressers who also offer a legitimate threat with the ball at their feet.
Lets go through some video clips to see what good feet, a strong body and effective, tactical pressing can do (Pefok is number 17).
Can you imagine Zardes muscling off his marker, settling a goal kick inches from his body, and then dribbling out of trouble to feed the attacking winger [minute 3:31]? Furthermore, see how he pokes the ball away and then actually takes a touch away from his defender and creates something [minute 1:34].
He’ll run down the player he needs to run down given the situation, but it will be smarter and more effective because he is accustomed to facing better opposition that can’t simply be scared off the ball. And when he wins the ball, he has the skill and experience to contribute to the attack in a way that gels with the rest of our high level players.
What does he bring to the game?
Pefok is good with his feet and good with his head. With his back to goal, he can hold up and settle a pass in traffic or he can spin his defender and finish with a clever chip [minute 0:39]. He plays one-two combinations or sprays wide to make a run [minute 2:40]. He lurks in the box and poaches, but he can also muscle in front of his defender to get on the end of a cross.
At 6’3, he is a big target in the box. He contributes in the attack in more ways than one, so he’s less predictable. These are all skills that the US needs in a striker, but Pefok also does the thing that you want and need a striker to do. He scores goals.
So what is the final verdict?
We have a young team of potential future world beaters on the USMNT, but we have a hole up top. Gregg Berhalter has tried plugging the hole with up and comers that show flashes of talent and brilliance, but we can’t wait for their development with three critical qualifiers just weeks away, and a hopeful run Qatar in November.
We need results now.
He’s tried plugging it with journeyman MLS players that bring grit, resolve, and unselfishness. But an increase in grit and hustle doesn’t make up for the sacrifice in soccer skill needed to fit with our players of pedigree, and would likely fall flat against better competition. And above all, we need production that we aren’t getting from the strikers we’ve been using.
Then we have Jordan Pefok.
He is an experienced, in-form, technically proficient, physically imposing center forward. He’s a Champions League goalscorer who is in his prime. He’s earned his spot while everyone else is showing why they should be passed over.
The only question I have left is: when do we get to see him play for the USMNT again?