USMNT's Nations League roster speaks to sudden depth at striker — and 'difficult' decisions

AUSTIN, TEXAS - NOVEMBER 16: Ricardo Pepi #9 of the United States celebrates scoring with Folarin Balogun #20 during the second half of a Concacaf Nations League Quarterfinal Round leg 1 match against Trinidad and Tobago at Q2 Stadium on November 16, 2023 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Elizabeth Kruetz/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

The U.S. men's national team suffered through the 2022 World Cup cycle with a glaring weakness at soccer's most prominent position: striker.

As a young USMNT coalesced into a solid, dynamic unit, head coach Gregg Berhalter searched for a reliable No. 9, and never really found one.

Now, 15 months later, at the onset of a critical year, Berhalter has the opposite problem: His player pool is overflowing with worthy options.

It's a good problem, of course. It's a welcome departure from the days of choosing between Jordan Pefok and Jesús Ferreira. Pefok, coincidentally, is now an every-game starter in the German Bundesliga — and isn't even sniffing USMNT rosters because the position is increasingly deep.

Berhalter on Wednesday named a 23-player roster for the Nations League finals that spoke to that depth. He typically chooses two players at every position, plus a third goalkeeper. This time, he picked three strikers: Folarin Balogun, Josh Sargent and Ricardo Pepi.

Berhalter excluded Haji Wright, who has found a groove in the English Championship, with six goals since the start of February.

He excluded Brandon Vazquez, who's starting and starring at Monterrey, the top team in Mexico's Liga MX.

He excluded Pefok and Ferreira, and probably never ever considered any other MLS forward.

He excluded several notable wingers, including Brenden Aaronson, to fit all three strikers among the 23.

"It's been really difficult for us," Berhalter said Wednesday on a Zoom call with reporters, when asked about choosing strikers. "There's not much between them. And there's not a lot of reason why the other guys weren't on the squad. But we can't bring five strikers into camp. It wouldn't be realistic."

And in general, he said: "Of all the times that we've had to pick squads, this was probably the most difficult, due to the nature of the competition, the level that players are performing at, and the depth we have in our national team pool now.

The full roster, for a March 21 semifinal against Jamaica and a potential March 24 final, is perhaps the USMNT's most talented ever. Sixteen of the 20 outfield players are employed by clubs in the UEFA Champions League or top flights in England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France.

One of the 16 is Tyler Adams, who returns to the fold for the first time since the 2022 World Cup, after a hellish year recovering from a hamstring injury. He is back in training at Bournemouth. As of Wednesday morning, he had not yet played in a competitive game, so his Nations League minutes will be limited. But Bournemouth believes that Adams is capable of playing "up to 45 minutes" for the USMNT next week, Berhalter said.

"So, once we heard that, we jumped at that idea," Berhalter continued. "Because he means so much to the team, both on and off the field. ... He's been missed for a while. And it'll be nice to get him back into this group.

Adams' presence completes a midfield that is better and deeper than ever.

USMNT roster for 2024 Nations League

Goalkeepers (3)

Drake Callender (Inter Miami)
Ethan Horvath (Cardiff City/WAL)
Matt Turner (Nottingham Forest/ENG)

Defenders (8)

Sergiño Dest (PSV Eindhoven/NED)
Kris Lund (Palermo/ITA)
Mark McKenzie (Genk/BEL)
Tim Ream (Fulham/ENG)
Chris Richards (Crystal Palace/ENG)
Antonee Robinson (Fulham/ENG)
Miles Robinson (FC Cincinnati)
Joe Scally (Borussia Mönchengladbach/GER)

Midfielders (6):

Tyler Adams (Bournemouth/ENG)
Johnny Cardoso (Real Betis/ESP)
Luca de la Torre (Celta Vigo/ESP)
Weston McKennie (Juventus/ITA)
Yunus Musah (AC Milan/ITA)
Gio Reyna (Nottingham Forest/ENG)

Forwards (6):

Folarin Balogun (Monaco/FRA)
Malik Tillman (PSV Eindhoven/NED)
Ricardo Pepi (PSV Eindhoven/NED)
Christian Pulisic (AC Milan/ITA)
Josh Sargent (Norwich City/ENG)
Tim Weah (Juventus/ITA)

USMNT's striker options

The most important recent development, though, is the emergence of depth up top.

When Balogun committed to the U.S. last spring, he was a savior and automatic starter; now, he has competition.

Pepi, rebounding from his World Cup snub and yearlong goal drought, was actually the USMNT's most prolific striker of 2023. He scored seven times for the national team in just 367 minutes last year, for an absurd goals-per-90 rate of 1.72 — albeit one inflated by "sub effects."

Balogun and Pepi have been the one-two punch ever since last year's Nations League finals in June. But Sargent, the USMNT's first-choice striker in Qatar, could not be ignored. He returned from an ankle injury in December. He won a starting spot at Norwich City in January. Over the past two months, he has scored eight goals in 10 starts, and propelled Norwich into the playoff places in England's second tier.

Balogun, meanwhile, has been struggling in France's Ligue 1. After a hot start to his stint at Monaco, following a $43 million summer transfer, he has only two league goals (and two assists) since the October international break.

Pepi, on the other hand, is struggling to even get on the field at PSV in Holland. He has started only one league match, and logged only 362 minutes, all season.

Sargent is playing the best soccer of the three, but at the lowest level. So there are options, but also questions: Is Balogun still at the top of the depth chart? Who'll be the first forward off the bench? Could two of the three ever play together? Could one of the three play on the wing in a pinch?

The roster features only two natural wingers, Christian Pulisic and Tim Weah. "We've seen Ricardo line up wide on the left for PSV at times," Berhalter said. "We've seen Josh Sargent play different positions as well. So we're gonna have to use some flexibility there."

They are imperfect options, and tricky questions. But they're far better than the ones being floated two years ago. "At one time, [reporters] were writing about, we didn't have any No. 9s. And now we're leaving four or five really good No. 9s off of the squad," Berhalter said.

In Qatar, the USMNT's lack of a clinical finisher haunted them. Less than halfway through the march to the 2026 World Cup, the progression of the player pool has already lifted their ceiling.