Where will the USMNT goals come from? Why do-or-die Iran clash could be Ferreira's long-awaited time to shine
Right up until about one hour before the U.S. men's national team's World Cup opener against Wales, the general consensus was that Jesus Ferreira was the starting striker.
He had held down that role through the second half of qualifying, having replaced Ricardo Pepi. But when the USMNT lineup was announced for that World Cup opener, Ferreira wasn't in it.
The same happened against England. Another game, another spot on the bench. He's yet to play a minute at the World Cup, having been a key figure in the USMNT lineup throughout the push to earn their spot in Qatar.
Entering the USMNT's final game of the group stage, though, the striker position remains up in the air. The USMNT will need at least one goal to get the three points needed to advance to the knockout stages, but it's still unclear where and, more importantly, from whom that goal will come.
Could it come from a striker, even after all of the difficulties the position has presented over the past few years.? And could it come from Ferreira, whether directly or indirectly, as the U.S. has one last chance to save their World Cup?
JESUS FERREIRA HAT TRICK FOR THE USMNT! WHAT A GOAL 🔥 pic.twitter.com/4RkUXAgtIW— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) June 11, 2022
Goals have been hard to come by in recent matches, especially in Qatar, where the U.S. drew Wales 1-1 before finishing scoreless against England. That solitary goal, a lovely sequence featuring Christian Pulisic and Tim Weah, is the only one the U.S. has scored in their last four games.
Their strikers, by and large, have struggled to do what strikers do. Yes, the hold-up play has been good, as has the pressing. Ultimately, though, strikers are judged on goals, and it's been some time since we've seen one score.
When facing World Cup-quality opponents, the USMNT's strikers have not looked World Cup-quality from open play.
"We talked about this last time, especially after the [England] game when I said how difficult goals are in the World Cup," USMNT boss Greg Berhalter said. "It's hard to come by goals, and that's what we've found. For us, it's about how we put our players in a position to create chances.
"We've been defending really well and that keeps you in games. We know in this game, we're going to need to score a goal. That's going to have to happen, so we stay calm. We have a plan and we'll go out and try to execute that plan."
We know what we have to do. pic.twitter.com/zYNgjz00pu— U.S. Men's National Soccer Team (@USMNT) November 28, 2022
For months, it looked like Ferreira was the best manifestation of Berhalter's plan. The FC Dallas star's skillset is unique and, seemingly, fits well with what those around him have to offer.
Ferreira isn't a 'pure striker' by any means, although he did improve massively in MLS this season. Instead, he's more of a facilitator, a player that controls space and makes those around him better. He has that No.10 blood in him and that No.9 shirt on his back.
His movement opens doors for players like Pulisic and Weah. His pressing puts centerbacks on the back foot. His creativity helps facilitate chances against teams that play deeper. And, ultimately, he does get his goals every now and then.
Ferreira is one option, and perhaps the best one, but not the only option.
Josh Sargent could return to the XI after starting against Wales. It was his hold-up play that paved the way for Weah's goal. And he, like Ferreira, has turned the corner on the goalscoring front in the Championship, having shown an ability to score in a few different ways against Norwich City.
Haji Wright got the nod against England, which turned out to be a Berhalter masterclass. A surprise addition to the roster, Wright pressed the hell out of England's defense, preventing them from building out of the back and finding a rhythm. This Iran game may not call for that quite as much, but Wright's strength in the box could be of use in a game where space will be tight.
"I think they've been okay," Berhalter said of Sargent and Wright. "When we're evaluating the performance in the first game, Josh had a good chance at the near post and, looking at the second game, Haji was very effective on the defensive end of the game, had some good runs into the channel, very lively. Perhaps there were a couple of times when we could have been more effective with the movement in the penalty box.
"I think both of them have done a decent job for us and it's up to the rest of the group to give them quality service that they can finish off some of these opportunities. We'll see, hopefully, in this Iran game, we can get some good balls into the box and help these guys out."
"We can go toe to toe with anyone in the world."— U.S. Men's National Soccer Team (@USMNT) November 27, 2022
48 hours til our Group B finale. pic.twitter.com/EKNxIa7kEZ
Those three, though, appear to be the only options. While Berhalter is open to wrinkles, he says don't expect a massive change against Iran. He wrote off the idea of starting Gio Reyna as a false nine, while wingers Weah and Jordan Morris remain just that: wingers.
"I think in terms of alternatives if the striker position, we're comfortable with the three that we have," Berhalter said. "We haven't necessarily thought about putting Gio there, Christian there, Timmy Weah there, Jordan Morris there. We will be more focused on three that we have."
An honest answer or a little bit of misdirection? Time will tell. This is the World Cup, after all. Whether Berhalter admits it or not, everything has to be on the table.
The goal will have to come from someone. Ferreira, Sargent, Wright, Pulisic, Weah, Tim Ream, Matt Turner, someone, anyone. The World Cup dream depends on it.
And that World Cup dream may depend on who starts at the striker position and what they can offer to a team that has no more room for moral victories. It's now or never for the USMNT.