The great USMNT striker search: Can Ricardo Pepi and Daryl Dike stake claims as Folarin Balogun looms large?

Folarin Balogun Ricardo Pepi Daryl Dike USMNT
While all eyes turn towards the on-loan Arsenal star, two American strikers have a chance to boost their own chances of claiming a starting spot.

The most talked about U.S. men's national team-eligible striker isn't even currently on the U.S. men's national team.

He is in Orlando, though, and his presence is looming large over everything going on ahead of the return of the Nations League.

For many in the USMNT program, the hope is that Folarin Balogun could be the guy at the No. 9 position. He's proven to be exactly that in Ligue 1 with Reims, where he's scored 17 goals this season while on loan from Arsenal.

But despite his trip to Orlando and all it implies, there's a chance Balogun may not be the guy. At 21, his career is still just taking off and, to be fair, no one is totally sure whether or not he will ever put on a USMNT shirt.

What we do know, though, is that there are two guys in USMNT camp that could also provide an answer at the position, even after missing the World Cup.

Both have been anointed at one point or another and both have experienced frustrating setbacks in their young careers.

But here they are, back in the picture with a chance to stake their claim.

Balogun is the talk of the town, but might this week be remembered as the week where either Ricardo Pepi or Daryl Dike staked their own claim?

  1. Back in camp

    Back in camp

    It's been a winding road for both Pepi and Dike, both of whom have seen their stocks rise and fall in rapid fashion.

    Pepi, once touted as the USMNT's striker of the future, was the starter through much of World Cup qualifying before being dropped from the World Cup squad amid a poor run of form.

    He's rediscovered his confidence with Groningen and is back scoring goals ahead of his national team return.

    Dike, meanwhile, was plagued by injuries at the worst possible time as he tumbled down the depth chart ahead of the World Cup.

    He scored three goals in eight appearances in 2021, but hasn't appeared for the USMNT since after missing much of 2022 with West Brom.

  2. World Cup stars stay at home
    Getty Images

    World Cup stars stay at home

    Balogun's potential arrival isn't the only thing adding to the urgency of this camp. The absence of the USMNT's World Cup strikers also makes this a big moment for Pepi and Dike.

    Jesus Ferreira, who started the USMNT's defeat to the Netherlands, was left at home, like every MLS player not named Miles Robinson.

    Josh Sargent and Haji Wright, meanwhile, have been nursing injuries and weren't deemed fit enough to make the long journey stateside.

    Those were the three men that claimed the striker spots on Gregg Berhalter's roster as Pepi and Dike were left out, and this camp is a chance to make up ground while that trio now sits at home watching on.

  3. The case for Pepi

    The case for Pepi

    Pepi's tumble down the depth chart wasn't due to a lack of skill. Everything that made him such a highly-touted prospect is still there: the intelligence, the finishing, the timing, the strength on the ball.

    What Pepi lost, and what ultimately cost him a World Cup spot, was confidence. His move to Augsburg was nothing short of a disaster and that proved his undoing.

    Pepi is now at Groningen, and he's scoring goals again. He's got 10 of them this season, in fact, for a Groningen team that is struggling mightily in the Eredivisie.

    That, in some ways, makes those 10 goals more impressive as Pepi is proving that he can find the back of the net even when service is lacking.

    USMNT interim boss Anthony Hudson was quick to point that out, adding that Pepi was and remains a likeable figure around the camp.

    "Ricardo's such a great kid," Hudson said. "He's so good around the group, great energy.

    "We follow him every single weekend. His team's having a difficult time but what you see, even with his team like this, this guy just doesn't stop working.

    "He's made some great runs behind the line. He's been scoring goals. And I think it was important for us to get him back in the group and give him confidence, so he deserves a chance."

    For Pepi, much will depend on this summer, though. His future will be reassessed after this loan to Groningen, and reports have linked him with a move up the Dutch ladder to PSV.

    At 20 years old, Pepi will need to get this next move right after getting his initial transfer to Europe so very wrong. His national team future for the 2026 cycle may depend on it.

  4. The case for Dike
    Getty Images

    The case for Dike

    They say that the most important ability is availability, and that'll be key for Dike going forward.

    His injury nightmare seems to be behind him as he's back scoring goals in the Championship. He's got seven goals for West Brom this season, with four of those coming within the last month.

    It's a positive sign for the former Orlando City man, who burst onto the scene so quickly in 2021 before fading to the background.

    "For Darryl, he has been somebody who's been in with us," Hudson said. "Obviously a very different profile to a few strikers that we have.

    "He did very, very well in the Championship with Barnsley. I think when he went there, they were fighting relegation and he scored a bunch of goals and then they were right in the playoffs.

    "Then, he got a well deserved move to West Brom and, unfortunately, missed a load of programming with us because of injury, but he's been doing well in the Championship. His game has improved."

    Hudson is right: Dike has improved. The trademark traits are still there, including the physicality that makes him a perfect Plan B for the USMNT.

    But he's also showed plenty of finesse in recent weeks, including a fantastic volleyed finish in a recent win for West Brom.

    Worst case, Dike's skillset should keep him in the picture, simply because he is different than, say, a Pepi or a Ferreira.

    However, he'll need to stay healthy and keep scoring goals if he wants to make a push for that top spot, something he is totally capable of as he develops over in England.

  5. Nations League expectations
    Getty Images

    Nations League expectations

    To be fair, it'll be tough to gauge too much from the upcoming Nations League matches.

    The USMNT beat Grenada 5-0 in their meeting last year, with Ferreira scoring four of those goals. El Salvador, meanwhile, did hold the USMNT to a 1-1 draw four days later as the U.S. were saved by a stoppage-time goal from Jordan Morris.

    Still, the U.S. will be heavy, heavy favorites in these two games and will be expected to win both comfortably. That makes this window a perfect showcase for Pepi and Dike to get some goals, build some confidence and carry it back to their clubs and, ultimately, into the summer.

    The USMNT's No. 9 race may run all the way through 2026, although American fans will sure hope not.

    This camp will most certainly be a footnote in that race but, for Pepi and Dike, it does give them a chance to kickstart the 2026 cycle on a positive note after doing so well to work their way back to this position.

    "What we expect is for them just to come in and give everything they've got," Hudson said. "And, obviously, if they add some goals as well, that would be nice!"