USMNT's tale of two strikers as Balogun, Pepi battle at Copa América

ARLINGTON, Texas — Sunday’s win over Bolívia for the U.S. men’s national team offered a glimpse into, among other things, a tale of two strikers.

There was Folarin Balogun, netting his fourth international goal in the 44th minute of his Copa América debut, with a well-placed shot to the far post to extend the U.S. team’s lead to 2-0 after Christian Pulisic had netted a third-minute opener. And then there was Ricardo Pepi, unable to convert any one of the four wide-open opportunities he was presented with after replacing Balogun in the 65th minute.

That dichotomy continued after the match: Balogun basked in his success, while Pepi charged through the mixed zone maze, living up to his nickname of “El Tren” (“The Train”), though in this case he wasn’t making any stops.

“As a striker, whenever you’re playing in a tournament of this magnitude, you just want to get that goal and build confidence,” Balogun said. “I was able to do that today. It puts me in a good position, I would say, mentally going forward.”

The reactions of both players were understandable. The USMNT’s starting center-forward position has been there for the taking for much of the year, with Balogun and Pepi getting most of the reps. Any change in fortune at this stage seems to take on outsized importance.

It’s a development that has been a consistent talking point in the run-up to the Copa América. Both forwards dealt with up-and-down seasons at club level. After a summer transfer from Arsenal, Balogun’s inaugural campaign with Monaco saw him in and out of the XI, scoring just eight goals overall after tallying 21 times the previous season on loan at Reims; Pepi spent most of the campaign with PSV Eindhoven stuck behind Luuk de Jong, who scored 38 goals in all competitions this season, but did contribute nine goals of his own.

Balogun looks to be getting the benefit of the doubt from manager Gregg Berhalter, however. Rarely has there been a U.S. striker whose arrival was more eagerly anticipated than his. Able to represent any one of three different national teams — England and Nigeria were the others — his decision to represent the U.S. was viewed as a massive coup for Berhalter and the U.S. program.

Yet Balogun’s arrival has been more slow burn than raging inferno. There was the goal he scored against Canada in the 2023 Concacaf Nations League final, but little else in terms of production. Often it seems like his teammates simply don’t see the darting runs he makes behind opposition defenses.

But there have been signs in recent weeks that some on-field chemistry has been established at last. A deft pass from Antonee Robinson found Balogun in the clear during a recent friendly against Colombia, and there were similar connections Sunday. Balogun himself senses the increasing level of familiarity.

“I don’t really feel like the new guy anymore,” he said. “I feel like me personally, I need to enter that transition into being somebody that can be relied on, somebody that’s consistent, somebody that changes games. So yeah, I mean, I don’t think you can achieve that being a new guy. So I feel confident in this group and everybody’s helped me to feel that way.”

As for Pepi, he has been on a mission with the U.S. ever since being left off the 2022 World Cup roster, with seven of his 10 international goals coming since that snub. He’s also proved himself adept coming off the bench and being impactful with his movement and ability to sniff out opportunities. Five of his 10 international goals have come as a substitute.

But if he’s going to supplant Balogun, that means converting more of his chances when they come. Pepi’s expected goals, or xG, tally against Bolivia was a whopping 2.08, hence his frustration at the final whistle.

Berhalter seems determined not to put any undue pressure on Pepi. The U.S. manager still has plenty of faith in him, highlighting the impact he made against Bolivia: including the forward’s “relentless” running, pressing and hold-up play.

“I know [Pepi] was a little bit disappointed after the game, but you know, when you get that many chances against an aggressive team, you’re doing something right,” Berhalter said.

And therein lies the rub when judging the performance of a forward. Balogun’s touch betrayed him more than a few times. Pepi had as many touches inside the opponent’s box in 25 minutes as Balogun did in 65, yet the game had also changed in the second half, becoming more wide open. But for all of the extra attributes that a forward brings, they are ultimately judged on their ability to convert chances, and that’s where Balogun had the edge on this day.

Waiting in the wings is Josh Sargent. The Norwich City striker has been battling a foot injury and barely recovered in time to make the Copa América roster. Following Sunday’s match, Sargent mentioned that the recovery process is continuing, but he’s ready to step in if needed.

“I’ve worked very hard to get my fitness back,” he said. “It’s maybe not 100%, but the foot and ankle are definitely feeling very good at the moment.”

He also had an encouraging word for Pepi: “I think it was a bit unfortunate for Pepi today. He did really well coming on, and any other day he scores those. So just move on to the next day, next game and keep going.”

The competition for playing time is favoring Balogun at the moment, especially with Haji Wright — the hero of the Concacaf Nations League triumph back in March — penciled in as more of an option on the wing. But as the Bolivia game showed, that can change in an instant. Now it’s about continuing that push in Thursday’s encounter with Panama.

“I think it allows me to build momentum,” Balogun said about his goal. “It’s always nice coming into a tournament, and in your first game scoring as well. So I always look to build momentum and to add more to my tally.”

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