USMNT welcomes ‘healthy competition’ between Folarin Balogun, Ricardo Pepi | Genznews

As with all but the truly elite national teams, scoring goals has always been a struggle for the U.S. men.

The numbers don’t lie. In its 30 World Cup games since 1990, the Americans found the net just 28 times — including just three goals in four matches at last year’s tournament in Qatar.

Among dedicated center forwards, the history is even bleaker. Haji Wright’s fluky, unintentional tally against the Netherlands in the round of 16 last December is the only goal scored by a genuine U.S. striker since Brian McBride’s versus Portugal and Mexico in 2002.

It’s understandable then that USMNT fans were thrilled when prolific 21-year-old forward Folarin Balogun chose to commit his international future to the American squad last spring, shortly before he became the first USMNT player to convert more than 20 times in a single season in one of Europe’s top five leagues.

Balogun arrived as advertised. He got his first international goal in his second appearance, in June’s Nations League final win over Canada. On Tuesday, he had the opener in a 4-0 friendly rout of Oman.  

“Coming out here was opportunity for me to get match fit and obviously find the back of the net, so I was happy to do that,” Balogun, who missed most of Premier League Arsenal’s preparations for the 2023-24 campaign with a minor injury before the Gunners transferred him to Monaco for almost $50 million — the second-highest transfer fee ever paid for an American — told FOX Sports afterward. “Hopefully I can just take that form back to club football.

Fellow U.S. No. 9 Ricardo Pepi said he was happy to see Balogun score Tuesday, too — though nobody would blame him for having mixed feelings about it.

In his first cap two years ago, then 18-year-old Pepi scored a crucial goal in Honduras in a qualifying game for the 2022 World Cup, then notched two more in his second USMNT game, another qualifier versus Jamaica.

Despite helping the U.S. return to the biggest party in sports for the first time in eight years, coach Gregg Berhalter left Pepi off his final 26-man roster for the main event. Pepi shook off the heartbreak in the best possible way: by scoring twice in Grenada in March in the Americans’ first competitive game of the 2026 cycle.

With Wright and Jesus Ferreira having fallen down the USMNT depth chart since the World Cup and Josh Sargent, the other striker Berhalter chose ahead of Pepi, injured, the starting job was suddenly Pepi’s to lose.

He lost it as soon as Balogun arrived; the newcomer was immediately thrust into the Americans’ staring 11 for the Nations League semifinal against Mexico.

Balogun didn’t score in his debut. But Pepi came off the bench and capped the 3-0 victory. He did the same on Tuesday — his sixth goal in as many U.S. games this year and fourth as a second half substitute.

Now, suddenly, there’s both genuine quality and an intense battle for playing time up top.

“Competition is always healthy,” said Pepi, who parlayed his 13 goals last season for Groningen in the Netherlands’ top league into a summer move to Dutch powerhouse PSV Eindhoven. “But I’ve just got to focus on myself.”

Balogun remains the first choice — for now. He’a starts for Monaco, while Pepi is behind former Barcelona front-man Luuk de Jong at PSV. But things can change quickly at soccer’s highest level.

“It’s just the nature of the sport: If you don’t deliver, somebody else is gonna likely take your place,” Balogun said. “It’s always nice to obviously have that competition, because it forces me to improve.

“I’m just glad that we’re both doing well.”

Nobody is happier than Berhalter.

“It’s important that they both scored,” the coach said.

“As far as we see the competition, it’s twofold, right? It’s what they do for their clubs each and every week, and what they do for us when they’re in camp. And some of those are easy to measure because they’re playing 90 minutes every week, and sometimes they’re not and it becomes complicated.

“But to me, it’s more about how they work together, how they train, what their attitude is in camp and what they bring to the team when they’re on the field,” he continued. “All you really want is your players to be confident and Ricardo certainly is.”

Did we see evolution in Berhalter’s coaching style? | SOTU

Did we see evolution in Berhalter's coaching style? | SOTU

As for Balogun?

“We’re still trying to figure out the best way to utilize Balo because we know he’s high-quality. He made a number of good runs behind the back lines here that we didn’t pick up on. So he’s still integrating that side of it.”

Four games into his U.S. career, Balogun is still getting used to his new teammates, too.

“To be honest, it’s still not where I want to be,” he said. “I’m just taking these camps to help me get back to match speed, but for sure I expect a lot more than myself.”

If he and Pepi keep filling the net, sooner of later it’s going to create a selection headache for Berhalter.

After nobody truly locked down the striker spot in lead up to the last World Cup — and after decades without not enough good options for the job — that’s a problem the USMNT is lucky to finally have.

Doug McIntyre is a soccer writer for FOX Sports who has covered United States men’s and women’s national teams at FIFA World Cups on five continents. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.

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Folarin Balogun

Ricardo Pepi

United States

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