In most World Cup years, much of the United States men’s player pool would have made their case for tournament inclusion well before the provisional roster is due. Those in Europe would have had at least a couple of weeks of ice baths and beach walks to rejuvenate themselves. And while MLS has often slated games up until the start of the group stage, players have been able to treat the start of the year as a tune-up to arrive to national team camp in midseason form.
That general approach went out the window (like many normalities) when FIFA awarded the 2022 World Cup to Qatar and switched to a November kickoff. The European leagues have a greater urgency to front-load their schedule to make up for the lost month of matches, leaving players open to missing the tournament due to simple one-to-two week knocks. MLS will have its season settled by week’s end, but any U.S. roster hopefuls who missed the playoffs will have gone without a game since October 9 — 43 days before the opener against Wales.
No matter how the schedule sits, those final league matches before a roster is finalized bring some of the greatest scrutiny and internal pressure a player will face in their career. Every performance carries extra weight as players attempt to make their closing arguments for inclusion. Fair or otherwise, a team’s struggles could color how a player is perceived as the roster is drawn up. And, as is often the case in soccer, arguably no position comes with greater pressure in the stretch run than striker — an area viewed with an obsessive focus on goal totals, which has seldom been the U.S.’s strong suit.
Throughout the first months of 2010, Herculez Gomez felt like he could play without pressure.
In January of that year, the striker left the Kansas City Wizards after they didn’t offer him a contract to get his career back on track in Liga MX. He couldn’t have made a stronger first impression, scoring 10 goals in 15 matches with Puebla to tie Javier Hernández and Johan Fano for the Clausura golden boot. Unlike Chicharito, however, Gomez had little reason to believe he was in contention for a World Cup roster. Not only had Gomez failed to feature in CONCACAF qualifying — he hadn’t suited up for the United States since their 2007 Copa América appearance.
Ultimately, a host of factors left the final tune-up friendlies before the 2010 World Cup as an open competition for the pool’s strikers. Jozy Altidore and Charlie Davies had entered qualifying as Bob Bradley’s first-choice center forwards, but the latter was involved in a career-altering car crash in October 2009. Eddie Johnson had done well in Greece with Aris, but was injured as the tournament neared. It re-opened the door for an in-form goalscorer like Gomez, who made the provisional 30-man roster as Bradley weighed his final decisions.
Gomez was one of six forwards called into that final camp before Bradley crystalized his 23-man squad for South Africa. Along with Altidore, Johnson and hold-up specialist Brian Ching, he was joined by fellow fringe hopefuls Edson Buddle and Robbie Findley. Gomez arrived for camp in East Hartford without any misconceptions about his longshot odds, but he still felt the pressure.
“I just remember thinking to myself, I’m not part of this team,” Gomez told The Athletic. “Any fitness drill, any shooting drill, finishing drill, whatever the case may be, I have to be top three. I have to be a guy that stood out because if not, I wasn’t going to make the World Cup. I got to the stadium and I got into the locker room and the numbers went one through 30. I’m looking for my name, I’m looking for my number, and as I keep going down, it’s like further down. Twenty five. Twenty six. Twenty seven. Twenty eight. Twenty nine…
“There I am: 30. Thirty of 30. That’s when the reality hit me: if I want to go, it’s now 30 of 30. The pressure for the roster really hit me. That was the only time I really felt it.”
As you’d expect, Gomez began the opening match of the camp against the Czech Republic from the bench. He checked in at halftime, with 45 minutes to make his case against one the world’s best goalkeepers of all-time, Petr Cech. Ives Galarcep’s live blog of the friendly serves as a good encapsulation of his shift, tracking just about every involvement Gomez had.
“Gomez with 45 minutes to state his case for a spot. Neither Johnson or Buddle were all that stellar in the first half,” Galarcep wrote as the second half started. Then in the 64th minute, “GOMEZ WITH A BLAST right at Cech” after a back heel from Ching. And two minutes later… “GOAL USA!!! And it’s Herculez Gomez with the FINISH!”
It was Gomez’s first goal for the United States — and it couldn’t have come at a more pivotal time, as his elation made clear. After the camp, Gomez joined Altidore, Buddle and Findley on the World Cup roster. Even with the inescapable pressure in Connecticut, his determination paid off.
“It’s a very difficult moment not just for a striker, but for any player thinking every single day is that day where you have to stand out… but even more so for a goalscorer,” Gomez said. “We live and die by the amount of goals we score. You could be very good in combination play, help the team with the little things defensively, tactically, everything as far as being a team player, but at the end of the day, you’re there to score goals. I guarantee you if I don’t come off the bench against the Czech Republic and score a goal, I don’t go to the World Cup.”
Fast forward a dozen years to Gomez now working for ESPN as one of the U.S.’s most prominent soccer pundits. In October, he was in Austin to cover second-year MLS side Austin FC’s match against FC Dallas. There, he had a first-hand look at possibly this cycle’s most scrutinized U.S. striker: Jesús Ferreira.
This is the first year in which Ferreira has played as an out-and-out striker. Last year, he was the deep-lying deputy for Ricardo Pepi, as his teammate was anointed the U.S. national team’s successor to Altidore and earned a move to FC Augsburg. After that transfer, Ferreira signed a big extension to stay in Dallas as a designated player for years to come. He’s rewarded the club for their confidence, winning MLS’ young player of the year award after scoring 18 goals and adding six assists.
With the U.S. team, however, his misses have garnered far more attention than his goals. He missed several chances against Panama and El Salvador late in World Cup qualifying, and while his club form helped rebuild fans’ confidence, he sent a close-range header over the bar in a friendly against Uruguay. His performances in September were largely forgiven, as the entire U.S. squad looked outmatched against Japan and languid against Saudi Arabia. It put even more pressure on his league form, though, which was enough to vault FC Dallas to third place in the West at regular season’s end.
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Ferreira had another crucial miss in the playoff opener against Minnesota United, flubbing his first touch and negating any chance at a shot as the ball thunked into Sebastian Lletget’s path. While he made his penalty in the ensuing shootout, he wasn’t able to make much of an impact as Austin took a 2-0 lead into halftime a week later. All season, Dallas head coach Nico Estévez — in his first year with the team after working under Gregg Berhalter with the USMNT — had trusted Ferreira up top. As Ferreira struggled to finish and the scrutiny around him from fans and media alike reached a crescendo, the coach made a dramatic change.
“Fairly or unfairly, that’s another discussion, but yeah, absolutely,” Gomez said of the scrutiny’s impact on a striker — something which Inter Miami’s Gonzalo Higuain also highlighted before his retirement.
“There will be that scrutiny and that pressure,” Gomez added. “As soon as Franco Jara came on (against Austin) — 34 years old, an Argentine who scored three goals all season — what was Nico Estévez’s move? He dropped Jesús Ferreira into an attacking midfielder role. When they needed a goal, the head coach who was with Gregg Berhalter, who knows the system in and out, dropped him into an attacking midfielder role so a guy who scored three goals all season could be the guy up top. Those are things that’re gonna affect any player.”
After Jara checked in, Ferreira logged just 0.12 xG across three shots. The last — a skied free kick at the start of stoppage time — elicited sarcastic “USA! USA!” chants from the Austin faithful.
Throughout the playoffs, Ferreira appeared to play with the pressure of a young striker who’s expected to lead the line in a World Cup.
While MLS is still a lower level than the top leagues of Europe, it isn’t as far off as it used to be. Simply scoring in Europe isn’t enough to become a guaranteed inclusion on a U.S. roster — just ask Jordan Pefok, who has three goals and three assists in his first 10 Bundesliga games but appears to be a World Cup longshot.
In the past, finding the hottest U.S. goalscorer often meant scanning the MLS golden boot race. That method helped Chris Wondolowski go from a surprise breakout goalscorer in 2010 to earning his first senior callup the following January as he neared age 28. By the end of 2014 World Cup qualifying, he was a likely-but-not-guaranteed option in Jürgen Klinsmann’s roster for Brazil. Gomez was a regular starter that cycle, but suffered a knee injury in the run-up. Altidore was a lock, which left Wondolowski competing against the likes of Áron Johannsson, Terrence Boyd and Landon Donovan for roster spots.
“It’s weird because it’s a friendly rivalry, but you know these are your teammates and friends,” Wondolowski said. “I look at Jozy, and that’s a good friend of mine, but we were still competing for minutes and for positions and being able to do that. It’s definitely a weird thing because sometimes you get fixated on what the other person is doing. What’s Aron Johannsson doing? He scored that goal? Oh, now I better score this one. The hardest thing is to worry about yourself and try to bring the best out of yourself each day and each play, each minute. That’s not always the easiest thing to do.”
Of course, Wondolowski’s 2014 World Cup became impossibly tangled with a high profile miss that, five years later, he told The Athletic was “one of the biggest mistakes of my life.”
He had fared better in the 2014 MLS season than the year before, scoring 14 goals to top the previous season’s 11. However, the position’s obsessive focus on scoring goals can become a striker’s downfall if they can’t get out of their own way.
“I mean, it’s not do or die but I just remember trying to give every single thing I had, whether it was in camp, a league game or the 30 man a couple of weeks before (the final roster),” Wondolowski said. “It was a very trying time. I wish I could go back and just tell myself to relax. Just let it come to you. It will happen; the chances will come. Sometimes, especially as a striker when you press so much, that’s when it doesn’t happen. I think that sometimes that happens, but it’s never an easy thing and to try to just let it come to you.”
It’s a feeling that Gomez knows well, particularly given his experience in that 2010 moment before the final list went out.
“I literally felt like I had to be the best or among the best at everything we did,” Gomez said. “It’s an immense sense of pressure. You can do whatever mental exercise you want with psychologists, sports psychologists, mental health gurus, whatever you want, but it’s through action. It’s through putting the ball in the back of the net and not having to think about it, having it be instinctual. The moment you get inside your head as a forward, It’s over. You start doubting yourself and the moment you doubt yourself, you have no business being on the field.”
In many ways, there are two profiles of strikers who benefit from the home stretch before what’s often a career-defining tournament. The first category is the no-doubt inclusions: Altidore in past U.S. cycles, or generational greats like Robert Lewandowski and Luis Suarez, who each made moves to different clubs this summer without much worry over how it would impact their World Cup chances.
The second, as Gomez embodied, is the “house money” approach. As Buddle began the 2010 season in top form, he similarly tried to downplay the potential for inclusion on Bradley’s roster.
“At this point, for me to put my attention to that… kind of defeats the purpose of me being here with the Galaxy,” Buddle said a month before the East Hartford camp. “I want to focus on what I have been doing with the Galaxy. (The World Cup) is a long shot in my mind. But it’s definitely something that I would like to be a part of.”
Being a longshot sounds damning at the outset, but it can serve the lesser-heralded options in the pool well. To Gomez, one striker in contention for Qatar appears similarly poised to turn time out of the spotlight into a World Cup roster spot.
“Maybe Josh Sargent, because we only saw him in the opening (international) window,” Gomez said. “We saw him open the window against El Salvador and that was pretty much it. Since then, many didn’t have him on their list to make the World Cup; he was out of sight, out of mind. He was playing in the Premier League as a winger on a very bad team, and here we are now. He’s in the Championship and he’s lighting it up. He’s doing everything in his power and, right now, he’s just playing with nothing to lose. He was on nobody’s radar, he’s playing freely, he’s playing with a sense of enjoyment and he’s getting the most of it.”
Whether you’re unable to escape the pressure like Ferreira or blissfully proving doubters wrong like Sargent, it’s undeniable that making a World Cup roster would fulfill nearly any player’s lifelong dreams. The calculus for inclusion can seem a bit less rigid for midfielders and defenders, and even goalkeepers, at times.
In order to be a top striker, however, there needs to be a requisite obsession with scoring goals. When that obsession overlaps with meeting a career objective that is largely met or failed by someone else’s decision, it can be hard to escape the pressure. Whether or not that’ll aid whoever Berhalter calls in for the 2022 World Cup will be among the most important factors in how the U.S. fares in Group B and, hopefully, the knockout stages.
(Photo: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports)
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