Pepi and Dike seal big moves, Dolo gets LAFC job, Reyna nears return, & much more
January 02, 2022
THE NEW YEAR only began less than three days ago, but already it is off to a bang for American soccer. Two domestic-based U.S. national team forwards have earned impressive transfers to Europe, Toronto FC is set for a shocking transfer, a former top U.S. international is set to get a top MLS head coaching gig, and the best American player scored against Liverpool over the weekend.
That’s not even all the news either.
Here is a look at the top news stories – along with some analysis.
Pepi joins Augsburg
It became official on Monday morning when FC Augsburg announced that it had completed a signing for U.S. national team forward Ricardo Pepi, widely considered to be the top domestic teenagers to come out of MLS since Tyler Adams and Alphonso Davies.
Pepi, 18, scored 13 goals for FC Dallas this year and then went onto having a starting role with the U.S. national team where he scored three goals and added three assists in six World Cup qualifiers this fall.
Augsburg paid an astonishing $18 million for the El Paso native – which smashes the previous record of €10.5 million which the club has ever paid for a player. Augsburg is far from one of Germany’s bigger clubs and it currently sits in 15th place in the Bundesliga – just one point into the automatically safe positions. Pepi is joining a club that will be in the midst of a relegation battle.
“Ricardo, for me, is an excellent player,” U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter said about the transfer. “To do what he's doing at such a young age means he has a lot potential and a lot of promise. To me, his big qualities are to be able to combine with his teammates and other players. He reads the game really well. He has a tremendous work rate - he's able to run for the whole game. In the penalty box is where he really comes alive. He has good instincts to score and he doesn't need a lot of time to get shots off. He has the skillset to be a really good striker.”
“From what I've seen with Ricardo, that is another good quality of his - to adapt to the level he is playing at,” he added. “When he first came to the national team, he had no experience with the team, and we put him into a qualifier - and he scored and had an assist in that first game. In the subsequent game, he was able to score and put in another good performance. We've seen firsthand his ability to adapt at a higher level and we're confident he will be able to do that again in the Bundesliga.”
Augsburg’s weakness this year has been on the attacking side. Through 17 games, it has just 17 goals scored. The club’s top forward, Florian Niederlechner, is 31 and has three goals from 11 games. He suffered a bone bruise early in December and missed the team’s final three games before the winter break. The other top No. 9 at the club, Alfred Finnbogason, 32, is dealing with a muscle tear in his thigh that will continue to keep him out.
Regardless of existing competition within the club, Pepi’s transfer is astonishing because of the value at which an average Bundesliga club is willing to break the bank to acquire. The club is making a massive statement to acquire him. He is seen as the future and likely the present as well.
Free transfers are always risky. Clubs sometimes take players on a free because they are seen as flyers. When a club pays a transfer fee, it is putting its money behind its move.
What this means is that Pepi is going to play, and play a lot. The club is going to work with him extensively.
Pepi also has things in his favor for success early on. Augsburg has been underperforming with goals scored, but it’s not for a lack of chances. When looking at the metrics, it has seventh highest xG (expected goals) to goals scored this season this season but are one of the lowest scoring teams in the league. The chances are clearly there for more goals.
One more note about this move is that it is also important for FC Dallas to use this money wisely and build a team that contend. The club has shipped a lot of talent to Europe. They lost Weston McKennie, but have sold Reggie Cannon, Bryan Reynolds, and Tanner Tessmann and have loaned Dante Sealy and Thomas Roberts recently. Within MLS, the club traded away Walker Zimmerman and Kellyn Acosta. At Augsburg, Pepi will be reunited with Carlos Gruezo who transferred from FC Dallas in 2019.
Dallas still struggles to compete in MLS. Its fans should be proud of its academy but fans will continue to dwindle unless the team can use the talent first to win, before getting sold.
“It’s an exciting time for American soccer players,” Berhalter said. “When you think about the young, talented players we have not only playing for the national team but performing in MLS and then getting that recognition on the international stage and getting transfers like this, it shows we’re heading in the right direction. The work that was done over the past 10 years is bearing benefits and now it is starting to come through. But now we need to continue the youth development programs and continue to give young players a chance – which MLS has been excellent in doing. When I look at the national team, it is also a team that has very young players and we’re giving the young players opportunities to perform at the international stage.”
Dike transfers to West Brom
Last year, Daryl Dike scored nine goals on loan at Barnsley in the Championship, and he helped the club into the promotional playoffs. Many were expecting him to remain in England, but he returned to Orlando. After resting from fatigue and healing a shoulder injury he suffered with the U.S. team at the Gold Cup, Dike scored eight goals in his final 10 games for the club. Now he is off to West Bromwich Albion, not on loan, but for a permanent deal for £7 million (with Orlando keeping a sell-on of reportedly 20%).
While Barnsley’s run to the playoffs was unexpected, West Brom is a club that is in the middle of an expected promotion race in the Championship. Typically a yo-yo club for many years, West Brom was relegated out of the Premier League last year.
Dike, 21, has proven to be a successful Championship player, and he is also a player who has had remarkable success since his first professional game in July 2020 after MLS resumed from the COVID shutdown. In his entire pro career at the club level between Barnsley and Orlando, Dike has scored 28 goals in 4277 minutes - and he also spent a lot of time in 2021 (after the Barnsley loan and after the Gold Cup) playing hurt and tired after no offseason.
He generated a lot of hype after his first six months in Orlando during 2020 but then backed it up. In all of 2021 for Barnsley and Orlando, he had 20 goals in 2835 minutes. He was named to the Gold Cup team for the United States but played hurt for majority of the tournament after suffering a shoulder injury in a group stage game against Canada. He finished with two goals in five games.
Dike has not returned to the U.S. team since, as manager Gregg Berhalter has opted for other strikers in World Cup qualifying (Ricardo Pepi, Josh Sargent, Gyasi Zardes, Jordan Pefok, and even Matthew Hoppe have all played in qualifying). Dike did not make the roster for the recent friendly against Bosnia and Herzegovina as Berhalter said the Oklahoma native was “beat up” and needed break.
But Dike has another opportunity to make a statement in West Brom and continue his career – which has been mostly a constant upward ride when healthy.
As for Orlando, the team’s core has been blown up. Chris Mueller left for Hibernian in Scotland, Nani is gone, and now Dike. But the fact that Orlando kept Dike to make a run at the title is respectable instead of selling Dike and forgoing the season.
Insigne to Toronto
According to many reports now, Toronto FC has agree to terms with Napoli and Italian national team winger Lorenzo Insigne. According to the reports, Insigne, 30, will join Toronto in June. The deal is not complete yet with club president Bill Manning reportedly traveling to Italy to seal the deal this week.
According to Corriere dello Sport, Insigne will sign a five-year contract with Toronto reportedly worth close $13 million per season - with bonuses allowing for more. Insigne has been signed to Napoli for his entire career although went on loan three times between 2010 and 2012. He has 89 goals in 319 Serie A games for Napoli.
For Italy, he has 10 goals in 53 caps and won the European Championships in 2021. Insigne and Italy have a difficult road to qualify for the World Cup in Qatar as they have to go through the playoffs with a potential game against Portugal in March determining their fate.
Toronto is in the midst of trying to overhaul their roster as the club was one of the worst in all of MLS in 2021. Over the past seven years, Toronto has been one of the most ambitious teams in the league and this move only solidifies that approach.
Over the summer, Bob Bradley was hired. There are rumors that the club is trying to sell Yeferson Soteldo (who was brought in just last year) and Jozy Altidore could be on his way out.
Insigne is just one piece of the puzzle but he has, on paper at least, the ability to be among the most dominating players ever in the league. Alejandro Pozuelo is another piece and is elite in this league. The team, however, needs a core. But Bradley knows what is needed – and right now the problem with the team is defense.
But it is certainly an exciting time for Toronto fans. The ambition is there.
Cherundolo gets the LAFC gig
Former U.S. national team right back Steve Cherundolo was named the head coach of LAFC on Monday and it is a huge opportunity for San Diego raised defender to make his inroads into coaching. The LAFC job is one of the biggest jobs in MLS because while the club is somewhat new, it is also ambitious in terms of its desire to spend and win.
This is a risky hire for LAFC. Cherundolo has never been a first-team head coach before. Last season, he coached the Las Vegas Lights which was the reserve team for LAFC. The team won just six times in 32 games and was among the worst in the USL Championship. To be fair to Cherundolo, that team never had a consistent roster and was typically made up of young LAFC prospects getting games. Their aim wasn’t to win, it was to develop.
Now Cherundolo, 42, will be asked to win. He was a great player with a long history of success with Hannover, but as most know, the correlation between being a great player and then becoming a great coach isn’t strong. This is a risky stage to see if Cherundolo is up to that level as a coach.
For American fans, it’s certainly understandable to want Cherundolo to do well. He’s among the most beloved American players of all-time. For LAFC fans, it is also understandable to be worried about this hire.
But part of developing as a soccer country is also creating more good coaches – and that is still likely to draw from former players. As Jesse Marsch and Jim Curtin will show, top American coaches of the next generation might not be former U.S. national team stars.
As for Cherundolo, it would be a lot of fun if it does work out.
Pulisic scores vs. Liverpool
If ever there was a goal that was needed, it was Christian Pulisic on Sunday. The U.S. national team winger scored an equalizer just before halftime for Chelsea’s 2-2 draw with Liverpool. After falling behind 2-0, Pulisic’s goal capped a two goal rally to end the first half. That would be the final goal of the game.
It's a crazy time to be at Chelsea. There is serious fallout now over the Romelu Lukaku interview where he said he wanted to return to Inter Milan. This led to him being removed from the lineup by Thomas Tuchel. Pulisic himself has had a tough season dealing with COVID, an injury, and being asked to play different positions outside of his normal left wing (second striker, wingback, etc).
But this goal was a reminder of just how good he can be when he’s confident. Perhaps this goal will put him on the right track heading into the January window.
Reyna returns to training
Gio Reyna, 19, hasn’t played since suffering a hamstring injury during a World Cup qualifier in September. He’s one of the best American players in the game and his absence has been missed by both Borussia Dortmund and the U.S. national team.
On Monday, Dortmund announced that Reyna was training and was “back.” This weekend, Dortmund visits Eintracht Frankfurt as the Bundesliga resumes from its brief winter break.
The American Dream back at it ???????? pic.twitter.com/cfzgVcH7nH— Borussia Dortmund (@BlackYellow) January 3, 2022
Loans for De la Fuente & Hoppe?
Konrad de la Fuente and Matthew Hoppe, both 20, both joined new clubs last summer but there are reports that their clubs could be looking for loans.
Matthew Hoppe joined Mallorca from Schalke but struggled with a muscle injury and has been out since October 31. It was also later revealed but the manager that he has been struggling to fit in off the field. Diario de Mallorca reported that a loan could be in the works. But it remains to be seen how healthy he is.
Konrad de la Fuente has played a lot for Marseille this first half of the season but after a very promising start to the season, he has struggled to make an impact – despite the success of second place Marseille. RMC Sport in France said that OM would be open to a loan should one be presented to the club.