Welcome to What Is This USMNT Guy’s Deal, a regular series in which Defector selects a name from the myriad number of exciting young American soccer men playing in Europe and answers the question: What is this USMNT guy’s deal?
The calendar has flipped, the USMNT is hunkering down in its annual January camp, and even though nobody will travel to Qatar for another 10 months, we are finally in a World Cup year. The USMNT still has yet to formally qualify for their redemption tournament, though at some point in 2022, the intrigue around the team will shift from whether or not they will make the World Cup to who will board the plane to Qatar. The core of the roster is more or less set, though because the actual tournament is so far off, there’s more time than usual for players to make their cases to manager Gregg Berhalter.
A 23-man roster is not all that big, and Berhalter will (hopefully) have some tough choices to make. How many right backs is too many? Who should be the backup defensive midfielder? The most uncertain position on the field is also one of the most important: center forward. This series has dwelt on the corps of American strikers with good reason, since a certified bucket-getter is the only position that’s not overstuffed with great options. The recently Bundesligified Ricardo Pepi has a lock on the starting spot at the moment, though nobody has emerged to truly push him or even cement the backup role. Many candidates are skilled hold-up players who nonetheless don’t have that vital and elusive knack for putting the ball into the net, which does not rule them out, though what the U.S. needs from its striker is someone who can run with and finish chances created by its stock of hyper-skilled wing players.
Which brings us to this week’s Guy: Daryl Dike, a striker who actually strikes.
Who Does He Play For?
Great question, thank you, as the answer is why he is under discussion this week. After more than a year of speculation about what his permanent European destination would be, West Bromwich Albion bought Dike for £7 million on New Years Day. West Brom is scrapping to bounce right back up to the Premier League, and they’re fourth in the Championship thanks to their stingy defense, which has allowed the fewest goals in the league. However, they’ve scored at least 10 goals fewer than every team ahead of them in the table. That is why they bought Dike (pronounced “DEE-kay”), to sharpen their attack through the back half of the season.
Though only 21 years old and just now making his first permanent switch to Europe, Dike is a proven commodity at West Brom’s level. While he’s scored a bunch of goals in MLS (averaging one every other game for Orlando City), Dike burst onto the international scene almost exactly one year ago, when he joined Championship club Barnsley for the second half of their season and nearly dragged them to EPL promotion by scoring nine goals. Without him, Barnsley currently has the fewest goals in the Championship this season. After his loan was up, Dike returned to Orlando City and scored 11 more goals, became the subject of constant big-money transfer rumors, and earned eight USMNT caps. He had a monstrous 2021, which piqued the interest of top-flight clubs around Europe. Rather than pursue a spot in the best league possible, Dike chose West Brom, which I love, since he’ll get plenty of opportunities to score this season rather than spend his time running around putting out fires in his own half.
It’s been a remarkable climb for Dike. Consider that just before the pandemic started, he played college soccer for Virginia and had just been picked fifth in the MLS Draft. Two years later, a top Championship club is staking their promotion future on his ability. If Dike can pick up at West Brom where he left off at Barnsley, it will be hard to keep him out of the the USMNT lineup.
The Weston McKennie Mamma Mia Test refers to the following foolproof heuristic for determining whether or not a U.S. player is actually good or just good by our rosy American standards: Do fans tweet lovingly about them in their local language?
How Does He Play?
I know this sounds dumb, but Dike is really good at kicking the ball really hard (see below). He’s a gifted finisher from tight spaces, with the physicality to create those spaces and consistently punish center backs in the air and on the ground. With Barnsley, he scored from the air, on the run, from outside the box, but mostly he scored while guarded inside the box, popping off from a tiny window into another smaller window and making the most of his opportunities. Soccer stats, to me, are “dumb as shit,” though I will break my own code here to note that he’s one of the biggest outperformers of his xG in the world.
That maybe has to do with Dike’s aforementioned physicality. He’s listed at 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, which, combined with his speed, means few center backs in the second division can handle him one-on-one. His job is to score goals, and he’s good at that. As for everything else, well, it matters less to his success or failure, though we can’t leave here without noting that Dike is not much of a creator for others. Where Pepi excels at passing in and around the box and creating space for others, Dike charges ahead all the time. Again, that’s better than Josh Sargent’s jack of all trades but master of none routine, and I’m more optimistic about Dike than I maybe should be, since every coach he’s ever had goes out of their way to praise his intelligence and adaptability. He’s also adjusted more or less immediately upon every jump up in competition.
The Wonderteen Index is a holistic, objective metric that analyzes a player’s full array of skills and talents, distilling it all into a single number that corresponds to their ultimate potential and the likelihood that they will assume the title of Wonderteen.
Dike is 21, though he achieved his Barnsley feats as a 20-year-old. You are thinking, 20 is also not teenage? Correct, though it’s closer, and Dike is relatively inexperienced for a 21-year-old, so his score is thus 21 out of 25.
Dike’s ceiling is considerable, owing mostly to his physical gifts. Most strikers are not as big and fast and coordinated as Dike, and he’s already achieved such an impressive goalscoring record despite pretty big holes in his game. With every developing prospect, there are always contingencies. Sargent could become an average EPL striker, if he could learn to kick the ball. Christian Pulisic could be a top-20 player in the world, if he could replace his hamstrings. Sergiño Dest could be one of the best fullbacks in Europe, if he learned to play defense. Dike’s areas of improvement are clear and glaring, which, paradoxically, is pretty exciting. He’s already compiled an eye-opening goal-scoring record despite not having much control on the ball or passing ability to speak of. Those traits are teachable, though controlling and passing the ball is like 95 percent of the game. Should it concern you that he needs to improve so much at basic stuff, or should it thrill you that he’s a killer despite needing a ton of work? Thankfully his undeniable, game-bending aptitude for the other five percent of the game—scoring—is a pretty serious X-factor. Most players don’t have the nose for goal that Dike does, and I’d feel safe betting on that.
Can He Play Right Back?
The U.S.’s European corps is absolutely silly with right backs, enough to stock a full XI. And so it is important to determine whether or not the USMNT guy of the week can play the position.
He’s is right-footed. He is very strong. His jersey reads “United States.” I’ll leave it to you to put these pieces together.
Show To Me A Cool Highlight
How Does He Fit In With The U.S. Team?
The hypothetically fully realized version of Dike fits in perfectly. Given a ball-winning, flank-centric USMNT attack, Dike wouldn’t have to move the ball in space or dribble past guys, since those tasks are farmed out to Antonee Robinson, Dest, and the wingers. I could see him comfortably bullying both center backs to create space for others while dominating in the air and poaching the chances that come to him. He should be especially effective as a substitute, when his physical edge will be even more pronounced against tired legs. Dike was a big part of this past summer’s Gold Cup winning squad, and he’s primed to seize the backup role with a big turn at West Brom.
How Close Is He To The Hypothetical Best XI?
Dike has lots of competition for this backup role. Sargent has had a bad season, but he tends to play pretty well for the USMNT. Jordan Pefok isn’t going away. Jesús Ferreira recently got the nod over Dike. I suppose Nicholas Gioacchini has gotten looks, though he’s primarily played out wide. Some MLS vets are also circling the striker spot. I don’t know where Dike stands within this group, but I think I like him the best of that crop. Sargent is still probably his biggest competition, but Sargent also plays for the EPL’s worst team, and might not get that many opportunities to Matthew Hoppe himself into the spotlight (it is funny to imagine West Brom going up after this season, Norwich going down, Dike having to put out fires in the EPL, and Sargent balling out against second-tier competition.) Dike needs a big year to get to Qatar, but the platform is there for him to do it. All he needs to do is take off.