Grading USMNT transfers from last season: Ricardo Pepi, Josh Sargent and Daryl Dike earn poor marks

Over the past few years, the rise of the United States men’s national team and Major League Soccer has led to even more Americans making moves. Spanning the globe, you’d be hard-pressed to find a European league without an American in it these days, but are they making the right decisions? 

USMNT manager Gregg Berhalter has even pondered whether some players would have been better served staying in MLS rather than trying to get their European careers going.

“I think it’s important to note that some recent transfers from MLS came too early. Think about Bryan Reynolds, who went to Roma. Or George Bello. There’s an argument to be made that he could have stayed in MLS and dominated the league and then moved. So there’s a number of guys who I’m concerned are leaving too early,” Berhalter recently told ESPN

Taking a look at those words, he has a point. So  in spirit, let’s take a look at some of the moves made between January 2021 and January 2022 to see if what Berhalter is speaking about held up. All moves are graded on an A to F scale, taking into account not only how the players did but also if the move helped get them a better transfer down the road. 

Let’s get to the moves:

Daryl Dike

Move: Orlando City SC to West Bromwich Albion 

On the surface, Dike moving from Orlando City to West Brom seemed like a weird move but one that could be good for him due to playing under his old coach at Barnsley, Valerian Ismael. Dike would have a familiar face that knows what he was good at. At the time, the Baggies were also in a good position to make the promotion playoffs for a spot in the Premier League. 

After making only two appearances for the club, Dike sustained a hamstring injury versus Peterborough that would see him miss nine league matches. Ismael was fired after only winning 12 of his 31 matches in charge, and the team was in turmoil. Steve Bruce took over but the hole was dug too deep to make the promotion playoffs. 

Right now things aren’t looking great for Dike as he looks to return to full strength, but he’s only 22 and could turn a strong preseason into a spot in the lineup as a key man for West Brom. Grade: D

Brenden Aaronson

Move: Philadelphia Union to RB Salzburg (to Leeds United)

Just making the cut due to being a January 2021 move, Aaronson’s transfer to RB Salzburg could become one of the new development standards for young Americans. Get a move to a strong team that has a track record of youth development, integrate into the side, play in Champions League and then move to a bigger club. Aaronson had the benefit of moving to Salzburg under Jesse Marsch for six months, but his hard work and soccer brain ensured that he would do everything necessary to become the best version of himself.

Leaving Salzburg winning the Austrian double two years running and making the round of 16 in Champions League, it’s been quite the journey. Scoring nine goals and assisting nine more in 46 league appearances for the club may not seem like much in a high-scoring league like Austria, but when Aaronson has become more of an eight since leaving the Philadelphia Union, they become a lot more impressive.

Earning a move to Leeds United, Aaronson will now have a chance to grow even more, while having a new experience and being united with Marsch before the World Cup. He couldn’t be in a much better position right now, and it began with starting with the right move to Europe. Grade: A

Josh Sargent

Move: Werder Bremen to Norwich City

Sargent’s move is a weird one. After scoring two goals in the 2. Bundesliga, it seemed like he was set for a breakout season that he desperately needed. But after a move to Norwich City, his struggles mirrored those of the Canaries who would be relegated from the Premier League. Considering Norwich went through two coaches during the season and Sargent missed eight matches with an ankle injury, he got a considerable amount of playing time logging over 1500 minutes.

The issue is that in that time, Sargent only scored two goals, assisting one more, and both goals scored were in the same game. He played both as a forward in a front two and a right winger but wasn’t particularly effective in either role. Now in the Championship, the hope is that Sargent can get consistent playing time in the second division to build his confidence, but when he was already on the road to getting that at Bremen, was the Norwich City move worth it? Grade: F

Joe Scally

Move: NYCFC to Borussia Monchengladbach

Scally only had seven appearances to his name for New York City FC before making the move to Germany, but one of the perks of playing within City Football Group is that the eyes of the world are on you no matter what level you play at. It took a little for Scally to break into the first team playing with Gladbach’s second team, but during the 2021-22 season, Scally became integral to the setup.

Playing right back, left back and both outside midfield positions as well, Scally was a bright spot in a dark Gladbach season, registering one goal and two assists. His versatility led to USMNT fans calling for Berhalter to integrate him into the national team during World Cup qualifying and while that didn’t happen, he took part in the summer camp and seems to be passing Bello on the depth chart. Grade: B

Ricardo Pepi

Move: FC Dallas to Augsburg FC

Pepi’s struggles are well chronicled. With teams like Atletico Madrid and Wolfsburg circling, Pepi went to relegation-threatened Augsburg. Looking to save a team from relegation is an amount of pressure for any forward, but even more so at only 18. While Augsburg secured another season of Bundesliga soccer, Pepi will need a strong preseason to break into the starting lineup. The hope is that after joining in January during a tough time with the club, having a rest over the summer will help Pepi put last season in the rearview mirror.

Heading to Augsburg, Pepi was almost a lock to lead the line for the United States at the World Cup but playing less than 500 minutes with no goals or assists has seen Jesus Ferreira pass him on the depth chart. These struggles also spilled over to national team play. At only 19, there is certainly time for Pepi to rebound but he may need a loan to the 2. Bundesliga. He has not scored a goal since October. Grade: F

Gianluca Busio

Move: Sporting Kansas City to Venezia FC

This is a hard move to judge for Busio. Given Sporting Kansas City’s performance, he certainly made the right decision to move. After moving to Venezia, Busio quickly integrated into the team, appearing in every league match from Matchday 2 to the 22nd, registering a goal and two assists. But in late January, things changed after Busio got COVID-19. Between Matchday 29 and the 34th, while Busio was still playing, Venezia lost every match, slipping deeper into the relegation zone. 

He was benched for the final three games of the season, not appearing as the team went undefeated but were still relegated to Serie B. At only 20, it could be chalked out to hitting a wall, but it’s slightly concerning. Where things get interesting is Busio’s contract has a relegation release clause for him to move on a free loan with Venezia slipping to Serie B. If yhe move built Busio’s platform in Europe, helping him get a loan to another top league ahead of the World Cup, then things could be worth it. Also, a full season as a starter in Serie B wouldn’t hurt but it also isn’t what was expected for Busio as Italy also were in for his national team future. Grade: C

Haji Wright

Move: Sønderjyske Fodbold to Antalyaspor

Sometimes all you need is a good loan to jumpstart your career. For Wright, a move from the Danish top flight to Turkey not only put his career back on track but also got him his first USMNT call-up. Wright is one of the most direct forwards in the entire pool, and although his success hasn’t translated to the national team yet, 14 goals and two assists in Turkey will turn heads.

Having consecutive double-digit scoring seasons in Europe could get him a move elsewhere since Sønderjyske were relegated while he was away on loan. Hull City looked like an option, but it seems like they’re going in a different direction, opting to add Oscar Estupinan. Wright has been also been linked to Trabzonspor and Spezia, both of which would be solid moves for him to test himself. But as a man without a club (technically), hopefully, Wright’s next destination is announced soon so that he can stay in the World Cup picture. Grade: B

Bryan Reynolds

Move: FC Dallas to Roma

When Reynolds moved to Roma, it seemed like he found his place under Paulo Fonseca, logging almost 300 minutes in his first season with the club. But when Jose Mourinho entered, Reynold’s playing time dried up. It’s of no fault of his own as managers have their own preferences on who to play, but Mourinho doubting his defensive skills left Reynolds to start only one match last season. While it was a disappointment, at least he’s only 21 and plays a position of depth for the national team, so a year of stagnation doesn’t hurt Reynolds as much as some of the other players on this list.

Reynolds did at least get some playing time at KV Kortrijk in Belgium, which earned him a full season loan to KVC Westerlo but after a move to a big five league, this is a step back. The good news is that if Reynolds impresses this season, Westrerlo has the option to purchase him for €7 million and either sell him elsewhere or use him long-term which isn’t a bad outcome. Grade: D

Jeremy Ebobisse

Move: Portland Timbers to San Jose Earthquakes

This is a move that ended up being good for both parties. While Ebobisse showed flashes of his talent with Portland, he wasn’t able to put things together before getting traded to San Jose in August of 2021. The season was a rough one with Ebobisse only scoring one goal and assisting one more for the Earthquakes, but despite the turmoil at the club, it has clicked for him this season. 

Having scored 10 goals and assisted one more, he’s putting it all together for the team. If he can bring more to games when he isn’t scoring, Ebobisse will certainly make his way into the national team picture where any hot forward has a shot at competing for a spot in Qatar. Grade: B

Matthew Hoppe

Move: FC Schalke 04 to RCD Mallorca

The worst thing that you can do after moving to a new club is be forgotten, and that’s what happened to Hoppe. Despite Schalke’s relegation, he would’ve been better served remaining with the club to get consistent playing time in the 2. Bundesliga. Coming off of a season that saw him break out, scoring six goals and assisting one more, he got a move to La Liga but only made seven appearances in all competition due to both injuries and falling out of favor. Hoppe is in need of a lifeline.

One almost came from Major League Soccer when Atalanta United were reportedly looking at Hoppe but they passed at the time. Some of his struggles have been down to learning Spanish, according to manager Luis Garcia Plaza. Hopefully, a loan can get him back on track if a permanent move can’t be found, as stagnation is the worst thing for both the club and Hoppe after they invested €3.5 million. Grade: F 

Honorable mentions: There were always a few names who couldn’t make the list like Bello, whose move to Arminia Bielefeld has been a disappointing one so far. While he did appear in ten games after moving from Atlanta United, relegation sets things back a few pegs, and if he can’t get a move or regular playing time, he could be falling out of the national team picture.

Ethan Horvath again didn’t get a fair shake at playing time at Nottingham Forest before moving to Luton Town on loan and Caden Clarke has such a wild ride. Moving to RB Leipzig, then needing to come back to New York Red Bulls, where, not only did they have to pay a fee to move up in the allocation order, but then Gerhard Struber also hasn’t played him this season. A good look that sometimes the grass isn’t greener on the other side.

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