The race for the third forward on the United States men’s national team’s World Cup roster had become one of the biggest storylines surrounding the roster in months, and the emergence of Haji Wright as winner of that competition to join Jesus Ferreira and Josh Sargent in Qatar was one of the more surprising developments since Wednesday’s roster reveal.

Wright, who made his USMNT debut in June, has enjoyed a strong first half of the European season with Turkish club Antalyaspor. The 24-year-old has nine goals in his first 12 Super Lig appearances, picking up where he left off when on loan at Antalyaspor last season.

Wright earned the nod over both Pepi and Jordan Pefok for Gregg Berhalter’s third and final strike spot despite Pepi’s impressive run at Dutch side Groningen and Pefok’s success since completing his transfer at Union Berlin.

“Had we made the decision in mid-September, Jordan Pefok probably would have been a block to be in, based on his form in [the Bundesliga with] Union Berlin,” Berhalter said on a conference call Wednesday. “But since then, it’s a different story.” Pefok didn’t score at all. “Haji is in great scoring form. They are both physical forwards. Jordan maybe a little bit more, but Haji has pace, he’s got the ability to go 1 on 1, he’s finishing with his head, both feet. And he’s doing really well.

Pepi’s arrival in the Netherlands this season has given the 19-year-old a big confidence boost with the Augsburg loanee making a splash for FC Groningen. Pepi scored five goals and added two assists in nine overall appearances for the Eredivisie side, rebounding from a difficult European debut season in the Bundesliga.

Although Pepi has enjoyed a strong loan spell this autumn, Berhalter has opted to go with both Ferreira and Sargent for his versatile attacking options.

“Ricardo was against Josh [Sargent] and Jesus [Ferreira] and we thought it was valuable that Josh was playing in that competition [the Championship] where two of our opponents come from,” Berhalter said of the decision not to select Pepi. “The Dutch league, I think it’s a great league, but it doesn’t carry the same physicality that the Premier League or the championship carries. That was something that went into the decision.

“Ricardo Pepi has had a great run of form and maybe he should be there, and I can understand that, but we have to choose and we chose to bring in three forwards and these were the ones we chose.”

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