Haji Wright: The USMNT’s surprise World Cup appearance offers something different for forwards

When USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter introduced the 26 players who will represent the United States at the 2022 World Cup, there were relatively few surprises.

However, few thought that Haji Wright is still seriously fighting to go to Qatar. Berhalter explained the selection by saying he prefers to have a bigger target up front if the USA were chasing a goal late in a game. As such, it was essentially a choice between Jordan Pefok and Wright – and in the end, the second-top scorer in Turkey’s Süper Lig in his current form won.

He may not be the headliner of the forward squad, which also includes Jesus Ferreira and Josh Sargent, but Wright’s World Cup allusion is the culmination of a trajectory that, while very unique compared to his more flashy peers on the team, has served his development well Has.

But few US fans have access to watch the Süper Lig as their rights holder (beIN Sports) is not as accessible in this country. So what have we missed about his career and style of play?


It might be hard to believe given the team’s current state, but Wright’s club career began with the New York Cosmos. After four years in the LA Galaxy academy, Wright (then U-17 international) signed with the then second division side in 2015. While he made just three first-team appearances there in his only season, he was able to coach reps alongside Spanish greats Raúl and Marcos Senna. But back then it was a surprising decision for a young top contender to start his career in the US second division rather than stay with the MLS academy.

It paid off, however, and Wright signed for Schalke in April 2016. He joined a club that signed a second US youth international just three months later, and signed midfielder Weston McKennie after joining FC Dallas. The pair were promoted to the first-team squad at the end of the 2016/17 season and Wright was on the bench when McKennie made his Bundesliga debut on 20 May.

While McKennie quickly established himself in the first team, Wright needed additional experience at Schalke 04 II and a loan from second division club SV Sandhausen. There he scored just one goal in 459 minutes and was saved at Schalke in 2018/19. He scored his first Bundesliga goal that year but only managed 194 minutes for the first team as he mostly played for the reserves.

Although Wright still had one year left on his contract, he was allowed to join Dutch club VVV-Venlo on a free transfer. Despite this, he has not scored in 22 Eredivisie games and made another free transfer in August 2020, this time to SønderjyskE in Denmark. By that time he had largely disappeared from the international radar.

However, moving to Denmark was just what his career needed. He scored six goals in his first eight games and was named Superliga Player of the Month for October 2020. He finished the year with 11 goals in 1,942 minutes – a rate of 0.51 per 90, although he wasn’t just exhausted at the top.

While still being used at times on the left wing, he was able to regain his goalscoring form and was ready to challenge himself with another move, this time to Turkey.

“Whenever you play in a new league, some players need time to adjust,” Wright said in a news conference Thursday. “It’s not always like that with Tyler (Adams) and Brenden (Aaronson at Leeds United), but for me it was a matter of adjusting to a new league, a new country and a new culture. I think once I felt more at home I could do better on the field and aim for goal and score some goals if possible. “

It wasn’t as glamorous as Chelsea and Juventus, nor is the Turkish league particularly well attended in Wright’s home country. However, the promise of more access to continental competition and playing every minute as a striker seemed a necessary test to him. He joined Antalyaspor on a one-year loan and joined the club on a permanent basis after scoring 14 goals in 32 games.

Wright’s Extended Statistics

2020-21*

2021-22

2022-23

Shots/90 (% on target)

2.66 (44.3%)

2.29 (50.9%)

2.56 (39.4%)

xG/90

0.32

0.44

0.45

goals/90

0.48

0.6

0.7

Dribbling/90 (% Success)

5.97 (49.6%)

3.5 (46.9%)

4.26 (54.5%)

*With SønderjyskE
** With Antalyaspor

While playing outside of the American eye, Wright continued to refine his approach to the forward position. He maintained a consistent number of shots per game in Denmark and Turkey, keeping his shot rate at around 40–50 percent. His expected goals increased year after year along with his shot-to-shoot ratio. He understandably dribbled less as he spent less time on the wing and in a more secluded role, but was able to increase that performance in his second year at Antalyaspor.

Turkey currently ranks 12th in UEFA’s country coefficient rankings, which rank teams’ performances in the last five Champions League and Europa League matches to determine the number of places a country has been awarded allocated in the upcoming UEFA club competitions. The SuperLig are five places ahead of Denmark and while still outside the European elite, their 2022-23 performance is sixth best on the continent and just behind France.

Inevitably, a player who scores regularly in a prestigious league will draw the attention of a US program starved of consistency in forwards. No position has been considered in the past four years as a handful of candidates fought to part ways to succeed Jozy Altidore.

Despite not appearing in any of Berhalter’s squads in the five qualifying windows, Wright was called up for June’s friendlies against Morocco and Uruguay and for CONCACAF Nations League games against Grenada and El Salvador. He made his international debut against Morocco, coming off the bench and burying a penalty (which Pulisic insisted) while showing Pulisic and Aaronson some much-needed hold-up play in the final third to work off.

Still, Wright didn’t score after coming on as a substitute against Uruguay or in the starting XI against El Salvador, leaving him wondering if he’d made a strong impression that was eligible for the World Cup.

“After (June) camp, I was a little uncertain about my performance,” Wright said on Thursday. “I think I could have shown more of myself. I understood if I wanted to be part of that group at the World Cup I had to do more with my club to prove myself. Before the call-up, I was just focused on my club games and performing week in and week out trying to score as many goals as possible to earn a chance to be here.”


Wright’s 2020-21 heat map


Wright’s 2022-23 heat map

In Denmark, Wright was asked to drop further back to collect the ball and often help on the left wing. However, since joining Antalyaspor he has average positioning which is far more typical for a striker. He’ll see the patches of color get heavier as the season progresses and he’s logging more minutes, but the most noticeable density is within the 18-yard box.

The peace of mind that comes from a permanent role on a team seems to have greatly enhanced his performances. While he missed out on Berhalter’s squad for the last friendly in September, that dedication paid off in achieving success with his club. Wright scored nine goals in Antalyaspor’s first 12 games and finished second in the SuperLig behind Enner Valencia.

His hot form coincided with the rest of the forward pool struggling to establish hierarchy. Ferreira appeared to be struggling under the pressure of being the expected starting option. Meanwhile, Pefok got off to a strong start after moving to the Bundesliga with Union Berlin, Sargent benefited from Norwich’s relegation to the second-tier EFL Championship and Ricardo Pepi ended a years-long goal drought on loan in the Netherlands.

Ultimately, Ferreira retained his place in Berhalter’s squad while Sargent edged out Pepi for a more pressing-heavy alternative. According to Berhalter, Pefok and Wright were at stake for the third and final striker spot. While Pefok started strong along with an outstanding Union Berlin, who led the table in the last five games until a difficult period, Wright won with his consistency and well-rounded game.

USMNT Forward Comparison

Jordan Pefok

Richard Pepi

Haji Wright

Shots/90 (% on target)

1.95 (39.6%)

1.46 (46.2%)

2.56 (39.4%)

xG/90

0.32

0.31

0.45

Dribbling/90 (% Success)

1.03 (60%)

1.24 (36.4%)

4.26 (54.5%)

Aerial Duels (% Won)

11.51 (38.4%)

7.66 (38.2%)

5.03 (35.4%)

Restores in opp ½

1.95

1.35

1.47

Standing 6’3″, Wright was highlighted as a potential option to score if the team needed to win headers late in the game. However, his stint at Antalyaspor shows that he is not just an obelisk who scores from set pieces. Since the start of the current European season, he has recorded more shots per game, a higher expected goal ratio and far more dribbling with a respectable success rate.

He was called on for fewer headed duels than Pefok at Union Berlin and Pepi at FC Groningen, while recovering the ball in the attacking half as quickly as the pressing-experienced Pepi. Overall, the data shows a more versatile option than he’s often given credit for and one who is as capable in and around the box with the ball at his feet as he could be in the air.

All things considered, Wright earned his spot on the 26-man roster the hard way. While rivals like McKennie and Pulisic were quickly gaining a foothold in Europe, it took Wright a few strides in a few different leagues to eventually find a good launch pad. Already emerging as one of Turkey’s most feared forwards, he will seek to pass that scoring prowess to a US team desperate for a productive, reliable striker.

(Photo: Patrick Smith – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)



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