By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Feb 16, 2023) US Soccer Players – 2021 was an incredible year for Daryl Dike. After a solid rookie season in MLS, he shot into a bigger spotlight with an excellent winter/spring loan spell at English Championship side Barnsley, powering an unexpected run into the promotion playoffs and heavy interest from other English clubs. USMNT call-ups followed, including a spot on the squad that won the Gold Cup. He entered 2022 on a high note as West Bromwich Albion completed a seven-figure transfer deal with Orlando City on New Year’s Day.
Unfortunately, 2022 was a very different story. Months lost to hamstring and thigh injuries hampered his progress at West Brom and forced him out of contention for a place on the USMNT’s World Cup roster. For a player who’d been on such an upward trajectory to that point, it was a bitter pill to swallow.
“Of course, for me as a player and I think every single player growing up, your biggest dream is to play in a World Cup,” Dike told USSoccerPlayers.com in a recent video conversation. “You want to play in the top leagues but on a national level, you want to play in a World Cup…. Not to say I’d 100% be on the roster had I been fit. But not even being able to put myself in a position to be on the roster and play in a World Cup is obviously something that’s a little bit upsetting. But for me, I think that’s going to be my motivation.”
He returned with a bang in December, scoring three goals and an assist in his first few weeks back on the pitch as West Brom continued their climb up the standings under the leadership of manager Carlos Corberan. The Baggies won 10 of their first 13 matches after Corberan took over, vaulting from relegation territory into the upper reaches of the Championship table.
Understandably, that furious pace proved difficult to sustain for player and club. West Brom, who’ve spent most of the past decade in the Premier League, now sit 10th in the 24-team second division, just two points back of 6th-place, the final playoff slot currently held by Watford. That sets up a fascinating final sprint towards season’s end on May 6, one rich with USMNT angles.
Not just Dike but Zack Steffen at Middlesbrough, Ethan Horvath at Luton Town, Lyndon Gooch’s Sunderland, and Josh Sargent’s Norwich City are all in the thick of the race for one of those precious tickets to ascend from the Championship’s diverse rough-and-tumble to the promised land of the Premier League. Dike sees a clear link between these Americans thriving abroad, the rising levels of the domestic game and surging optimism around the USMNT.
“You’re seeing more young players going out and playing (overseas), succeeding at a high level, and this translates to the national team,” said the 22-year-old. “You look at the World Cup. We go into those matches, we get out of the group and even as a player, as a fan base, people still want more, because they realize the potential. They realize the quality that our teams have. I think a few years ago, we go and lose to the Netherlands, people would be like, ‘OK, we probably should have lost to them, it makes sense.’ Now we lose to Netherlands and we look at ourselves and say, we can do better. I think that’s kind of now the standard that we hold each other to.”
Dike’s stint at Barnsley featured an extremely direct high-pressing system overseen by manager Valerien Ismael and under-girded by the “Moneyball” principles made famous by minority shareholder Billy Beane. He’s getting a distinctly different type of education under Corberan, an acolyte of Marcelo Bielsa.
“Whether it be coming shorter, maybe not everything into my chest, runs in the box, he wants me coming deep, becoming more of a footballer,” explained Dike. “Linkup play, hold up the ball a little bit more, defensively the work-work-work mentality that he loves to emphasize so much, whether it be pressing, holding. Some of the other coaching staff as well that’s here, the mental side of things, staying positive, the never-giving-up attitude.… In each game, I come off the pitch and he has another piece of advice to give me, or another tip or another word of encouragement to keep pushing.”
The time lost to injuries last year has necessitated a careful, gradual buildup to full speed. Corberan has spoken of the importance of Dike finding a sustainable rhythm from week to week. Rather than any one single change, the player himself credits an accumulation of good habits, workout routines, and guidance from the USMNT performance staff and other experts he’s consulted in multiple countries for helping him manage the soft-tissue areas that posed such problems.
“In terms of solving it, I don’t think I’ll ever know if we solved it,” he said. “Taking in different ideas, different things I could do in the gym, different things I can do maybe eating-wise, sleeping-wise, maybe seeing different osteopaths and things like that, having different tools. Because at the end of day I don’t think it’s one thing that’s why I was getting injured. There’s a little bit of luck about it, but there’s multiple facets.”
Dike’s less-conventional path to the professional level has equipped him to deal with his recent setbacks. Growing up in Oklahoma, away from what are perceived to be the sport’s leading hotbeds in the US, he took inspiration from his older siblings Bright and Courtney as they became Nigerian internationals and didn’t allow his location to obstruct his dreams.
“I think everybody has different paths through their career. I think for me growing up in Oklahoma, soccer isn’t the biggest sport, isn’t the number one sport, but that’s also not to say that you can’t succeed and be at the top level,” he said. “I always thought, if I want it and I worked as hard as I could, if I put myself in the best position with the coaching staff, doing things on my own, pushing myself every single training, I will get to where I want to be. I will, at some point in my career, get a chance to be able to be where I want to be. … No matter what the path is, do whatever you can with the tools that you have. You’ll always get a chance.”
He’s applying the same outlook to the competition for the USMNT’s starting striker job as the road to 2026 unfolds.
“I’ve worked towards it, it’s something I’ve dreamed about,” Dike said. “I’ll do everything in my power to help the team travel as far as we can in the World Cup, and eventually win it.”
Charles Boehm is a Washington, DC-based writer and the editor of The Soccer Wire. Contact him at:email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at:http://twitter.com/cboehm.
More from Charles Boehm:
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- The Olympic angle at this January camp
Photo by James Heaton – News Images via ZUMA Press Wire – ISIPhotos.com