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SSFC Spotlight: Is Daryl Dike the USMNT’s next star striker?

His loan to Barnsley is going well.

Barnsley v Birmingham City - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Pat Scaasi/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

With three goals in Barnsley’s last five matches, Daryl Dike exploded onto the scene in England. Despite being on loan, the 20-year-old striker is turning heads with his attacking prowess and impressive physical attributes. His rapid ascent is one of constant achievement, with each successive level acclimated to with ease. As the recent national team debutante continues to perform, an important role for the upcoming World Cup qualifying campaign becomes more of a certainty. This is quite the breakthrough for a player who developed outside of the traditional structure and only began his professional career last year.

The newest American to succeed in Europe comes from a soccer family, one that constantly rejected overtures from local football coaches. Growing up in Oklahoma, he received advice from older siblings who had already achieved their dreams. “My whole family is a soccer family,” he told The Oklahoman. “Even though those two [Nigerian senior internationals Bright and Courtney] are the only ones who went far into it, my parents and other sisters, we all played soccer when we were younger, just go mess around the yard.”

His youth career was spent outside of the Development Academy, playing with multi-time state cup winners Oklahoma FC. The Edmond North attacker dominated the high school scene, scoring 70 career goals, winning a state 6A championship, and was named Oklahoma Gatorade Player of the Year. Off the field, he had a 4.24 grade point average and volunteered with a program “serving young athletes with disabilities.” While playing outside the traditional pathway does not necessarily prevent success, his ability to thrive and develop away from major clubs speaks to an almost natural ability and talent.

For college, the target striker matriculated to the prestigious University of Virginia program. After a minor injury his freshman year, Dike scored 15 goals in 36 total appearances and accumulated a variety of All-Conference and All-American accolades. His brace in the 2019 College Cup semifinal against Wake Forest delivered the Cavaliers to the final, where they would lose in penalties to Georgetown. He was named the tournament’s offensive MVP.

The time at college provided the chance to grow and develop, both on the field and off. While at Virginia, Dike “dropped 12 pounds” and “spent hours drilling runs and finishing.” “I’ve learned a lot of things [at Virginia],” he shared with the NCAA YouTube channel. “I think one of the biggest things is how to cope with people because I think as you keep moving on in life, you’re going to keep meeting many more people.”

After two years, it was time to turn professional, a decision eased by Major League Soccer offering the top prospect a Generation Adidas contract. Dike was drafted by Orlando City with the fifth selection in the SuperDraft, an almost inexplicable drop considering his ensuing success. The club had an opening at striker and was “excited they were able to get him.”

His career got off to a slow start due to quarantine, but Dike trained hard on his own, work that would eventually pay off. In his first season, he scored eight goals in 17 league appearances and was named the league’s Player of the Month for August. His performances drew domestic praise and attention from abroad.

As the pandemic diminished finances and slowed the transfer market, shrewd front offices attempted to find bargain buys and short-term options. On the final day of the winter transfer window, Barnsley signed Dike on loan, amid reported interest from Club Brugge. Orlando reportedly attached a large purchase option and sell-on clause to the deal, assuming the at-the-time mid-table Championship club would send him back in July.

After a slow start to his temporary tenure, Dike has caught fire. His first goal, a well-placed shot after finding space in the opponent’s box, helped ensure a 2-0 victory against Stoke City. The second conversion opened the scoring in a 3-1 win over Queens Park Rangers. He established position at the near post on a corner kick and powered his header past the goalkeeper. However, it was his third finish that generated headlines and will take a permanent spot in any career highlights video.

Shortly after halftime against Birmingham City, Dike received the ball, took a single touch into space, and unleashed “an absolute rocket” into the top corner. Barnsley secured three points off his finish, a seventh-straight win that pushed the club into the final promotion playoff spot. While there are still 11 matches left to play, the American striker has supporters dreaming of the Premier League.

“In my career, in 29 years in football, it was an unbelievable strike and an unbelievably feeling for Dike,” manager Valérien Ismaël said after the match. “My first thinking was to [thank] the board for the transfer of Dike at the last minute…. We were looking for strikers to suit our play and adapt to the Championship. We knew Dike was the right guy for us.”

As the goals continue to pour in, there might not be a return to Orlando. The loan was said to include a steep $20 million purchase clause and 20% sell-on fee, but those numbers have been disputed. “It’s not realistic that Barnsley would pay that,” said Barnsley chief executive Dane Murphy. “The buy option is quite similar to prices we have paid for players before. It was key to the deal that we got a buy option in.”

With his club future on the rise, it is time to commit to a national team. Despite being open to representing Nigeria, his past attempt to join the Super Eagles under-20 squad was reportedly derailed by a passport delay. Dike accepted an invitation from U.S. Soccer for the December 2020 friendly against El Salvador, but a “minor injury” prevented his inclusion in the match day lineup. However, he made his international debut shortly after, playing 25 minutes in the 7-0 victory over Trinidad and Tobago to close out January camp.

A physical striker, Dike is more than a bruising finisher. His “delicate touch” and high level of technical ability bely his size, enabling a confidence in possession with both passing and dribbling. That said, he scores a lot of goals in a variety of ways. Headed finishes, short-range placement, and long-range bombs, the 6’2” attacker can do it all.

His mere presence draws multiple opposition players, freeing up teammates in space. An underrated aspect of Dike’s game is an ability to draw fouls in the final third, receiving the ball with his back to the goal and forcing overmatched defenders to bring him down after a tricky move or turn into open space. One area for improvement identified by Berhalter is “getting on the end of more crosses,” a potentially welcome additional to the target striker’s growing arsenal of abilities.

With all of this progress, it is easy to forget he is a single year into his professional career. “His potential is hard to say,” said Travis Clark of Top Drawer Soccer. “One thing about Dike is that he didn’t come from the familiar path… In some ways, there could be much more to come from a player like him, that [he] may not have maxed out his ability yet.”

With Dike’s trajectory rocketing upward, there are no signs of stopping or any idea of how high it can go. The national team’s most in-form striker should earn a move to a much bigger club in the near future, even if there is a brief return to Orlando City. Already “monitored by the Premier League,” could he thrive at one of the world’s biggest clubs? For now, what’s most important is maintaining consistency with Barnsley, but the jump to the next level appears to be right around the corner.