<
>

Thriving at Union Berlin, Jordan Pefok is thankful for USMNT's faith even if World Cup place is a long shot

play
Why Jordan Pefok has to be on the USMNT's World Cup roster (1:26)

Taylor Twellman explains what Jordan Pefok can offer to the USMNT if he is selected for the World Cup. (1:26)

BERLIN -- Football is a momentum game. If it's on your side, you feel extra confident, your first touches are rarely bad, your shots hit the inside of the post and everything seems to be working perfectly.

Leading the Bundesliga ahead of Bayern Munich, Union Berlin are the team with the momentum, and right in the middle is Jordan Pefok. The United States international has his second crack at making it in one of Europe's top leagues, and momentum is on his side.

- Stream LIVE: Bayer Leverkusen vs. Union Berlin, Sun. 11/6, 9:30 a.m. ET, E+

Following his summer move from Young Boys in Switzerland to Union, the forward has scored three goals and assisted another four in 11 league games. Jordan was signed to fill the boots of none other than Taiwo Awoniyi, who chose to sign with Nottingham Forest.

"Taiwo Awoniyi was here before scoring lots of goals," Jordan tells ESPN. "[It was] A lot of pressure, because when I moved to Switzerland, I was replacing Guillaume Hoarau, who was somebody really important in Switzerland. But I'm a relaxed and chilled-out person. I don't want to be compared to Taiwo or Guillaume. I just score goals and enjoy myself with my teammates. It all turned out well in Switzerland, and I want the same to happen here in Berlin."

- ESPN+ viewers guide: LaLiga, Bundesliga, MLS, FA Cup, more

Not everything has turned out well in his career, though. In fact, Jordan has had to navigate some deep valleys to arrive where he is today.

The $6.6 million transfer to Union last summer was not the first million-dollar move of his career. In 2018, he signed with Ligue 1 side Stade Rennais, coming from his youth club Stade de Reims with the promise of helping Rennais to establish themselves within the top group of the French first division, as they had just had the best campaign in recent memory. It did not work out. After 17 goals in 35 games in Ligue 2, Jordan struggled to get off the ground.

"It's true that when I left Reims to join Rennais, it was a big step, also financially," he says. "I struggled with a few injuries, and I was unable to put a good run of games together. That's the most important thing for a footballer, being on the pitch and putting a run together. When I arrived at Rennais, there were players like Hatem Ben Arfa and M'Baye Niang, so when I wasn't playing, they were given a chance, they're good players, and they played well. It was difficult."

Jordan missed almost the entire second half of the 2018-19 season because of a thigh injury while the team went on to win the club's third Coupe de France, beating Paris Saint-Germain in the final. Rennais still believed in their $10m investment and gave Jordan another chance. Up until December 2019, he usually came off the bench for the final stretches of games, but he was not able to score any goals. He finished his second season with only one goal to his name, which came in a 3-0 cup win over fourth-tier side ASM Belfort.

"I can say during my time at Rennais, I started to learn my body much better and solved a few issues," Jordan says. "I had resolved most things by the time I moved to Switzerland."

The departure from Rennais was inevitable, and Young Boys were willing to take him on loan for a year. It was a fresh start in a smaller league in a country where a portion of the population spoke his language.

Thankful to the U.S.

While Jordan has chosen to represent the U.S. national team, it is striking that he does not speak any English. Born in Washington, D.C. to Cameroonian parents, the family moved to northeast France when Jordan was a child. He never had to learn to speak English, though he understands the language quite well. When asked a question in English, Jordan simply nods and replies seamlessly in French. This must have made for some funny moments during his trips with the U.S. team.

"There's Tim Weah, who speaks French," he says. "There are also other players who try [laughs] to speak a bit of French, as well as the coaching staff, and it's funny to me because it helps me relax."

Asked about his decision to play for the United States over France or Cameroon, Jordan gives a plausible reason. "If we're speaking just in terms of football, when I started playing, the U.S. were the first to contact me to have a conversation about being selected," he explains. "Although I had a tough time at Rennais when I wasn't playing as much, they were always there talking to me."

He made two appearances for the France under-21 national team in 2017, including a game against Cameroon. A year later, the U.S. Soccer Federation approached Jordan about the possibility of committing to their national team instead of France. Saying yes would have meant that Jordan had been called up for a summer friendly against France, though he declined, citing his transfer from Reims to Rennais that had just been finalised. He left the door open, and the communication between him and the federation in the next few years led to his final choice.

"When I was called up to play for the national team, it was easy for me [to say yes] because they were always there," he says.

The commitment to the U.S. may also make sense from a sporting perspective, because Jordan seems like the kind of talent the U.S. will need at tournaments such as the upcoming World Cup in Qatar. However, he was not called up for the most recent international break.

"I've told myself not to worry, that it's not the end and it wasn't the final list [for the World Cup]," he says. "If I can represent the nation at the World Cup, it would be me saying a big thank you to them for everything they've done, because when I was struggling, they were there to keep my head high."

Thriving in simplicity

Jordan is not struggling anymore. The step back into the Swiss league helped him regain confidence.

At Young Boys, a team located in the Swiss city of Bern, he quickly became a fan favourite thanks to his physical style and knack for scoring. He recorded 15 goals in 43 games -- one goal every 116 minutes -- in his first year, enough output to encourage Young Boys to pay a $2.75m transfer fee and make Jordan's move permanent. In his second year, he completely exploded, with 27 goals and five assists in 45 games that made scouts from Europe's top leagues take notice once again. There were still doubts whether he could fulfill expectations, though Union Berlin did not think twice, securing Jordan's signature before bigger clubs could act.

"When I was first contacted by Union Berlin, everything went very well," Jordan remembers. "What was great about it was that everything happened quickly. I got there early and was able to train with my new team as soon as possible."

Union head coach Urs Fischer is Swiss and remains strongly connected to the football scene in his home country. He had heard good things about the incoming striker, making sure to give him a warm welcome. "[The relationship] with the coach developed quickly, too," Jordan says. "The only thing he told me to do was to work for the team. He told me that he knows that I can score goals, but I've got to work for the team, that's the key thing for him. Just work hard for the team and the rest will follow."

Union's formula for success is based on a strong defence. "We defend our goal before going to attack theirs," as Jordan puts it. In particular, the Berlin club's sophisticated pressing scheme, which usually drives opponents towards the sideline where ball carriers are isolated more easily, can be deadly for possession-driven teams. Union have done a stellar job in neutralising Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund when each of the two powerhouses played at Stadion An der Alten Forsterei.

There's no luck involved in how Union set up their press, nor in their ability to capitalise on certain weaknesses shown by their opponents. That is why Union's two goalkeepers Frederik Ronnow and Lennart Grill have a combined save percentage of 82.6% -- the highest of any goalkeeping unit in the league. Union may allow shots, but they're usually from unfavourable positions or with enough pressure on the shooter.

Once Union are in possession themselves, everything has to go as fast as possible, and that is when Jordan and his attacking partner Sheraldo Becker can shine. The two are fielded up front in Fischer's 3-5-2 system, with Becker providing the speed, often drifting toward the wings to run along the edge of back lines, and Jordan working with his body against defenders in the middle.

"I play in the box, and I try to read the situation when the ball arrives in the penalty area," Jordan says. "Like good players, I'm physical and like to combine with my attacking partners like Sheraldo, which is going well because it's simple. He's a good, technical player and he keeps it simple, so it's very easy to understand."

Call me Pefok

While the simplicity of Fischer's offensive system and the fact that Union do not usually spend much time on the ball have helped Jordan settle, it was still surprising how fast he and Becker jelled in the early stages of the season.

"It's true that the connection with Sheraldo has come quickly," Jordan says. "It was quick because in the first training sessions, maybe on the first day, we started putting into place what the coach told us. From the beginning, he told me about his playing style and what he likes to do. Away from the pitch, we also get along, which helps, and the results are getting there game by game, and it's coming in goals and assists for each other."

Becker and Awoniyi formed a strong duo during the second part of last season following the departure of playmaker Max Kruse, though Jordan's impressive start to life in Berlin has allowed fans to forget about Awoniyi rather quickly. Granted, there have been games when Jordan has not been effective, but the chemistry up front and Jordan's presence inside the box have been significant elements to Union's success. His numbers in terms of goals and assists are not out-of-this-world impressive, but good enough for now.

"For me, I don't think we're at 100 percent yet, as there's some small things we need to fix, but when we really connect 100 percent then we can do big things together," Jordan states.

The only eyebrow-raising he has caused since his arrival in the Bundesliga is related to his name. While his birth name is Theoson-Jordan Siebatcheu, he has worn "Pefok," his mother's maiden name, on the back of his Young Boys and U.S. men's national team jerseys. While most in Germany refer to him as "Jordan Siebatcheu," his Twitter account reads "Call me PEFOK." To most inside Union's stadium, he is simply "Jordan."

As for his aspirations in the coming weeks, he hopes that USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter scribbles his name on the squad list for the World Cup. And after that?

"Just to continue enjoying myself, and I hope by the end of the season, there's going to be a nice surprise for us [at Union Berlin]."

Aramide Oladipo contributed to this article.