There was a moment in December when, for the first time in two years, Daryl Dike got a moment to reflect. After two years of nonstop soccer, he had earned one.
From scoring for Virginia in the NCAA finals against Georgetown in December 2019, to going fifth in the MLS SuperDraft in January 2020, to scoring eight times in 22 matches for Orlando City, to making his national team debut, to taking on a sudden loan move to Barnsley, to scoring nine times for the Tykes as they nearly earned promotion to the Premier League for just the second time ever, to scoring his first goal for the U.S. national team in June 2021, to suffering a shoulder injury that knocked him out of the USMNT rotation, to returning to MLS in the fall and scoring 11 goals in 19 matches, Dike finally stole a moment to breathe.
"Physically, it was important," he told ESPN, "but mentally, being able to look back at going over to England, being with the national team, playing in the Gold Cup, playing with Orlando as well, it was a nice period, for sure."
Even by soccer's standards, however, Dike's offseason was brief. On Jan. 1, the first day of Europe's winter transfer window, England's second-division West Bromwich Albion signed Dike from Orlando City for $11 million.
With Dike moving to England and Ricardo Pepi signing with FC Augsburg in the German Bundesliga, the two most promising young strikers in the American player pool -- with the 2022 World Cup just 10 months away -- are taking on European challenges at the same time. And as far as Dike is concerned, his ambitions have only grown stronger with each level of success.
"At the beginning, I always had big goals," he said, "I always wanted to play in the Champions League, I wanted to play in World Cups, and those are still my goals. But I think those goals are so much more reachable now, and I can maybe even reach them quicker.
"Throughout this process, seeing how quickly I've grown in just two years, I think all those goals can happen much sooner than I thought."
A high-caliber scorer
You can't blame Dike for dreaming big considering how quickly he became a standout in the most important area for a center-forward to stand out: scoring goals.
During his half-season Championship stint (21 matches), Dike's nine goals landed him in the league's top 25 and tied for the most among those age 20 and under. And while he missed a decent chunk of the 2021 MLS season, playing just 1,415 minutes -- scoring leader Valentin Castellanos, by comparison, played 3,083 for NYC FC -- among those with at least 1,400 minutes, Dike was fourth in goals per 90 minutes (0.70) behind only DC United's Ola Kamara (0.94), LAFC's Cristian Arango (0.90) and the LA Galaxy's Chicharito Hernandez (0.88). All three are at least five years older than Dike, who scored just two fewer goals than Pepi in 682 fewer minutes.
It took Dike a little while to rediscover his top form after his August bout with injuries, but he scored five non-penalty goals in his last 10 matches for Orlando. His ability to carve out space in the box and put shots away stood out to Barnsley manager Valerien Ismael, and with Ismael now at West Brom, it was the primary reason the club sought him out.
"Dike has everything we need from the No. 9 position," Ismael told local media upon Dike's signing. "He has energy, strength -- he challenges defenders -- and he scores goals. I worked with him at Barnsley and I know him very well. He has the mentality."
At 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, he also has the physicality.
"Rather unsurprisingly, it's his power and physique that first catches your eye," said ESPN analyst and professional scout Tor-Kristian Karlsen. "He's really extreme in those departments. Having those attributes in a forward -- he's almost a one-man attack at times -- obviously give you some clear advantages: The opponents wouldn't want to leave him [one-on-one] against their centre-backs.
"He's not just an athlete, though. I think he's developing well in terms of where to pick up the ball, and his spatial awareness in and around the penalty area is improving, too."
While his skills and high activity levels initially took him pretty far, the key to Dike's ability, thriving quickly in new situations, came from his ability to learn quickly.
"I think at the beginning of my career, it was just about going into the box and hoping that the pass could come to me," Dike said. "I've been blessed to have great teammates around me, who have some chance creation [ability], and with Valerien, with Oscar [Pareja, Orlando City's coach], with [USMNT manager Gregg] Berhalter, all of these people have made it a big emphasis for me to be able to find myself in spaces, being able to make runs behind the back line, being above to find spaces in the box with double movements and making my shots easier in terms of getting in a better position."
Ease of shots is an interesting subject. Dike overachieved his expected goals (xG) levels in each season in MLS and the English Championship. At each step along the way, he produced between 4.4 and 4.7 xG but turned that into eight or nine goals. There will almost certainly be some regression to the mean in his future: He has overachieved his xG figures by 47% since the start of 2021, which is the second highest among all players to have scored 20-plus goals in all competitions. (The highest: Leandro Damiao, of Japan's Kawasaki Frontale, at plus-71%.)
Even if he turns out to be one of the best finishers in the game, that ratio will likely fall to at least the plus-30% range or so in the future. If he offsets that with a higher shot volume, however, he will continue to thrive.
A higher shot volume, however, will require more touches and more involvement in the overall game.
The rest of his incomplete game
Whether or not there is forthcoming regression, Dike's scoring ability is top-notch for such a young player. Here are some of his percentile ratings over the past 365 days -- versus other forwards -- according to the scouting reports at FBref.com (powered by StatsBomb):
Goals per 90 minutes: 89th percentile
Non-penalty goals per 90: 75th percentile
Goals per shot: 94th percentile
Goals per shot on target: 96th percentile
Average shot distance: 92nd percentile
xG per 90: 68th percentile
Even if his finishing is still running a little hot, the ability stands out. He creates opportunities from close distances and puts the ball in the net.
Everything else, however, remains a work in progress:
Touches per 90: third percentile
Shot-creating actions* per 90: 15th percentile
Passes attempted per 90: second percentile
Passes completed per 90: third percentile
Pass completion rate: 53rd percentile
Passes received per 90: fifth percentile
Assists per 90: 31st percentile
Progressive carries per 90: 19th percentile
Pressures per 90: 32nd percentile
Successful pressures per 90: 16th percentile
Pressures per 90 in the attacking third: 62nd percentile
* StatsBomb defines shot-creating actions as "the two offensive actions directly leading to a shot, such as passes, dribbles and drawing fouls."
"Perhaps the one key area to improve is for him to make a consistent mark on the game," Karlsen said. "He tends to drop in and out of the action, and he can be somewhat impatient at times -- as in, always wanting to make the early, direct run and finish the attacks, even when the movements around him aren't quite there yet. In that sense, he might at times be too direct in his decision-making."
Dike is well aware of the work still to be done.
"My biggest focus, of course, is scoring goals, movement into the box and things that a striker needs to have in terms of instincts and everything," he said. "But one thing I personally would love to be able to do better is my combination play, my linkup play, in terms of holding the ball up and getting involved a little bit more in the game rather than maybe just finishing at the end. How can I hold the ball up? How can I improve my technique to connect with my attacking midfielders and bring the game up to me?
"Throughout the season in Orlando, I think Oscar, the coaching staff and even the players like [veteran winger] Nani, they kept pushing me to get better, and I think it was showing. I felt myself improving. I felt myself being able to get on the end of more things, my movements, my touches. Everything continued to improve, and for me, that's obviously something that's super exciting."
What awaits at West Brom
West Brom has been one of the better teams in the Championship after last spring's relegation from the Premier League. It's fourth in the table, firmly involved in the promotion race. But while the Baggies' defense has been excellent -- they're first in goals allowed per match, second in xG allowed and first, by far, in shots allowed per possession -- they have lacked, in a very specific way, in attack.
The Baggies are averaging just 1.24 goals per match, 10th in the league and worst among the top five teams in the table. While their raw statistics aren't terrible -- second in shots attempted per possession, ninth in xG per shot -- their shots have been wayward. Looking at the xG for shots on target (xGOT) divided by total shots per target, they rank 20th out of 24 teams. Loose translation: They don't shoot well. They don't place the ball well when they get a shot on goal.
"We need someone to show up and score the goals," Ismael told the media Sunday after West Brom's 1-1 draw with Cardiff City, in which the Baggies managed just three shots on target from 13 attempts. "This is what we are missing at the minute. This is why we signed Daryl Dike, to give us a better opportunity to score goals and win games."
As with Ismael's Barnsley last season, West Brom plays an intensely vertical style. It's a style in which Dike thrives, and if he finishes chances as he has for the past two years, his addition could make a massive difference in the promotion race.
Dike will also be asked to do his fair share of pressing in Ismael's system, and it appears he learned from it the last time around. After recording 10.6 pressures per 90 minutes (5.8 in the attacking third) according to Statsbomb during his 2020 MLS season, he returned and averaged 13.6 (8.3) in 2021. His pressure success rate went down, but the increased activity level was encouraging.
"I think in terms of pressing, one thing that I have learned from people is, pressing smarter rather than harder," Dike said. "At the beginning of my career, I think I would sometimes just run to press, and sometimes maybe it wasn't a smart situation. After understanding systems more and listening to my coaches, that's something I think I have improved on: when to press as a group, when the team's ready and those kinds of principles.
"With the national team and with Valerien, we are all constant pressure, constant pressure. We're gonna wear the other team down."
What this could mean for the USMNT
Dike made his national team debut in January 2021, just before his Barnsley loan was confirmed. By the summer, it looked like he might become a mainstay during World Cup qualification. He scored once in a 4-0 friendly win over Costa Rica in June, then twice in a Gold Cup win over Martinique in July. But his injury limited his effectiveness in the Gold Cup; after attempting four shots against Martinique, he managed just five, all from longer distances (by his standards) in his last three appearances.
He has yet to play for the U.S. since. Berhalter did not bring him in for any of the three qualification windows this fall and passed him over for December's MLS-heavy friendly against Bosnia & Herzegovina. The coach explained the latter decision by saying, "He's beat up. He needs recovery. The most important thing at this time for Daryl is to get rest and recovery that he can focus on coming back in January and building himself up again." But during qualification, Berhalter made a point to emphasize the word "verticality."
"We want more verticality," Berhalter told CBS Sports in September. "We want players that can stretch the opponent's back line, run behind the opponent's back line."
It was confusing, then, that he didn't bring Dike in, considering his success in Ismael's system. Regardless, two World Cup qualification windows remain -- the U.S. plays El Salvador and Honduras at home and at Canada from Jan. 27 to Feb. 2, then at Mexico and Costa Rica and at home versus Panama in late March -- and Dike is still hopeful about inclusion.
"In terms of [Berhalter's] plans, I mean, I think he values me, and I think that's something you always want to have in a coach," Dike said. "You always want a coach who believes in you and values you. I think he looks at what I am, and he looks at the quality I have, and he tries to push me. That's all I could ever ask for."