U.S.'s Pefok blames himself for World Cup omission, determined to return by thriving at Union Berlin

Gomez: A lacklustre USMNT win over El Salvador (1:08)

Herculez Gomez thinks despite the 1-0 win, USMNT looked 'toothless' and 'sloppy' vs. El Salvador in Nations League. (1:08)

On Monday night, Jordan Pefok will have watched the United States beat El Salvador 1-0, likely just as he's done every time the men's national team has played and he hasn't been called up. He watched every game the U.S. played at the World Cup despite missing out. He holds no grudges, and he is desperate to be back within the setup.

So far, his USMNT career has been a series of ups and downs, but his view on his situation could not be clearer.

"I played some games, we won trophies, but there were also times where I was on bench or not called up and I missed the World Cup," Pefok tells ESPN in an exclusive interview before the international break. "But I would not put the blame on anyone like the coach or a player, but [on myself]. I was responsible for not being called up. It was my fault. I should have scored more. I should have been the player that the coach would have put first in his squad. If that was not the case, I was the only one to blame. Because whether you are loved or not, if you score and you play well, you get picked.

"At the end of the day, other players played in my position, who scored. I told myself that I could not put the blame on someone. I had my chance. I played for the national team and I didn't do enough. So that's it. I have no time to cry or fault someone else. It is on me. Now I am working hard to perform and get another chance."

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Pefok, who turns 27 at the end of April, is not your typical footballer. He has a different maturity to most of his colleagues, he thinks differently. The Union Berlin striker learned from a young age to take responsibility for the good and the bad and to rely on himself to achieve his goals, and if he ever thought about blaming someone else, his mother would bring him back to earth anyway.

"[USMNT manager Gregg Berhalter] called me and told me that he was not going to call me up for the World Cup. The first two days, it was tough," Pefok says. "Then I spoke to my mum. She knows nothing about football. She asked me: 'Are you sick?' No. 'Are your brothers and sisters sick?' No. 'Am I sick?' No. 'Do you have money issues?' No. 'So what's the issue then?' It put everything in context and perspective then.

"I sat down, I was still cross, but she was right. She added: 'I know nothing about football but I know that you went with the national team and you only scored one goal. Even if I was the national team head coach, I would not have called you up! A goal scorer has to score goals, that's all.' She was brutal. The disappointment went away and I started working hard again to make sure that I play at the 2026 World Cup at home. I will prepare well and do everything I can with Union to make sure that I am there in 2026."

To get back with the national team -- Pefok's last U.S. appearance was in March of 2022 -- he needs to succeed in the Bundesliga with the German capital club. Again showcasing his unique maturity, Pefok's assessment of his performances is fair and objective, noting the highs and lows he's hit this season.

"I started really well with goals and assists, then I had some little injuries that took a while to get sorted, so I played less to get fully fit," he admits. "Now, I am good and I'm fighting to regain my place as a starter in the team. I am patient, I work hard and I know the goals will come back. The competition is healthy between all the forwards. We push each other to be as good as we can and it is beneficial for the team."

Despite Pefok lamenting some of his struggles, collectively, Union have been one of the stories of the Bundesliga campaign. They are third in the table, just four points behind second-placed Bayern Munich and five adrift of leaders Borussia Dortmund with nine games to go, possessing a three-point cushion over fifth-placed RB Leipzig, who are on the outside looking in at Germany's Champions League places.

"To be honest, our season is a success already but we want to qualify for Europe again and we dream of a Champions League top-four finish," Pefok says. "The German Cup (in which they play in the quarterfinals against Eintracht Frankfurt on April 4, stream live on ESPN+) would be amazing, too. In the end, we will achieve what we have deserved. It is so exciting."

So, what's been Union's secret to success?

"I don't know if there is a secret to our good season, really," he says. "What is important is that the club has its feet firmly on the ground and will never forget where it came from. When I arrived last summer, it was all about staying up. We don't have world-class players in our squad but we have guys who give 100% in every game, who know exactly what to do when we play. We all buy in the project, we all have the same direction and same goal. As soon as you arrive here, you feel part of the family. We are a club that knows what it is doing and where it wants to go."

There is great chemistry within the squad, which is obvious to see when you watch Urs Fischer's team play.

"Everyone is pushing each other, helping each other," Pefok says. "Our main force is that we have an incredible squad with an amazing team spirit."

Then, there are the Union Berlin fans, all 22,012 of them who pack the Stadion An der Alten Forsterei for every home game, who are just as amazing.

"They are not just our 12th man, they are like our team captain even," Pefok says with pride. "When we play away from home, we can only hear them in the ground. When we are at home, we can't even hear what the guy next to us says on the pitch because the noise from the crow is incredible! Their support is something else.

"After our game against Borussia Monchengladbach, I spoke with Ramy Bensebaini and he told me that he knew our goal would come at some point because the pressure from our fans and how they were pushing us in that game was too much for Gladbach. Like the rest of the club, they know what happened before, when things were really bad, and they haven't forgotten. So whether we win or not, they are always there supporting us. They are the best fans in the world really."

As well as his own supporters, the Washington, D.C.-born and French-raised U.S. international has been impressed by a few other things since leaving Young Boys in Switzerland for the German capital last summer.

"Here, the stadiums are amazing, it is a country that loves football," Pefok says with a beaming smile. "I liked Felix Nmecha at VfL Wolfsburg. Randal Kolo Muani was unstoppable against us. Then there is Joshua Kimmich. When you watch him on TV, he is already huge, but in real life, when you play against him, he is even scarier. He is a robot, a machine. He is on a mission in every game. He is on the pitch to dictate the game, recover the ball, play forward and repeat all through the game. He comes to play, he does his job, then he goes home. I don't even know if he sleeps when he is home or if he just prepares for the next game to boss the match again."