On the eve of his call-up to the U.S. men's national team for three World Cup qualifying matches, 18-year-old striker Ricardo Pepi first had some business to take care of for his league.
The FC Dallas rising star clinched the MLS All-Stars' win over their Liga MX counterparts in the fifth round of penalty kicks, blasting his chance by Nahuel Guzmán and under the crossbar to cap a 3–2 shootout win following a 1–1 draw. Goalkeeper Matt Turner, who helped lead the U.S. to the Concacaf Gold Cup title, made two saves in the shootout, including one on Mexico forward Rogelio Funes Mori, and took home match MVP honors. The PKs immediately followed 90 minutes of regulation that featured goals from Cruz Azul's Jonathan Rodríguez and LAFC's Jesús Murillo at the latter's home venue, Banc of California Stadium in Los Angeles.
But the story of the night wound up being Pepi, the El Paso native who has U.S. and Mexico eligibility. Fox Sports' Stu Holden reported at halftime of the match that Pepi was going to be included on U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter's roster for the first three 2022 World Cup qualifying matches at the beginning of next month. The squad will be revealed Thursday and is expected to overwhelmingly feature players who helped the U.S. to a Nations League–Gold Cup double over the last couple of months.
But Pepi is a unique exception. He has nine goals in 20 games for FC Dallas, plays a position where the U.S. could use additional clout and is among a number of young dual-nationals deciding between the two rival Concacaf Nations. Real Salt Lake goalkeeper David Ochoa and LA Galaxy attacking standout Efraín Álvarez have both chosen El Tri, while Galaxy right back Julian Araujo has yet to make his decision. Pepi, even if he plays in the three qualifiers for the U.S., would not be fully cap-tied, though, thanks to a new FIFA statute passed in September 2020.
In an effort to give younger dual-national players some more leeway when making their decisions about international allegiance, FIFA ruled that players who are under 21 can play up to three times with one nation—even in competitive matches such as tournament qualifiers but not in major tournaments themselves—and still maintain eligibility to play for another nation for which they have citizenship. The caveat is that they must go three years between caps before switching allegiances. So, in theory, Pepi could play in all three U.S. qualifiers in September and still meet the requirements to play for Mexico one day, even though that day would be a long way in the distance.
All will become more clear Thursday, when the U.S. squad is revealed. In the meantime, Pepi will soak up the clinching moment in MLS's first PK shootout win in All-Star competition in four tries and the first such game between the two neighboring leagues.
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