Ricardo Pepi's legend keeps on growing.
The 18-year-old FC Dallas striker, who was the hero in the U.S. men's national team's last World Cup qualifier in Honduras, opened the October window with a pair of goals 13 minutes apart in the second half to give the U.S. a 2-0 win over Jamaica at Austin FC's Q2 Stadium.
The win over the Reggae Boyz is the U.S.'s third in just over six months, but the stakes were at their highest Thursday, with three big points in the Concacaf Octagonal table up for grabs. Pepi opened the scoring in the 49th minute and doubled the lead in the 62nd, becoming the youngest U.S. player to score in consecutive World Cup qualifying matches.
The U.S. (2-0-2) remains unbeaten and now has eight points following an uneven September window, while winless and last-place Jamaica (0-3-1, one point) has some ground to make up if it wants to remain in contention as the 14-match qualifying tournament progresses. By virtue of Canada's draw at Mexico later on Thursday, the U.S. tops the table, tied with Mexico on points but ahead on goal differential. Canada sits in third, two points off the pace. The top three finishers in the Octagonal qualify for the 2022 World Cup, while the fourth-place finisher goes to an intercontinental playoff.
Both the U.S. and Jamaica were missing key players Thursday, with Christian Pulisic, Gio Reyna and John Brooks all out hurt for the U.S., while Jamaica was without West Ham forward Michail Antonio and Aston Villa winger Leon Bailey. The U.S. welcomed the return of Weston McKennie, though, with the Juventus midfielder back in camp and in the starting lineup after being banished last month after one game for breaking team protocol in Nashville. He was joined in the midfield by Tyler Adams and Yunus Musah, who made his competitive debut and became cap-tied in the process.
The first half was overshadowed by refereeing controversy. Twenty seconds in, the U.S. drew what could've easily been a red card but only wound up being a yellow. Paul Arriola was played in behind by Pepi and was promptly dragged down by Kemar Lawrence, the last defender in the play. Without the luxury of VAR, which Concacaf does not have in this competition, there was no ability to review the call, and Lawrence was let off light by referee Reon Radix. Nothing came from Brenden Aaronson's ensuing free kick.
Jamaica didn't have much of the ball in the opening 10 minutes, but that didn't stop Tyreek Magee from nearly opening the scoring in fantastic fashion. He spun off Adams after hitting the U.S. captain with an inadvertent arm and then fired from distance, not missing Matt Turner's goal by much.
Turner was called into action 90 seconds later, with Shamar Nicholson getting to the end line and around Antonee Robinson before firing a dangerous cross into the box. Turner came out to claim it with a clean, diving catch, though, to end the threat.
The U.S. had the bulk of the possession from that point for the next quarter of an hour, but it could do little with it, with Jamaica playing compact and forcing the U.S. to try to break it down. McKennie and Aaronson did just that at the half-hour mark, working a wonderful combination down the left that resulted in a U.S. corner. Again, nothing came from the set piece, though, with goalkeeper Andre Blake comfortably making the catch.
Radix was forced into another big call in the 33rd minute, when Aaronson was played in behind by Arriola. Damion Lowe clattered into him from behind on the slide tackle, with only a yellow card given once again. McKennie took the ensuing free kick, from the edge of the box, but he fired over the bar.
On the other end, Turner was forced into his most difficult save of the night. Miles Robinson peeled off Jamal Lowe, who looked to curl a left-footed shot into the far corner, only for Turner to parry it away with a confident diving save to his right.
The U.S. opened the second half with the breakthrough goal. Four minutes in, Sergiño Dest combined with Musah before receiving the ball down the right-hand side. He had the time and space to pick out his cross, and he found Pepi, who headed home the opener to make it 1-0.
After assisting on the opener, Dest nearly got a goal of his own. He earned a foul at the edge of the Jamaica box after a nifty stepover before blazing his free kick just by the bar in the 58th minute.
Instead it was Pepi that doubled the U.S's lead. Aaronson delivered a pinpoint cross from the left after being played down the flank by Antonee Robinson, and Pepi slid into the box to deliver the finish, his third goal in two games with the U.S.
With the U.S. turning to its bench, a third goal nearly came in the 78th minute, with Tim Weah driving forward down the left and crossing toward the far post, where it was just slightly out of Gyasi Zardes's reach.
The U.S. continues its qualifying campaign on Sunday in Panama, while Jamaica heads home to face Canada.
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