AUSTIN, Texas — The fans were showering him with love—full cups were literally flying—and so Ricardo Pepi took the opportunity to return it. The ball having bounced safely inside the left post, the 18-year-old striker jogged toward Q2 Stadium’s southwest corner and kissed the U.S. Soccer crest on his jersey.
This relationship is in that early, delirious phase where everything seems perfect. But no matter how long it lasts, its impact is already significant. Pepi is the fresh face of this young U.S. men’s national team’s World Cup qualifying resurgence. After tallying a goal and two assists in his debut last month in Honduras, the FC Dallas star and El Paso native helped lift the Americans to first place in the Concacaf Octagonal with both goals in Thursday’s 2-0 defeat of Jamaica.
The notable stats and facts are starting to pile up. Pepi has three goals in two senior U.S. starts. On Thursday, he become the second-youngest American man to score multiple goals in a match (Christian Pulisic has the record) and the youngest to find the net in back-to-back World Cup qualifiers. He’s now alone in first place atop the Octagonal leader board despite appearing in only two of the four games. The much-discussed Pepi hype train only recently departed, but it’s already reached dizzying speed.
The U.S. struggled to find its attacking rhythm in its first two qualifiers. Since halftime of the Honduras game, however, the Americans (2-0-2) have been almost unstoppable. Pepi isn’t doing it alone, of course. But the scoreboard acknowledges only the finish, and U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter has been searching for a player who boasts the requisite technical ability, as well as a knack for nailing the runs and timing that complement the buildup fashioned by his attacking midfielders and wingers. Pepi’s ability to mesh with his teammates and bring Berhalter’s vision to life seems almost intuitive.
“We’re all excited. For us, we’re just sitting there and we’re on the train,” Berhalter said Thursday night. “We’re just observing everything that’s happening. It’s amazing. I mean, an 18-year-old gets an opportunity and takes advantage of it. What you see, and what I really like, is that he has this instinct and it’s really hard to teach that to players. He has an instinct to score.”
Pepi really does make it look easy. Following a fallow first half against Jamaica, the quick and proactive U.S. started finding the precision it was missing on its crosses. In the 49th minute, he held up his run as Yunus Musah carried the ball through midfield, then subtly backed off a Jamaican defender to create the needed space to head home Sergiño Dest’s cross.
In the 62nd minute, Pepi raced into the penalty area to meet Brenden Aaronson’s cross. Two touches, two goals, three points—it was a striker’s clinic.
The Americans don’t need someone in that role who can create off the dribble or bomb away from distance. They’re looking for their Lewandowski—someone who can find the right run in a split second and then find the composure to finish off the play.
“It’s about being patient,” Pepi said of his wait to make his mark against Jamaica. “I feel like if you ask any striker, whenever you don’t touch the ball or whenever you don’t get a lot of opportunities, you just have to stay ready for it when you do get a chance.”
The sample size isn’t extensive. It’s been two games. But it’s hard to be more effective in so short a time, and the world is taking notice. Pepi has been a regular at FCD for only a season and a half, but it’s hard not to imagine him departing for Europe over the winter. Big clubs are circling. Ajax, Bayern Munich, Wolfsburg and Genoa are among the clubs that have been mentioned in recent reports.
He has a big choice to make. But it won’t be his first. This summer, he made a career-defining decision by deciding to commit his international future to the U.S. The son of Mexican parents who was born and raised straddling both countries and cultures, Pepi almost certainly would’ve felt at home wearing either nation’s colors. But after spending time with the U.S. U-17s, he made his decision in August. In addition to playing for his native land, he was joining a team searching for what he offers. Berhalter has several strikers to choose from, but none had seized the starting role.
“I am very proud to be Mexcian-American,” Pepi wrote in August. “At the same time, I was born and raised in the USA. This country has given me and my family a home, and endless possibilities to achieve my dreams. It has supported me, it has lifted me up, and it has shown me when you work hard you will be rewarded.”
Pepi is already returning the favor. Berhalter expressed some concern following Thursday’s game about the minutes and miles that are already in his striker’s legs this season, but followed that with admiration for Pepi’s ability to power through. This month’s World Cup qualifying window will continue with Sunday’s game at Panama (1-1-2) and then conclude with a visit by Costa Rica (0-1-3) to Columbus, Ohio.
"We knew that it was going to take a lot of mental courage for him to step up and really play with that relentless that we need, and he did it. So really proud of him,” Berhalter said.
Aaronson, who’s just 20, said he was “really proud” of Pepi too. Aaronson, who’s already got 11 caps and a move to Red Bull Salzburg under his belt, is practically a veteran compared to Pepi. And he’s as thrilled as his manager and those beer-throwing U..S. fans about his young teammate’s start.
“He’s really grown into this striker that is just so deadly in the box. He’s someone that’s always around. I mean, for a midfielder-slash-winger, what I am, it’s a dream to play with a striker like him because you know he’s going to be in these spots,” Aaronson said after Thursday’s win. “His hold-up play is good. He plays simple. He doesn’t try to do too much and when he gets in the box he scores. I’m really proud of him. He’s an 18-year-old kid and it’s unbelievable what he’s doing, and the sky’s the limit for him.”
Pepi doesn’t seem fazed by any of it yet. He’s succinct and soft spoken, and there seems to be no doubt about what he’s after. There’s been no distraction so far. He has scored 13 goals in MLS play for FC Dallas this season and he hit the clinching penalty kick in August’s All-Star win over a Liga MX select team. He’s now clearly the top striker on Berhalter’s depth chart. There are four more World Cup qualifiers this year, including the November showdown with Mexico in Cincinnati, and then a potential move abroad over the winter. The spotlight is going to brighten considerably. It could all be dizzying and daunting for this quiet kid from El Paso. But trains are built to stay on track.
Pepi’s family was in the Q2 Stadium crowd on Thursday. They moved with him to Dallas, and they’re going to help keep him grounded as his profile soars.
“Just being able to say calm, being able to just stay humble. I always talk to my family about a lot of things going on and they always tell me I’ve got to stay humble and I’ve got to keep working,” Pepi said Thursday.
“I feel like it’s coming. I don’t know if it’s too fast or if it’s too slow. I feel like it’s coming. Whatever is going to come is going to come, and I feel like I have to be ready for it and be prepared.”
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