Ricardo Pepi was about as close to playing for Mexico as anyone could be and still wind up wearing the USA Soccer crest. And it wasn’t just the torment of the decision between the two national teams. It was about geography. He grew up in El Paso, which sits directly on the border between the two countries. And with his father, he watched Club America and Liga MX games on television, dreaming of where the game might take him.
On Thursday night, it drove him 575 miles East to Austin, where the U.S. men’s national team faced an essential World Cup qualifying game against Jamaica. And if he continues to perform as he did at Q2 Stadium — scoring both goals in a 2-0 victory over the Reggae Boyz, it likely will jet him to the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.
“We’re all excited,” U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter told reporters after the game. “We’re all just sitting there, and we’re on the train, just observing everything that’s happening. It’s amazing. You know, an 18-year-old gets an opportunity and takes advantage of it. What I really like is he has this instinct — and it’s really hard to teach that to players — he has an instinct to score.”
Consider all that has happened for Pepi as a soccer player since it was reported, on Aug. 25, that he would choose to play internationally for the U.S., a decision he says took years to make:
* In that night’s MLS All-Star game against the best of Liga MX, Pepi was sent up in the fifth spot for the MLS squad in a penalty shootout to determine the outcome. He drilled the kick just off the underside of the crossbar and over the goalline for the game-winner.
* Four days later, he scored twice for FC Dallas in a 5-3 road win over Austin FC, in the same venue where he rang up two goals against Jamaica.
* He has gone the full 90 for FCD in seven games since his All-Star heroics, producing three goals and three assists.
* He scored a goal for the USMNT in his first appearance, a World Cup qualifier early last month at Honduras, and figured in all four second-half goals in the 4-1 victory (video below).
* He delivered the two goals that have the U.S. in first place in qualifying after four of 14 rounds, ahead of Mexico on what might fairly be called “Pepi differential.”
Pepi really should consider buying a ticket for the next MegaMillions.
“I feel like I worked just to be able to be on the squad, being able to represent my country,” Pepi told reporters. “I feel like I made a big decision, and like I said when I made my decision, I’m going to give my all to the team, and that’s what I’m doing.
“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’s going to come, I feel like I have to be ready for it, be prepared.”
It is so easy for American soccer fans to get overly enthusiastic about a young goal scorer. There was a subtle hysteria when Eddie Johnson introduced himself in 2004 with a goal in his first appearance, also a World Cup qualifier, and then a hat trick in his second just a few days later. Johnson became a reliable USMNT player and appeared in the 2006 World Cup, but he never became a force.
It feels at least a little different with Pepi, and not just because the U.S. won him away from rival Mexico. Teams that have proven they know what a promising striker looks like — Ajax of the Netherlands and Bayern Munich of Germany — reportedly have been interested in acquiring him. And the goal he scored to unlock Jamaica’s stubborn defense showed why. It was an exquisitle example of composure and precision in front of goal.
Midfielder Yunus Musah, also 18, drove the ball forward into the attacking zone and played it wide to right back Sergino Dest. From there, Dest sent his cross on a line toward Pepi near the center of the six-yard box. Knowing he was up against a terrific keeper in Jamaica’s Andre Blake, who was leaning to the right post, Pepi angled his header toward the left corner and snapped it over the line.
“This is my second camp with him … and I think he’s really grown into this striker that’s so deadly in the box,” said Brenden Aaronson, who set up the second goal and now has five goals and four assists in 10 caps. “He’s someone that’s always around. For a midfielder/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. 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.”
Mexican-Americans and the U.S. national team
It is relatively common for the USMNT and Mexico to compete for players who grow up in the States as the children of first- or second-generation immigrants. Many of them grow up in a soccer culture that is built around El Tri and LigaMX, which remains the most popular pro soccer league in the U.S.
Well more than a decade ago, the Americans were able to convince Jose Torres, (26 caps, 2010 World Cup), Michael Orozco Fiscal (29 caps. 2008 Olympics) and Edgar Castillo (18 caps, 2013 Gold Cup) to join their side.
Lately, though, that recruiting competition had leaned toward Mexico. Midfielder Efrain Alvarez of the LA Galaxy committed to Mexico in June. Goalkeeper David Ochoa of Real Salt Lake opted for El Tri in August. And only this week, Galaxy right back Julian Araujo executed a one-time switch to the Mexico national team.
All are fine players with significant potential. As was obvious on the cross to Pepi, though, the U.S. has the right back in Dest it hopes will fill that position for a decade. There are so many attacking players on Berhalter’s roster he was able to get by against Jamaica without the two most gifted players, Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna, who are both injured.
There isn’t another Pepi out there, though, at least for now, who carries U.S. eligibility. The Americans have other young forwards, including Josh Sargent of Premier League club Norwich City and Daryl Dike of Orlando City in MLS. They have many promising qualities, but neither is able to combine quickness, elusiveness and ability in the air the way Pepi does.
This was the recruit the USMNT had to have. He showed why against Jamaica. Twice.