The U.S. men’s national team has been waiting for a new goal scorer to emerge — a true No. 9 — and it looks like the wait may be over after Ricardo Pepi’s memorable debut in a road World Cup qualifier in Honduras.
The 18-year-old had fans buzzing from his first performance, showing off his natural scoring instincts, high soccer IQ and all the physical and technical qualities that make him one of the most exciting young prospects in the American game. His quality first touch, an elite aerial game, a high work rate, and the 6-foot-1 size and strength to battle defenders and hold up the ball for teammates has already drawn comparisons to the likes of star strikers Robert Lewandowski and Erling Haaland.
In the 4-1 win against Honduras, Pepi contributed to all four goals. He scored one, assisted another and had a hand in creating the other two. The teenager certainly did not look like a player making his senior national team debut. Far from it.
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“He did a great job. Worked tirelessly, competed against physical center backs, scored a really good goal, and overall I think had a strong performance,” said U.S. head coach Gregg Berhalter. “For an 18-year-old, it was really impressive what he did.”
“It’s his place to lose after what he did in such an important game. He basically played a part in all four goals. No fear,” long-time U.S. forward star Clint Dempsey said about Pepi and the USMNT’s starting forward spot on the Paramount+ postgame show. “He was never out of his depth … He’s the complete striker. He scores goals, works hard, holds up the ball and he’s just a problem to deal with … I’m excited about what this kid has in store for his future.”
The performance comes as no surprise to those who have followed his rapid rise through the ranks. The Pepi hype train has left the station.
Made in El Paso
Pepi was born in El Paso, Tex., the son of Mexican parents, and it was in El Paso that he started his youth soccer career first in a rec league and then with a club that became the affiliate academy team of Major League Soccer club FC Dallas. His performances in El Paso earned him a ticket to join the FC Dallas academy in Frisco, Tex., leaving San Elizario at the age of 13.
He had to grow up fast after leaving home at an early age, but his family eventually joined him in Dallas and he continued to excel for all the FC Dallas academy teams as he rose through the age groups: 18 goals in 15 games for the Under-13s, 12 goals in 13 games for the Under-14s, five goals in 14 games for the Under-16s and 19 goals in eight games for the Under-17s in 2018. It was only a matter of time before he made his mark at the professional level.
A pro at age 15
Pepi signed his first professional contract in December 2018, becoming the first-ever signing for FC Dallas farm team North Texas Soccer Club, where academy prospects cut their teeth in the third division of American soccer.
He scored a hat trick in his debut in March 2019 and went on to score a total of 11 goals in 13 matches, helping North Texas SC win the title, though he missed out on the championship game after joining the U.S. Under-17 national team for the FIFA Under-17 World Cup.
Teen All-Star in MLS
He signed with FC Dallas in June 2019 and after first getting his feet wet with seven substitute appearances as a 16-year-old, earned his first handful of starts and netted his first two goals in the 2020 season.
Pepi became a regular in the FC Dallas starting lineup in 2021 and experienced his MLS breakout with 10 goals, including becoming the youngest-ever MLS player to score a hat trick. Those goal-scoring feats earned him a place in the All-Star Game against Mexico’s All-Stars and he helped win that match by converting the final penalty kick in the shootout.
“He’s a talented young golascorer,” said LAFC and former USMNT head coach Bob Bradley, who picked Pepi to the All-Star squad. “He’s got great instincts. He’s got a lot of different ways to finish. He puts himself in really good posiitons and he’s got a really good personality. He’s a fun kid who loves being around the goal and loves trying to score. When we were talking about penalties, he was ready. And it shows in the way he moves and how he gets himself in position and some of the goals he scores.”
Pepi opts to represents USA over Mexico
As the son of Mexican parents Pepi is a dual national Mexican-American who had to decide whether to represent the USA or Mexico on the senior national team level. He received interest from both countries during his 2021 breakthrough season.
He grew up watching the Mexican national team and Liga MX with his family, and he traveled weekly across the border to Ciudad Juarez in Mexico to visit family. But Pepi ultimately opted to represent the USA after playing for the Americans’ Under-17 team, including at the FIFA Under-17 World Cup.
He made his decision official the day after his MLS All-Star heroics, when the U.S. men’s national team also announced that he would be called up for the first time ahead of World Cup qualifiers in September 2021.
Pepi was given his USMNT debut in a tough World Cup qualifier on the road in Honduras, but he was the star of the memorable 4-1 victory with a goal, assist and a hand in the other two strikes. The USMNT’s come-from-behind win catapulted the nation back into contention to qualify for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
What’s next for Pepi?
Pepi will look to continue to shine for the USMNT in upcoming World Cup qualifiers and for FC Dallas, as the club chases its first-ever MLS Cup title. If he continues his upward trajectory, he’s inevitably on his way to becoming one of the latest MLS academy exports to the top European leagues.
If it materializes, Pepi would follow a growing number of young players made in the North American league who have recently attracted interest and major transfer fees from major clubs in Europe: Alphonso Davies (Vancouver Whitecaps to Bayern Munich), Chris Richards (FC Dallas to Bayern Munich), Bryan Reynolds (FC Dallas to AS Roma), Gianluca Busio (Sporting Kansas City to Venezia), Brenden Aaronson (Philadelphia to RB Salzburg) and Tyler Adams (NY Red Bulls to RB Leipzig).
And if there’s a European club that wants to sign Pepi, it’s going to need to pay top dollar to FC Dallas after he signed a five-year contract extension with the club in July 2021. Reports have already linked him to Italian clubs, and Bayern Munich got an up-close look at Pepi after he trained there in the offseason as part of a club partnership with FC Dallas.
It will be a busy close to the 2021 calendar year for Pepi. FC Dallas have 11 matches remaining in the 2021 MLS regular season and the club is hopeful to make the playoffs and a run at MLS Cup in December. The USMNT also has three qualifiers in October and another two in November as it reaches the halfway point of its 14-game qualifying schedule.
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