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Ricardo Pepi’s Stunning Debut Put The USMNT Back On Track

US Ricardo Pepi celebrates after scoring a goal during their Qatar 2022 FIFA Word Cup Concacaf qualifier match against Honduras at Olimpico Metropolitano stadium, in San Pedro Sula, on September 8, 2021. - (Photo by Orlando SIERRA / AFP) (Photo by ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP via Getty Images)
Orlando Sierra/Getty Images

After four ineffective, paranoid halves of soccer, the United States Men’s National Team traveled down to Honduras needing to dig themselves out of the muck. Instead, they were humiliated for 45 more minutes of muck time, reaffirming their inexperience, before mounting a shocking comeback for a statement win, reaffirming their rare promise.

The first sign of danger came an hour before kickoff. Gregg Berhalter rolled out an odd lineup featuring the team’s sixth-best defender (James Sands) in, uh, center defensive midfield and the team’s best center defensive midfielder (Tyler Adams) at right back. Atlanta United 19-year-old George Bello also made his second start for the USMNT, while Ricardo Pepi made his debut. It was a misshapen, overly defensive lineup without the connective tissue to convert all that defensive bulk into scoring opportunities.

The USMNT thus spent the first 45 minutes without even seeing much of the ball, let alone making forward passes with it, and Brayan Moya’s 27th-minute opener felt somehow procedural. Honduras was clearly the better, more comfortable team through the first 45 minutes, and the USMNT created maybe two half-chances when they weren’t desperately putting out fires. I forgot Christian Pulisic was even in the game. They looked like a team reeling from being outplayed on home soil by Canada then losing one of their cornerstone pieces to an alleged bout of horniness.

In the abstract, I admire Berhalter’s commitment to providing meaningful tests to his young players. The USMNT under Berhalter has embraced its youth movement, which makes for a higher-ceiling team set up to compete in the present and the future. The problem is, all that sound roster- and program-building theory only matters if you can develop a killer group of players who know how to play together and can reliably do so at the biggest moments. Honduras on the road after two points from two games is back-against-the-wall shit, not a time to rotate the squad and play a new formation so you know that you can toss James damn Sands in a game if you really need to.

But Berhalter’s halftime adjustments (Antonee Robinson, Brendan Aaronson, and Sebastian Lletget in; Adams shifted to the midfield) completely flipped the dynamic of the game, ironically affirming one of his riskiest choices: starting Pepi up top. The 18-year-old first-cap-getter had one of the most emphatic star-making performances I’ve seen in years last night, romping through the Honduras defense and involving himself in all four USMNT goals. The changes paid off immediately, as Robinson put one home after Pulisic and Pepi helped get him the ball right in front of the net.

Twenty-six nervous minutes later, Pepi produced the moment of the game. DeAndre Yedlin slapped an arching cross into the box and Pepi rose to meet it, redirecting a perfect header into the corner and giving the USMNT the lead. The team has a dismal record when trailing at halftime of qualifying games, yet they played with a real swagger in that second half, led by their youngest player.

Minutes later, Pepi helped slam the door shut, when he dispossessed a Honduran player in the midfield, drove into the box through a double team, then squared it for Aaronson, who ripped one into the net to formally complete the comeback victory. Sebastian Lletget would add a fourth just minutes later, and Pepi was in on that one, too. Honduran fans, disgusted with their team’s performance, began ironic “U-S-A!” chants.

“When I decided to play for the United States, I said that I would give all my heart to this team and I showed that tonight,” Pepi said. “Gregg told me I was going to start on the plane on the way here. It was very special, I was prepared for the moment and I took advantage of it.” There are plenty of takes to be had about Pepi’s role on the team and his potential for filling the striker spot with a ferocious goalscorer should he keep improving, though what seems more relevant is that Ricardo Pepi just saved our asses last night. The USMNT now sits in third in the qualification table, and the next three games will be significantly more chill than this Central American baptism. There are kinks to work out, though after the second half masterclass, everyone involved should be feeling cautiously confident about a trip to Qatar.

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