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What Is This USMNT Guy’s Deal: Ricardo Pepi

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - AUGUST 25: Ricardo Pepi #24 of the MLS All-Stars scores in the shootout win against the Liga MX All-Stars during the 2021 MLS All-Star game at Banc of California Stadium on August 25, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Welcome to What Is This USMNT Guy’s Deal, a regular series in which Defector selects a name from the myriad number of exciting young American soccer men playing in Europe and answers the question: What Is This USMNT Guy’s Deal? (Today’s is arriving one day early because of Thursday night’s World Cup Qualifiers.)

Through his three years at the helm of the USMNT, Gregg Berhalter’s attitude towards and comments about dual-national players have been reasonably refreshing and encouraging. Given the uncomfortable political questions involved or at least adjacent to the process, the noxious paternal possibilities of turning it into college football recruiting, U.S. Soccer’s occasionally crippling inferiority complex, and a string of high-profile failures, it’s impressive to see Berhalter’s approach be simultaneously less infantilizing and more successful that his predecessor.

Take Sergiño Dest, for example. While the Dutch federation sweatily lobbied in public for Dest to join up, Berhalter gave Dest the space to make the decision on his own terms, for his own reasons. When highly coveted L.A. Galaxy midfielder Efrain Alvarez was offered a Mexico call-up this past March, Berhalter encouraged him to take it so he could have the most information possible when he made his decision. Former England youth international captain Yunus Musah forsook his spot there because Berhalter and his cadre of young European stars were like, “We’re having fun here, man.”

Certainly Berhalter’s positive-vibes-only approach is tactically sound, though he also can afford to be less aggressive in his recruiting for the simple reason that the USMNT is significantly deeper than it was a decade ago. Sergiño Dest may play for real actual Barcelona, though it’s not like the team doesn’t have another option at right back. The U.S. by its nature will always have dual nationals on the roster, but the recruiting sagas of the Berhalter era have been less anxious because they haven’t borne as much weight.

That said, Ricardo Pepi was a player the U.S. needed. The El Paso-born striker is the latest gem from the prestigious FC Dallas academy, and his breakout 2021 season has set him up as the next FC Dallas prospect likely to make a big move to a huge team very soon. That he is both this good and this strong of proof that the U.S. academy system can produce legit talent makes him important for the USMNT; that he also plays the position of biggest need makes him critical.

Who Does He Play For?

Pepi plays for FC Dallas, the most reliable talent factory in the United States. This guy loves to score goals. He started for North Texas SC, Dallas’ reserve team, in its first game ever and immediately scored a hat trick. He was just 16 then and is just 18 now, and he has yet to stop scoring.

After earning 71 total minutes in spot duty as a 16-year-old, Pepi slowly began to be integrated into a good FC Dallas first team. He nailed a 96th-minute goal in Dallas’ second game of the season, then scored again in stoppage time to help his team upset the Portland Timbers in the first round of the playoffs. This season, though, has been his true breakout year, as he’s already on pace to become the most prolific teenage goalscorer in MLS history. It is easy to see why Mexico wanted him, and why his inevitable transfer to Europe could break records for a homegrown forward player. An unspecified number of Serie A teams have sniffed around, and Pepi recently rotated over to Bayern Munich for training. The Bayern-Dallas partnership has helped facilitate European moves for several promising young players, including Chris Richards and (soon) Justin Che.

The Weston McKennie Mamma Mia Test

The Weston McKennie Mamma Mia Test refers to the following foolproof heuristic for determining whether or not a U.S. player is actually good or just good by our rosy American standards: Do fans tweet lovingly about them in their local language?

How Does He Play?

Here are a pair of stats that indicate how he plays: Pepi is fifth in MLS with 11 goals, but 23rd in the league with just 44 shots. That correctly indicates that he is a prolific and efficient finisher in front of goal, an obviously valuable skill for any forward player and especially obvious and valuable one for a player on the USMNT, whose striker pool is full of very good players who nevertheless are not constantly scoring goals for their clubs. Pepi is 6-foot-1, an intelligent runner, and strong with both feet. What stands out when you watch him is a phenomenal instinct for knowing where to stand. He is not jittery quick on the break like Konrad de la Fuente, though he can burn defenders.

Pepi is also not yet on Josh Sargent’s level as a defensive aid from the forward line, though he’s plenty pesky. Almost all of his career goals have come from inside of the box, where he’s cool under pressure and very advanced at running back to the ball and quickly playing it forward to a teammate.

All in all, he grades out as a potentially complete striker. This is not to say that he is a sure thing, though part of what makes Pepi such a fascinating prospect is that he isn’t just being gassed up for his potential, he’s producing at the first-team level as an 18-year-old. There are always worries that a step up in competition will be too much for a young player, particularly one that is necessarily reliant on other people setting him up, and that MLS teenage scoring record we talked about earlier belongs to one Jozy Altidore, a man who famously did not step up. The key difference here is time. The MLS prospects who this series is dedicated to have adjusted fine in a way that Altidore’s generation never did, and Pepi has never ever looked even close to overmatched, even when at a physical disadvantage.

Wonderteen Index

The Wonderteen Index is a holistic, objective metric that analyzes a player’s full array of skills and talents, distilling it all into a single number that corresponds to their ultimate potential and the likelihood that they will assume the title of Wonderteen.

Pepi is the only player on this here 26-man USMNT roster without a single cap, and he is also the youngest, so he has the “teen” aspect down pat. The best team he’s scored against, however, is, like, the New England Revolution or something, so the wonder aspect is up in the air. But he has a real penchant for late heroics, and since he may not start any of the forthcoming qualifiers, we are all set up for a starmaking moment. Our analysts have taken all this into consideration and awarded him a most promising 14 out of 16.

Can He Play Right Back?

The crest on his jersey says U.S.A., so yes, he can play right-side fullback.

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How Does He Fit In With The U.S. Team?

The theoretical best version of Pepi is the starting striker of the USMNT. The current version is 18 years old with zero senior-level international experience, is entering a tight-knit team set up to play around Josh Sargent, and is therefore probably going to serve as a depth piece. This is fine, as the only trait you can knock him for (lack of top-end speed) is a less pronounced disadvantage if he comes into a game in the 75th minute. The USMNT is about to play three games in eight days, so he will almost assuredly make his debut, and could possibly start. The team’s striker corps is still without a no-shit must-play guy, however, so Pepi is really not all that far from forcing his way into a larger role.

How Close Is He To The Hypothetical Best XI?

Pretty close, though the team doesn’t really play with two strikers, so barring a leap over Sargent in the depth chart, he’s firmly a backup. For now, that is.