In a battle to make the USMNT’s World Cup roster, Ricardo Pepi is at peace
- A lot has changed for Ricardo Pepi since he made his debut for the United States men’s national team back in World Cup qualifying
- Despite all of the changes in his young professional career, Pepi isn’t stressed about what comes next with the USMNT or in his club career
© Kareem Elgazzar/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK
COLOGNE, GERMANY – Ricardo Pepi is relaxed.
It’s the night before a friendly against Japan, the U.S. men’s national team’s penultimate match before the World Cup and Pepi is on the bubble for manager Gregg Berhalter’s roster. A lot has happened in the year since he burst onto the senior national team with three goals and two assists in his first two caps, which came during all-important World Cup qualifying games. Reflecting on the past 13 months in the comforts of the team’s hotel in Cologne, Germany, the teenager seems at peace.
“I was in a great moment when I first hopped into the national team,” Pepi told Backheeled. “And of course, it’s something that comes with just scoring goals, playing consistently.”
The goal drought
Following Pepi’s brace against Jamaica last October, even Berhalter couldn’t hold back his enthusiasm about the teenaged FC Dallas striker. “We’re all excited. We’re just sitting there and we’re on the train… It’s amazing.”
Despite some promising early signs, Pepi wouldn’t score for the next 345 days for either club or country.
Still, his breakout in 2021 thrust him into the European shop window, and in early January, FC Augsburg won the sweepstakes. Backed by billionaire American sports businessman David Blitzer, they bought the El Paso native for a club-record $20 million fee. It was the second-highest fee ever received by a MLS team. Pepi made his Bundesliga debut on January 8, the day before he turned 19, and the expectations were enormous.
“You know, it was a big deal. It was a big deal for me, and of course for MLS. I think it wasn’t really the pressure, it was more of me wanting to be successful, more pressure on myself,” Pepi said. “I didn’t really put the price tag on me, it was something that was completely out of my control. But I think it was just me just trying to test my limits, and trying to test how good I was compared to the league, compared to Germany in general.”
— Fabrizio Romano (@FabrizioRomano) January 3, 2022
Pepi’s transition to the Bundesliga didn’t go according to plan. Augsburg were in a relegation battle and most of his appearances came off the bench. Without significant playing time and on-field production, he was losing his grip atop the depth chart with the United States.
“It was a learning curve for me… It was a thing where for sure, you know, you have to be able to just wake up every day, even if things aren’t going your way. You have to stay motivated.”
Pepi and Berhalter agreed it made sense for Pepi to skip the national team camp in the summer so he could recharge. Although Pepi believes he did benefit from that time off, it was obvious when watching his only start of the new campaign for Augsburg that the young striker needed a change of scenery.
Sure enough, a few days later he headed to the Netherlands, joining FC Groningen on loan. Pepi picked up an assist in his Eredivisie debut and finally ended his goal drought in the very next game. He’s grateful a new chapter in his career is underway, for the unwavering support of his family (who he speaks to every day), and that adapting to a new home now feels like a smoother process from the outset.
RICARDO PEPI GOAL 🇺🇸 The 19-year-old from El Paso opens his FC Groningen account with this header in his very first start for the team. This comes just days after being called up to the USMNT’s latest camp. What a week he is having. ❤️🙌🇺🇸 pic.twitter.com/SQYhADfJat
— Men in Blazers (@MenInBlazers) September 17, 2022
With the World Cup on the horizon, it’s a perfect time to reset.
“I went a long time without scoring goals and this move kind of refreshed my memory, refreshed my mind, just made me feel it’s like a new start for me,” Pepi said. “Being able to score right before camp helped me a lot. Most of the guys at camp, they’re like ‘you seem in a very healthy mental state.’ Before, my mental state was just not very well. But now, coming into camp, Gregg gave me the opportunity. And every time he gives me an opportunity, I want to be able to show him it’s worth fighting for me and I’m gonna fight for him.”
“He’s been great,” Berhalter said about Pepi ahead of the United States’ game against Saudi Arabia. “He’s been lively, confident, he has brightness in his eyes. He’s ready to perform, and it’s good to see that. I know that it hasn’t been easy for Rico in the last months, and it’s good to see him have a different demeanor.”
Berhalter has stressed – based on his own experience – that the message to the part of his young pool that will miss out on Qatar is that that’s not the end of their national team career. That’s definitely true for Pepi if he’s not in the 26-player squad for the World Cup: he’s young enough to be eligible for next year’s U-20 World Cup and the 2024 Olympics.
That said, he’s focused on the present and staking his claim for Qatar. “Of course, I want to be the starting nine. I want to be in the roster for sure. But I have to control whatever I can control, I can’t control what decisions Gregg makes. I can’t control any other things that are going on with the other forwards.”
There’s still only one center forward who looks like a safe bet to be in the World Cup squad, and that’s Pepi’s good friend and former FC Dallas teammate Jesús Ferreira.
Pepi’s move from Dallas to Europe allowed Ferreira to have his first full season for club and country as a No. 9, and he’s scored 18 goals in MLS this year. Ferreira may be Berhalter’s preferred option at the position, but he’s continuing to battle his friend for the starting spot. He welcomes the challenge.
Gregg Berhalter names Jesus Ferreira, Ricardo Pepi, Jordan Pefok, Brandon Vazquez, Haji Wright and Josh Sargent as the 6 strikers competing for spots on the plane to Qatar for the USMNT at the World Cup.
— USMNT Only (@usmntonly) September 2, 2022
“Me and Pepi have a connection from the academy days to the first team,” Ferreira said. “I’m excited, obviously for him making a jump [to the Bundesliga] is tough and we all saw that coming, but now that he’s in a new team, new environment, he’s gonna start scoring goals like he did in Dallas. I’m just excited for him and happy that I can compete with a guy who will get the best of me… We have a healthy relationship and healthy fighting for the position so whenever I come into camp I wanna see him in here and see him perform.”
Pepi echoed that it’s always been a “healthy and competitive” relationship “and it’s very good off the field.”
“I remember back in Dallas, we used to hang out quite often, before every game we would always be at each other’s room playing cards or whatever… we’re really chill, we’re really good to each other, we’re always just hanging out when we can. And of course with the distance, whenever I’m back in town we try to link, we try to do things together.”
In the future, Ferreira and Pepi could both be on the pitch for the United States as a tandem up front in the future – and there’s certainly a chance that they’ll both feature at the World Cup. But even if Pepi isn’t sitting next to his friend on the plane to Qatar, he’s not stressed.
“I just have to focus on what I can control.”