Sports

The U.S. Men’s Soccer Team Needs More Than Its New Teen Hero to Make the World Cup

Ricardo Pepi was sensational in the second half against Honduras. But he’s not the answer.

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)
Pepi celebrates after scoring a goal in the World Cup qualifier match against Honduras, at Olimpico Metropolitano stadium, in San Pedro Sula, on Wednesday. Orlando Sierra/AFP via Getty Images

The United States men’s national team’s no good, very long angst-filled first week of World Cup qualifying ended on an upswing with a 4–1 win in Honduras thanks to 15 minutes of endgame firepower and a star turn from the youngest player on its roster.

The man (barely) of the hour was 18-year-old FC Dallas phenom Ricardo Pepi, who played a part in all four of the American goals. The forward’s flick to Christian Pulisic with a defender on his back sparked the U.S.’s equalizer minutes after half-time. Pepi battled for his teammate Sebastian Lletget’s cross, popping the ball out to left back Antonee Robinson, who was left free to guide it into the corner.

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But the U.S. needed a win, not a draw, and Pepi gave it to them 75 minutes into the game when he leaped into a small gap between the Honduran center backs to head home DeAndre Yedlin’s cross—the exact sort of simple, unfussy chance the U.S. had been missing through its first two games.

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A bit of pressure knocked the ball free to him for the third, allowing him to wrap a pass around the retreating legs of a Honduran defender for Brenden Aaronson to finish. And in added time, Pepi took a shot that was parried away by Honduran goalkeeper Luis López, allowing Lletget to finish into an empty net.

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It was enough to make U.S. fans wonder “Where was this guy the whole time?” as the team struggled for goals against El Salvador and Canada in its first two matches. U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter didn’t even bring the teen on as part of his too-late flurry of substitutions against Canada, when the team desperately needed a goal to avoid a home draw. Asked before the Honduras game about when he would be willing to play Pepi, if not then, Berhalter assured reporters that he trusted the teenager.

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The manager isn’t the only one who needed convincing. Pepi wasn’t even starting for his club at the beginning of the 2021 MLS season. Dallas coach Luchi Gonzalez rectified that eventually; the fact that his team has not won a single game all year in which Pepi didn’t start is about as solid of an A/B test as you can get. Pepi has scored 11 goals in 16 starts for Dallas, three fewer than Seattle’s league leader Raúl Ruidíaz (of Peru), who has played 500 more minutes than Pepi has.

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For the U.S., just getting Pepi on the roster was a major win. The El Paso native was recruited hard by the Mexican federation, which had recently convinced Mexican American goalkeeper David Ochoa to switch to Mexico, while defender Julian Araujo has turned down call-ups to both nations as he ponders his long-term international future. Pepi, like those two, was a U.S. youth international, but as an 18-year-old double-digit goal-scorer, was the biggest prize of them all. (His appearance Wednesday has not technically cap-tied him to the United States under FIFA’s new rules, but it has added some additional, not-insignificant hoops that he would have to jump through to switch.)

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But the “Ricardo Pepi Game”—as Wednesday’s win will be known until there’s another, better Ricardo Pepi Game—nearly didn’t happen. Pepi, like the rest of the team, labored through the first half. Though he is among the MLS league leaders in his position, his pressing in the first half looked like a teenager’s, too often overcommitting and letting the Honduran defenders take one touch to slide past him where they could pick out their options again. In the same period, he was ineffective as a mark for U.S. long balls; he has a target man’s frame (6 feet, 1 inches tall) but a teenager’s build (163 pounds), and so was often overpowered by Honduras’ defenders. When he finally was able to hold off his man long enough to feed Pulisic in the second half, the U.S. got a goal out of it.

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But just about everyone on the U.S. had a dismal first half, so his struggles were hardly his alone. Berhalter changed formations and tactics, likely due to the absences of so many of the people whose job it is to move the ball forward into dangerous positions: Gio Reyna, hurt; Sergiño Dest, hurt; Yunus Musah, not on the roster because hurt; Weston McKennie, sent home after breaking COVID protocols twice in a matter of days. With so many absences, the U.S. often opted to skip the midfield, hitting long balls for Pepi, Pulisic, and Josh Sargent to battle over in the Honduran end.

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It didn’t work. That’s not really Pulisic’s game, and Sargent was little better than Pepi at getting on the end of the passes. Worse, their ineffectiveness meant the U.S. midfield and defense rarely had time to advance in support, which led to giant gaps between the offensive and midfield lines and the midfield and defensive lines, gaps that Honduras exploited with the U.S.’s best defensive midfielder, Tyler Adams, deputizing at right back. Those gaps led to the first Honduran goal, when a pass was put right between U.S. central midfielders James Sands and Kellyn Acosta, forcing defender John Brooks to step way up to try, and fail, to make a play. Brooks and left back George Bello both failed to retreat quickly enough to cover Honduras’ Brayan Moya, who was wide open to turn the eventual cross home.

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With its offense faltering, the U.S. turned to Pulisic, who dropped deeper and deeper to receive the ball and bring it forward, which was necessary but kept him out of the positions from which he could play the final ball that might lead to a goal. The result was ugly and disjointed and almost entirely favored Honduras, and had more than the usual suspects talking about Berhalter’s ouster at halftime. One goal in 2.5 games was not nearly enough.

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Five goals in three games, on the other hand, is good enough to tie for the best goal differential in CONCACAF qualifying. With its win, the U.S. became one of three teams—Canada and Panama are the others—to finish the first window with 5 points, behind only Mexico with 7. If qualifying ended right now, the U.S. would make the World Cup. Instead, there are 11 games left to play, some of them against sturdier opposition than El Salvador and Honduras.

There are useful notes going forward. Adams is a fine right back, but he plays defensive midfield the way Ozzie Smith played shortstop. He should play every minute there as long as his legs hold up and even some when they don’t, as he was clearly gassed during the second half and still managing to get to all the right spots. (The U.S. three-goal flurry to end the game started almost as soon as he was shifted back into the middle.) Likewise, center back Miles Robinson—who has the sort of personal gravity they give out the Nobel Prize in physics for studying—has to be one of the starters at that spot from here on out. Goalkeeper Matt Turner saved a sure goal in the second half that would have given Honduras a 2–1 lead and will probably get to keep his job too. Antonee Robinson played a tremendous 45 minutes at left back after being subbed on at halftime.

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There are also plenty of doubts. John Brooks—one of the most experienced and most highly rated U.S. defenders—was at least partially at fault for both the goals the U.S. gave up during this window. Questions about Sergiño Dest’s defense have not been answered by his offensive contributions in the approximately 100 minutes he played before getting hurt. McKennie’s transgressions have cast doubts over one of the program’s best players, though Berhalter’s comments certainly make it sound as though his official punishment has concluded after missing two games this window.

All that said, despite the four-goal outburst in the second half in Honduras on Wednesday, most of the soul searching will be devoted to the offense. The common thread between Pepi’s winning goal and the two that followed was that Honduras had worn itself out. Yedlin had time on the right side to pick up his head and hit a perfect cross for Pepi for the second U.S. goal. Pepi and Aaronson were able to race away from the last two defenders on the third. Honduran players failed to close down Adams, Pepi, and Lletget in succession for the fourth. This is a fine way to win games, a more emphatic version of how the U.S. triumphed in the CONCACAF Nations League and Gold Cup this summer, both tournaments filled with late winners. Late goals count just as much as early ones, even if you can’t count on them, as the U.S. found against El Salvador.

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But the U.S. has to figure out how to create those spaces for itself during the rest of the game, against opponents still capable of mustering a spirited defense. It should have the capacity for it with Pulisic, Reyna, and Dest, among others, but the team has rarely been able to string together a series of two or three effective offensive plays in order to do so. (It doesn’t help that Pulisic, Reyna, McKennie, and Adams have never played together for the USMNT.) Most goals require combinations of brilliance: two good passes and a finish, a man eliminated off the dribble then a cross and a finish, etc. in any number of possible combinations. The U.S. has played too slow to chain these combos together. Every play becomes an isolated incident followed by a reset, which means the defense has to be beaten again. The first half of the Honduras game felt like Berhalter button-mashing, throwing three players out there who all like to come central and hoping something would ricochet off one of them in the right way. Instead it ended up with the team spamming Pulisic, sending him dribbling into a crowd like it was the only special move it knew.

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In Pepi, it seems to have a worthy end point toward which to direct its offensive energies, but chances are the team will have to do more of the work for him going forward. Right now he is first and foremost a finisher—a player who is unlikely, for all his potential, to serve as the offense’s magic bullet for the rest of qualifying. The second half against Honduras represents the best version of an 18-year-old Pepi; he has just one assist this MLS season, for instance, and is rarely used as a target forward there either.

What’s exciting is that it might not be the best version of a 19-year-old Pepi or a 20-year-old Pepi, given his growth rate as a player already. If he stays healthy, there is plenty of time for him to add more facets to his game. But the U.S. has five more qualifiers to play before he turns 19 in January, so it can’t wait for that. The team has to improve so it can take advantage of the version it has right now.

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