How’s that for an encore performance from Ricardo Pepi and His All-Star Band?
One month after sparking the U.S. to a badly needed win in Honduras, the teenaged goal-scoring phenom buried a pair of chances early in the second half to put a nervy start behind the U.S. men’s national team and help the Americans cruise to a 2–0 win Thursday against Jamaica. It is the second-straight Man of the Match performance for Pepi, in the El Paso native’s second-ever appearance for the United States. It’s also the second game his team has won in World Cup qualifying. Correlation and causation unite. A new American star hasn’t broken out this quickly since a teenaged Christian Pulisic electrified in the last World Cup qualifying cycle. What could possibly go wrong?
Not much for the U.S. on Thursday. With Canada pulling out a hard-won draw in Mexico City, the U.S. is now leading CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, besting Mexico at the top on goal differential. This lead is a bit illusory; Canada, having earned away draws at arguably its two biggest opponents, may be in the best position going forward if it can maintain this momentum and capitalize on its home field advantage. But for now, the continent’s three largest countries have set themselves apart from the field in the race for the three automatic berths at the 2022 tournament.
For a moment, it looked like Pepi was going to pick up right where he left off against Honduras. In the game’s first minute, he played the pass that winger Paul Arriola ran onto before getting dragged down from behind by Jamaica’s Kemar Lawrence. It probably should have been a red card, and it proved that Lawrence didn’t read the scouting report on Arriola, who is quite good at getting into dangerous spots and less effective in finishing off those plays. But referee Reon Radix seemed happy to apply the old CONCACAF refereeing standard where fouls are only called if they can have little impact on the game: Forgetting to say please and thank you in the center circle would earn a whistle, but you could charge around the penalty area waving a battle axe and you’d get told to play on.
Even if it didn’t earn a red card, the play was a successful early signal of exactly what U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter was emphasizing in the week beforehand: playing forward quickly, to guys running in behind the defense. The U.S. was working this out in the first half—guys making the runs, teammates trying to find them with the ball—but too often the chances were left wanting by a sloppy pass somewhere in the sequence, or an errant cross at its end point.
But Pepi, after that initial pass, all but disappeared for the first half. Most of the U.S. danger dissipated before it got to him, lost in a combination of misfired final balls and scything Jamaican legs, and Pepi struggled to find a way into the game. You could see his youth in how difficult of a time he had receiving the ball with Jamaica’s defenders on his back, and when he went roaming to try to get himself a touch he seemed not to know what to do with it. Some of the Americans’ best first half chances came when he cleared out entirely and let the U.S. wingers combine against the center backs, like when Brenden Aaronson’s pressing sparked a play that led to another Jamaican yellow card.
But if you’re a forward, all it takes is one good play and suddenly you had a great game. Clint Dempsey, especially earlier in his national team career, would often drift through games aimlessly only to come roaring in out of nowhere to blast in a clutch late goal, like Han Solo shooting TIE Fighters off Luke’s back in the Death Star trench.
Pepi made two such plays. The first goal started with the simplest sequence in soccer: goalkeeper Matt Turner rolling the ball out to fullback Sergiño Dest. He dribbled forward and passed to midfielder Yunus Musah at the first sign of Jamaican pressure, but Musah accelerated right through a big gap in the Jamaican midfield line, exactly the sort of play he’s out there to make. Arriola cut inside to draw Lawrence away from Dest, and Musah returned it to the fullback in so much space he could jog into the cross he hit for Pepi, who stooped to head it across his body and past Andre Blake.
It was simple yet devastating, two guys working in tandem to take all the space they could get in as little time as possible. The second was a similar burst of Berhalter’s hallowed verticality. A pass out to left back Antonee Robinson on the wing. A quick release to Aaronson running between the fullback and center back. Pepi angling his run so as to give himself the maximum amount of room in which to meet Aaronson’s pass.
With the goal, Pepi has now scored the same amount of goals in Austin’s brand-new Q2 Stadium as the three leading home scorers for Austin FC. He‘s played there twice, once for his club and once for his country.
In the case of both goals Thursday, Pepi served as the focal point for the efforts of his teammates. Even if he doesn’t contribute in all phases of the game—yet; he is 18—the ability to put decent chances away is the one most essential thing a team can ask of its forward. He turns something into something. Berhalter and the U.S. would be foolish not to try to find him in those positions as often as possible.
But it will have to adjust to do so. For a decade, the U.S. selected its center forwards based on a broader range of skillsets while relying on Dempsey and Landon Donovan to provide the goal scoring from deeper or wider positions. Brian McBride was a formidable aerial threat, Eddie Johnson was a speedster and target man in one, Jozy Altidore an underrated playmaker (even as he scored enough to claim third on the all-time list behind Donovan and Dempsey).
The U.S. under Berhalter looked set to continue that pattern. Christian Pulisic was the most celebrated attacker, scorer of 13 goals in his first 30 appearances for his country. Josh Sargent was the presumptive starter at forward for more than a year because he was thought to be the best option in the buildup phase, the player to keep the ball moving and find the Americans’ dangerous wingers like Pulisic, Aaronson, and Gio Reyna.
But Pulisic hasn’t scored a non-penalty goal for the U.S. since the summer of 2019, and while Reyna and Aaronson are both averaging about a goal every other game, the emergence of such an effective poacher changes the equation for the U.S. It will have to figure out what to do with Pepi, how to get him all the looks that it can, especially while he’s still learning how to find the game. Feed the big man with the hot hand, even if it means tweaking the pattern so there are fewer crosses to wingers crashing the back post and cutbacks to onrushing central midfielders.
And Pepi will have to make sure he makes it worth their while, finding more ways to make sure he’s open even as defenses begin to cue on him more. After all, Gyasi Zardes, the Columbus Crew forward who came on for Pepi to rest the teenager’s legs ahead of two more qualifiers this week, found twice as many chances in half as many minutes against an admittedly then-ragged Jamaican defense. But Zardes just couldn’t finish any of them. Two goals in the net is worth four in the bush, but the world’s best strikers—and given some of the teams reportedly interested in signing Pepi, that’s the sort of ceiling we’re looking at here—succeed because they turn a huge volume of chances into a high number of goals. Pepi’s going to miss eventually, and when he does, it will be nice to know that another opportunity is coming soon.
For now, Pepi is reliant on his backing band to be effective; they have to be the Mothers of Invention for him. They have proved up to the task so far, and he has repaid their efforts handsomely. For the USMNT, desperate to qualify for the World Cup after the failures of 2018, that “now” is all that matters. Wherever the Pepi story goes from here, however his game changes and evolves, whichever European giants he lands at, nobody can take the now away from him: A crowd of people, in front of his family in the capital of his home state, chanting the name of an 18-year-old Mexican American who is, for now, unstoppable.