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Tuesday, December 6, 2022

This 18-year-old might be the key to the United States’ World Cup hopes

Ricardo Pepi is a relatively newcomer. He is untested, unseasoned, and incomplete in his endeavours. He could use a few more lines on his résumé, and he could use to lose a few pounds off his lanky body, to be honest.

However, because it has become equally clear in the early stages of his career that Pepi possesses in abundant quantity the intangible, invaluable, and frequently ephemeral magic required to do the one thing valued above all else in soccer — that is, to score goals — none of the aforementioned factors are particularly relevant.

Pepi, who is 18 years old, has the potential to be a star striker for the United States men’s soccer team in the future. In soccer, many have attempted to establish themselves in the position known as the No. 9, but the most have failed. Questions regarding Pepi’s long-term viability and his potential as a player, on the other hand, can wait. Currently, there is a World Cup to qualify for that must be completed.

Even though it was hazardous, the demonstration of trust made sense: After four games for the United States, Pepi, who plays professionally for F.C. Dallas in Major League Soccer, has scored three goals and provided two assists in his previous four outings for the country. Despite the fact that the squad has had a rough start to the qualification round, he has been one of the club’s most constant bright lights.

Pepi, more than anybody else, epitomises the yearning to start again from the beginning. He embodies promise, as if he were a blank slate in person.

According to Herculez Gomez, a former national team striker, Brian McBride, who played for the United States from 1993 to 2006, is still the gold standard among American attackers. According to Gomez, Jozy Altidore came the closest to filling McBride’s shoes. There have been many others who have been advertised, but only a handful who have delivered.

Gomez described Pepi as “raw,” but “undeniably potential,” noting that the player has shown a significant development in only the previous year.

Even while that may be the case in the penalty area, Pepi is generally regarded as an introvert in all other situations. During interviews with the news media, for example, he has a propensity to meander slowly over the first few sentences of his responses, eventually arriving at the same phrase he has used in the past. (For some athletes, the difficulty with doing well is that people want to interact with them.)

“He was usually sort of in the corner by himself in the changing room,” said Francisco Molina, a former scouting director for F.C. Dallas who met Pepi when he was a member of the team’s development system. In the field, he was a boisterous, yelling, defiant youngster.

There seems to be agreement, as well, on the one area in which he might make the greatest progress: when he is playing with his back to the goal. In certain cases, Pepi likes to swiftly hand the ball off to a teammate in order to get himself back on his feet again. In his early stages, he does not seem to be as confident retaining the ball and withstanding a physical challenge from a defensive player, the type of pause that elite attackers must develop in order to allow their teammates time to construct an attacking structure around them.

Despite the fact that Pepi’s soccer brain and physique will continue to grow, his heart was already put to the test this past summer when he was forced to choose between representing the United States, where he was born, and representing Mexico, where his parents were born.

Pepi grew up in San Elizario, Texas, a working-class hamlet just outside of El Paso that was influenced by the Mexican Revolution. He spoke Spanish at home, supported Club América of the Mexican league, cheered for Mexico’s national team, and adored the players that played for the country’s side. Being able to move fluidly across cultures came naturally to him, just as it does for countless other offspring of immigrants all around the globe.

In the end, Pepi selected the United States because of his familiarity with the federation and the resources the team provided to help him succeed.

Michael Orozco, a fellow Mexican-American who represented the United States in 29 games for the national team, was pleased with Pepi’s selection. However, he cautioned that Pepi may anticipate criticism, if not outright hostility, from Mexican fans in the coming weeks, perhaps as early as Friday night.

A friendly match between the United States and Mexico was played in Azteca Stadium in Mexico City in 2012, and Orozco scored, helping the Americans to their first-ever triumph on Mexican territory. When Orozco scored, he said he was criticised by his club teammates for doing so and, even worse, for celebrating. Orozco, who was playing in the Mexican league at the time and now plays for the United States Soccer League’s Orange County S.C., said he received negative feedback from his club teammates. Orozco said that he had no regrets, and he hoped that Pepi would feel the same way as well.

Dan O'Brien
I am a journalist for The National Era with an emphasis in sports.
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