The USMNT's Next Big Thing secures another World Cup qualifying win

·4 min read

Ricardo Pepi is 18 years old and has tugged on a U.S. national team jersey just twice. He is also, as of Thursday night, the biggest reason the United States will likely qualify for the 2022 World Cup.

Two months ago, he was a promising teen undecided on his international soccer future.

Now, he's a burgeoning USMNT hero.

On Thursday at Q2 Stadium in Austin, Texas, Pepi scored his second consecutive winner in just his second U.S. game. His 49th-minute header beat Jamaica, and sent the U.S. to the top of North and Central America's World Cup qualifying table.

His second goal of the night, 13 minutes later, punctuated a 2-0 U.S. win. The Americans will head to Panama this weekend with eight points from four games, with growing confidence, and with a striker who could inspire more of it for years to come.

"Pepi! Pepi!" the fans in his home state chanted. "Pepi! Pepi!"

Pepi was born in El Paso, Texas, to Mexican-American parents, and could have represented either the country of his birth or that of his family's heritage. He grew up "immersed" in that heritage, in Mexican culture, regularly crossing the border to Ciudad Juarez to visit relatives and friends.

But for soccer, he moved to the Dallas suburbs. In late August, he chose the USMNT. In September, head coach Gregg Berhalter chose Pepi for the first time, and that decision changed the arc of the Americans' World Cup qualifying journey.

At halftime in Honduras, they were in a hole. Over 45 rousing second-half minutes, Pepi rose to the occasion, literally and figuratively. He powered home a header and clinched a comeback. He established himself as both the striker of the future and the striker of the now.

He entered October's qualifying window as Berhalter's clear choice to lead the line. And against Jamaica, he showed why.

He was quiet in the first half. But, as he said postgame, "it's about being patient." He was ruthless in the second. And he was the ideal frontman for a USMNT learning on the fly that, to unlock the potential of the world's youngest roster, it must play fast.

The young, unheralded stars of the USMNT's victory

In its first home qualifier last month, against Canada, the USMNT moved the ball painfully slow. It lacked urgency, lacked problem-solvers, lacked risk-takers. Toward the end of a scoreless first half against Jamaica on Thursday, those familiar problems reappeared. 

But early in the second half, goalkeeper Matt Turner started the move that spurred the turnaround. He claimed a tame Jamaica through-ball, then rushed to his feet and bowled the ball into the path of Sergiño Dest.

Dest carried it over the halfway line, and found Yunus Musah. Musah propelled the U.S. forward, providing the ball progression that his team so often lacks. He charged at the penalty box, unsettling opponents. He fed Dest, who'd been freed by a clever out-to-in run from Paul Arriola. Dest crossed for Pepi, who broke the deadlock.

The Jamaican defense, which bunkered and stymied the U.S. for much of the first half, never got set.

(Original video: ESPN)
(Original video: ESPN)

It was in those unscripted, unstable moments that the Americans were at their best. 

Then, with the lead, and with Jamaica forced to exit the comforts of its shell, space opened up. In the 62nd minute, the U.S. connected at least a dozen passes, pinging the ball side to side, pulling Jamaicans this way and that. Passing lanes widened.

Tyler Adams found one, up the left flank to Antonee Robinson. Brenden Aaronson, who made a strong case for man of the match, sprinted in behind, set up Pepi's second, and sealed the win.

(Original video: ESPN)
(Original video: ESPN)

The caveat, of course, is that it's only Jamaica, at home, the easiest of the 14 games that this qualifying gauntlet will offer. Panama won't be as kind, nor will Costa Rica next week. Mexico, next month, will be tougher yet.

“The trap is gonna be us thinking we’re great, and us thinking we’ve qualified for the World Cup," Berhalter said. "And if we do that, we’ll get our ass kicked in Panama on Sunday.”

But the hype is justified, because the players driving it are relative infants. Dest is 20. Aaronson is 20. Musah is 18. Adams, Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie, the so-called veterans, are 22, 23 and 23. Gio Reyna — who, like Pulisic, was unavailable due to injury — is 18.

And then there's Pepi, also still a teen, playing his first World Cup qualifier in front of his parents, completely unfazed. Top European clubs are already circling. Pundits are already wondering whether this is all happening too fast.

But Pepi isn't wondering. Nor are his teammates. Nor is Berhalter.

"We're all excited. I mean, we're just sittin' there, and we're on the train," the coach said of his newfound star. "We're just observing everything that's happening. It's amazing."

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