The first thing you need to know about Ricardo Pepi is that in no way, shape or form do I believe he is 18 years old.
At least, that's what I think.
I refuse to believe that an 18-year-old can be this self-assured.
Perhaps it's me not realizing the potential and promise of youth and how teenagers nowadays are so much more resilient. After all, they've had to be, and Pepi, a Mexican-American native of El Paso who would also cross back and forth between Texas and Juarez, knows too well what it means to adapt, to persevere and to understand the complexities of race, culture and language. It is what makes him so strong and why at 18, he seems so sure of who he is.
A son of two nations.
"I feel like being a little bit of both feels amazing," says Pepi, speaking on ¡Qué Golazo! A Daily CBS Soccer Podcast. For him, blending both cultures is what gives him an advantage because it widens his view on what it means to represent his club FC Dallas and the U.S. men's national team. "Not only to have the family I have at home but also the world around me. There's a lot of Americans and Mexicans here in Dallas ... and not just learning English but also Spanish, helps you so much to communicate with people. When I step out of the house, it's 'American' culture but when I am in my house, it's Mexican culture -- constantly speaking Spanish at home, eating Mexican food -- but also embracing American culture I have at home, and representing the U.S., obviously."
So what will the mood, or rather, where will allegiances lie at home when the U.S. play Mexico?
"Let me tell you, you'd be surprised," he says smiling. "My household? It's all about the U.S. now. Obviously, we're still Mexican and you have the culture, but when it comes to soccer, they're all about the U.S. now."
Perhaps it's this invisible energy -- alongside his confident play -- that has helped Pepi take on the national set-up by storm. His relationship with U.S. Soccer began a while ago as Gregg Berhalter and Co. built a foundation with the player and his camp. As he continued his trajectory with FC Dallas -- where he rose from their academy to playing for USL's North Texas FC and finally becoming a regular for the MLS side, which included a hat trick against LA Galaxy in July (the youngest treble scorer in league history) -- the relationship grew and was eventually selected for the USMNT's World Cup qualifying squad (catch every USMNT away qualifier -- with the exception of Mexico -- on Paramount+).
"I was prepared for the moment. Ever since I got the call, I have been ready for the opportunity, and do the best I can for the team, and like I said, I've been ready, " says Pepi, reflecting on the call, on his decision and what came next.
Well, and we know what happens next. We know because it's still so fresh in our minds. After a frustrating first two matches where Berhalter failed to get a victory against El Salvador and Canada, respectively, the team entered the dressing room at halftime against Honduras trailing 1-0. Every American fan was feeling the tension. Tweets and comments at the break already predicted doomsday for the Stars and Stripes. "Here we go again," was the sentiment.
So what was the feeling inside? What was the conversation between the players as they looked to change things in the second half?
"There was a lot of positive talk between the team," Pepi said. "We knew that we could change and turn the game around so it was very special, the communication between teammates. I felt like we went out in the second half and dominated most of the game and turned it around."
After Antonee Robinson equalized early after the whistle for the start of the second half, it was Pepi time in the 74th minute. A great cross from DeAndre Yedlin found the FC Dallas star inside the box and he rose above everyone to score thanks to a powerful header. It was the kind of clinical finish that you see from a veteran striker. But here was this 18-year-old, making a statement, stamping his name for all to yell.
El Tren had arrived at its destination.
The finish was reminiscent of -- dare I say -- Robert Lewandowski. It's no surprise that Bayern Munich, therefore, are reportedly showing interest. Both clubs already have a strong relationship due to their player development partnership, which was formed in 2018 and brought Chris Richards to the Bundesliga club. Earlier this year, in fact, during the offseason, Pepi and some other homegrown players traveled to Germany as part of a three-week stint at Bayern. It was a peak of life in Europe and learning under different types of coaching.
Pepi took it all in and mirrored his game to the European model.
"I want to get my level to where they're at and I know there's work to be done, but also I'm happy to know where I am compared to them," said Pepi back then. "The experience to go train with Bayern and see the environment in Europe. That's the biggest takeaway I had."
There is a shade of Lewandowski's style in Pepi's abilities. Now, I urge everyone to please calm down and not read this statement as hyperbole. This is not meant to specifically compare the two players as that would be ludicrous. Technically, however, there is a similarity and that's what impressed my friend and colleague Heath Pearce when he mentioned it a few weeks ago.
When I mention this to Pepi, he just smiles and confidently nods his head.
"There are players like Robert [Lewandowski] and Erling Haaland I compare my game to," he said. "I like to watch their movements and do some video on them and like to prepare myself for them, so Lewandowski is one of the best strikers in the world and I like to compare myself to him. A lot."
When Pepi says he likes to do some videos on them, he is playing it down. Pepi is a student of the game, and tapes matches of Lewandowski and Haaland in order to study every single touch, movement and positional choice on the pitch.
Pepi absorbs this game as a student. On and off the pitch.
Since the conversation shifted to European strikers, he knows the question is coming. Does he see himself in Europe in the future?
"At the moment, my head is right here and right now in this place [FC Dallas] and we're in a very difficult spot right now so it's important to go out there and win games," Pepi said. "But whenever that decision comes, thinking about the future and Europe, that time will come, but right now I am focused on the moment and FC Dallas and the next few games."
He'll have to do it without Luchi Gonzalez, as the club released the manager of his duties Sunday shortly after a 3-2 loss to the Houston Dynamo. It hasn't been a great season for Dallas, with only six wins and nine draws. The playoffs, however, are not impossible to reach but things have to quickly turn around. Regardless, saying goodbye to Gonzalez was tough for Pepi. Understandable as this is the nature of the business, but tough nonetheless.
"I've been with Luchi since I was 13 and he's had a major role in my professional career and also joining the first team," Pepi said. "I just want to thank him for everything he's done for me and my family, supporting me in every step of the way since I've been here and thanks to him, I am here where I am now."
As a Latino, a dual-national, a Mexican-American, Pepi also exemplifies the identity of this nation. A kid from two worlds, born in one, cultured by the other and moulded by both. He welcomes this, he champions it, and most importantly, he looks forward to showing America that if they look hard enough, there are millions of kids ready to follow his footsteps.
Throughout the conversation, it's also clear to see how eager he is to show everyone what he can do. One single moment against Honduras is not enough. A hat-trick against the Galaxy is not enough. The winning penalty in an All-Star Game is not enough. Pepi wants more and wants to make sure we remember that there is more to come.
He is sure of himself, but not arrogant.
He's hungry but patient.
Above it all, however, Ricardo Pepi wants you to know he's ready.
"It's a very important moment for me," Pepi concluded. "I feel like I am really prepared for the moment and I'm ready for whatever comes ... and I am going to take it all."
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