USMNT forward Ricardo Pepi celebrates scoring against Austin FC Aug. 29 (Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
Nothing like getting thrown into the deep end of the pool to see how you can swim.
But then again, Ricardo Pepi has a history of coming of big in games when it truly counted.
In his pro debut with the North Texas Soccer Club March 31, 2019, Pepi recorded his first professional hat-trick.
He converted the final penalty kick for the Major League Soccer all-stars in their shootout win over their Liga MX counterparts in the MLS All-Star Game on Aug. 25.
And in the 18-year-old’s debut for the U.S. men’s national team, Pepi scored once and added two assists to boost the Americans to a 4-1 comeback triumph over Honduras in a World Cup qualifier in San Pedro Sula Wednesday night.
“I just go out there with the mindset of helping the team, doing my best and working hard for the team,” he said during a Zoom conference call with the media. “I feel like that’s always helped me.”
It remained to be seen whether the FC Dallas forward will become a regular striker for the U.S., but given the lack of production of other players up front, the job is probably his to lose at the moment.
Pepi committed to the USMNT before qualifying began, over the summer.
He did not play in the first two games, but was told by head coach Gregg Berhalter on the flight to Honduras Tuesday that he would start in the third and final qualifier of the week.
“I had a conversation with Gregg and he told me to go out there and do my thing,” he said. “I felt like he gave me a lot of confidence.
“I feel like I’ve worked hard for all these moments. I feel like I’ve prepared myself on and off the field for these moments.”
Berhalter certainly liked what he saw.
“He did a great job. I thought he worked tirelessly, competed against a physical center back and scored a really good goal,” he said. “Overall, I think he had a strong performance for an 18-year-old. It’s really impressive what he did.”
Pepi, who assisted on Antonee Robinson’s 48th-minute equalizer, made the most of his rare opportunity. He headed home a DeAndre Yedlin feed in the 75th minute, becoming the first USMNT player to score in his debut since Eddie Johnson did that in 2004.
“I was ready for that moment. I was ready for the opportunity, and I was waiting for the ball to come to me,” he said. “I feel like everything was perfect.”
After Cristian Roldan stole the ball from a Honduran player at midfield, Pepi motored down the right flank and slipped the ball to second-half substitute Brenden Aaronson for a 3-1 advantage in the 86th minute.
“I was going for goal. I just saw my teammate Brenden Aaronsson wide open, so I gave him the ball and he took care of business,” Pepi said.
He also was involved in the other two USA goals.
Pepi waited until after the game to let what he had accomplished to sink in.
“I got all the emotions throughout the game,” he said. “I know it was important to keep the lid on. It was important to keep working hard to get to three points. After the game, all my emotions came. I was just ready to celebrate the goal with the team. And props to the team for getting these three points.”