Ricardo Pepi: “Not being able to make it to that[Olympic] team, it just made me hungry.” (USA TODAY NETWORK)
By Michael Lewis
The mark of a good striker?
It’s when they make something out of nothing.
In many respects that’s what Ricardo Pepi did when he discovered he was not included on the U.S. Under-23 roster for Olympic qualifying earlier this year.
“I feel like that was a turning point to my whole year,” he said during a media Zoom conference call on Friday afternoon. “Not being able to make it to that team, it just made me hungry. It made me hungry to to go on for the for the year for my club to go for the national team.”
And what a year it has been.
The 18-year-old scored 13 goals and added three assists for FC Dallas and has collected three goals in six appearances for the U.S. men’s national team. And that included his first two World Cup qualifying goals in two wins.
Not surprisingly, that has led to much hoopla about the teenager for club and country and some speculation could wind up playing for a European side much sooner than later.
“I have had conversations with him,” USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter said. “I’m really impressed with how he’s handling all this, 18-years-old being the starting striker for the U.S. national team is a big responsibility. With all these rumors going around about clubs and this and that, and he’s handled it really well. He’s focused on getting better each and every day on the training pitch, and using every opportunity on the field to have a good game. I think that bodes well for his future to be able to handle pressure in situations like this.”
Pepi will have a seventh opportunity to suit up for the USA when it hosts Bosnia and Herzegovina in a friendly in Carson, Calif. on Saturday at 8:15 p.m. ET.
He hasn’t played in a month, since a 1-1 draw in Jamaica on Nov. 16.
“With the World Cup qualifiers coming soon and I want to be part of that group,” he said of the January-February window. “I want to be able to get my rhythm back, get on the ball again and be able to play a game.”
And score some goals.
Given his ability to fill the net for club and country, there has been plenty of speculation about Pepi joining a new club across the Atlantic Ocean. But that isn’t necessarily on his mind right now.
“I feel like that moment is not yet to be decided,” he said. “I feel like I have a game here. I mean, that’s my main focus at the moment. I feel like now we got to focus on the game and whatever happens is going to happen. But we just got to be patient.”
While answering another question, Pepi had a similar answer.
“I can’t think about the past, I can’t think about the future,” he said. “I’ve got live in the moment and focus on what’s next and what’s next is a game we have tomorrow. And it’s a very important game for not only us, but for the team.”
Strong words for a teenager who competes for a national team.
He might be just 18 – Pepi will turn 19 on Jan. 9 – but in some respects, his experience and wisdom can belie his age. He is able to talk to players in camp who have dual nationalities and can play for either the USA or Mexico. One example of former Louisville City FC left back Jonathan Gomez, who has transferred to Real Sociedad B in Spain.
Earlier this year, the 6-1, 163-lb. Pepi choose the Red, White and Blue over El Tri.
“Players like Jonathan Gomez, I’m always open to talk to them,” Pepi said. “I always just tell him to just do do whatever you think is best. go with your heart and I’ve always said, whatever you think is the best for you. You take that choice. I don’t personally go up to them because I feel like you know that’s their space. That’s just personal. I let them come to me and if they do come to me, then I try to do my best to to help them out.”
Yeah, it does sound crazy for an 18-year-old to be a voice of wisdom, but Pepi is mature for his age. And with so many uncapped players in camp this time, he gets to be with ones of his generation.
“There’s a lot of different players, a lot of young players,” he said. “I feel like the most important thing is that we’re all here to compete and be able to earn a spot and win the game we have on tomorrow. It’s important that we all stay here and focus on the same thing, and we move forward as a team.”
Sounds like a grizzled and focused veteran who knows what it’s all about, doesn’t it?