Does Ricardo Pepi Have Staying Power as the USMNT’s Latest No. 9?
He did it all against Honduras. To earn that opportunity, he turned heads in MLS. Next up for Ricardo Pepi: proving it’s sustainable on the international stage. That begins tonight in Texas against Jamaica.
In the battle over dual-national players, especially when it comes to players with eligibility for Mexico and the United States, the latter has rarely been the victor. If someone has the chance to play for El Tricolor, inevitably it seems, they do. Ricardo Pepi’s recent decision to play for the U.S. men’s national team over Mexico’s is exciting from the U.S. perspective and another example of the impact MLS can have on the future of the USMNT. But just how excited should American fans be? Was the game against Honduras a flash in the pan? What kind of player is joining the roster for the latest qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup?
Pepi is an 18-year-old FC Dallas Homegrown striker. Just a kid. Born in El Paso, Texas to parents of Mexican descent, Pepi spent much of his time bouncing between his hometown and Ciudad Juárez where many of his friends and family lived. Standing at a lanky 6-foot-1, his penchant for dribbling defenders combined with unceasing runs away from center backs has earned him the nickname “El Tren.” Despite his youth, the train has appeared in 27 of Dallas’ 29 regular season matches.
As a striker, you don’t see the field very much if you don’t score goals. Pepi is no exception here. His 13 goals lead the team by far with Jáder Obrian a distant second with eight. In fact, Pepi has scored more than a third (34%) of Dallas’ 38 goals on the season. Across MLS goalscorers, he’s sixth in his contribution toward a team’s total goals.
As we can see, in true No. 9 fashion, Pepi has yet to score from outside of the box. And in true quality No. 9 fashion, he’s surpassing the levels of an average player by scoring more goals than expected. His non-penalty xG overperformance of 4.05 is the fourth highest in MLS, and if he’s able to sustain that over time, it’s a key indicator of excellent finishing ability.
Pepi’s frame and strength allow him to create the necessary space to get shots off. He has easy power, so his shots can arrive quickly and by surprise with little to no back-lift from his shooting leg. He also has excellent shooting accuracy. Of the 64 shots he’s attempted, he’s put 31 on goal (48%). That puts him in the top five of anyone who’s attempted 50 or more shots in the league. In his attacking pitch map above, notice the goal the farthest to the right. It came from a breakaway on Aug. 29 against Austin FC on which he had plenty of time to dribble more towards the middle for a more favorable angle. Instead, he demonstrated his confidence and composure, took his time, and fired it by the goalkeeper with ease.
Pepi does most of his damage through the middle of the field and in the box but isn’t simply a one-dimensional poacher. He spends much of his time splitting center backs, making runs off their shoulders while often angling towards the wing. Once he’s cycled the ball, he’ll often head towards the far post and wait in a defender’s blind spot. However, he doesn’t have an issue dropping into the midfield to be a release valve from pressure and letting teammates run off of him. Take a look at his touch map from the previously mentioned Austin match, an impressive outing where he tallied two goals and an assist earlier this season.
Despite being a central striker, he has plenty of touches just ahead of the center circle, where he’ll drop to help his defense and midfield move the ball forward.
He’s also shown an ability to be productive and active out of possession. He’s compiled 15 balls won in the final third, which is second among all Dallas players. If we look at the touch map above, one of those nearest the six-yard box was a defensive touch. He applied strong pressure on the goalkeeper, managed to nick the ball away, and assisted Jesus Ferreira on one of the easiest goals he’ll ever score.
Pepi’s skillset is multifaceted, and one of the many reasons he’s not going away any time soon. His debut for the USMNT versus Honduras exemplified this perfectly, where he contributed to each U.S. goal in different ways.
For the first goal, it was about strength and intelligence. He won a duel at midfield to start the attack, then made a dangerous run in the box, creating a vast space for Antonee Robinson to finish the play.
On the second goal, Pepi’s size and athleticism were obvious. He rose above the defenders and headed home a cross with aplomb.
For the third, he showed his pace and awareness, attacking an unsettled defense directly with speed. With pressure from two defenders, he still assisted Brendan Aaronson with a clever cut-back.
In the last goal, it was his quick and accurate shooting that forced a tip save by the Honduran goalkeeper. What resulted was an easy rebound to fall to Sebastian Lletget, who finished in the empty net.
With Pepi, the United States have managed to both add an excellent prospect to their player pool and take one away from their neighbors, Mexico. He’s not perfect, of course. A few numbers that hint at his age are his ground and aerial duel percentages – 37% and 29% respectively – which could improve over time.
Nonetheless, from a USMNT perspective, fans should be encouraged without yet expecting the world from an 18-year-old. His explosion against Honduras will be difficult to replicate, but it was no one-off effort. He has shown over the 2021 MLS season that he can shoulder the load of an out-and-out striker for a professional club, and if he’s able to reproduce his MLS attacking efficiency over a sustained period of time with the national team, USMNT fans should be and will be ecstatic. Next up on the international stage: tonight against Jamaica in Pepi’s home state of Texas.
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