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SSFC Spotlight: Ricardo Pepi ramping up production

FC Dallas has yet another talented young player.

MLS: New England Revolution at FC Dallas Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

In something of a coming out party, Ricardo Pepi scored both goals in FC Dallas’ 2-1 victory over the New England Revolution, which has arguably been Major League Soccer’s best team this season. Despite limited minutes over the past three years, the American has a productive scoring rate, showing evidence of his high potential. In addition to increased playing time, the 18-year-old forward could be set for a big summer, competing at the 2021 CONCACAF Gold Cup while reportedly being eyed by clubs overseas.

Born in El Paso, Pepi left home to join the heralded FC Dallas Academy at 13 years old, benefitting from early physical development. His father was confident in the decision to send the young striker to the MLS team, describing succeeding in the youth setup as “the perfect world.” This journey as a prospect raised “near the United States-Mexico border” was profiled in a New York Times article by Sam Borden.

In Dallas, his days were a routine of morning training, school, and additional practice in the afternoon. Playing up several age levels, Pepi dominated the Development Academy with a league-best 19 goals and surpassed early expectations of a slow progression. In 2018, the club made him the reserve team’s first-ever signing, giving the then-15-year-old a four-year contract.

In his first professional match with North Texas SC, he registered a hat trick against the Chattanooga Red Wolves. Despite missing time with international duty, Pepi would go on to score 11 goals that season, helping lead the team to the USL League One regular season and playoff championships. Competing against men was a necessary physical challenge particularly for a player who had usually been one of the biggest on the field.

In June of that same year, Dallas called him up to the first team for an Open Cup match. A few weeks later, he was given a Homegrown contract and made nine total appearances. His former academy coach, Luchi Gonzalez, was now in charge of the club and had a plan for him to gain experience and prevent stagnation by ensuring “significant minutes” at the MLS and USL levels.

The next season, Pepi was a full-fledged member of the first team, adapting to the higher level of play during the COVID-shortened schedule. He made 19 total appearances, finding the back of the net three times. His best moment came at the most crucial of moments. Down 1-0 against the Portland Timbers in the first round of the MLS Cup playoffs, the striker entered the match as a substitute and managed to score an equal parts skillful and fortuitous goal. His successful penalty conversion in the shootout also helped to secure advancement.

“He always tries to show a great mentality, to learn and to be patient and to give everything at every opportunity,” Gonzalez said after the match. “So tonight was a product of that and I know he’s still going to learn a lot going forward, he has a great future. But he certainly showed that he can step in on the biggest stage, in a pressure moment when I need it most, and deliver. So I think it’s just the beginning for a player that’s going to support this club and have a career in the league.”

In 2021, Pepi appears to have taken the next step forward. He’s scored four times in nine appearances, an impressive rate of one goal every 95.5 minutes. The recent performance against the Revolution is a head-turner, displaying a confident striker with a potentially potent combination of size, athleticism, and technical ability. `

While he needs to establish himself with consistent production in regular playing time, his future appears to be far beyond MLS. Last winter, Pepi was one of six Dallas players invited to train with Bayern Munich, a second stint with the Bundesliga giants. Juventus, apparently on the lookout for the next American star, was reportedly scouting him, although “no move is imminent.” A more recent taste of tantalizing transfer news emerged from a Twitter discussion between football journalists Fabrizio Romano and Manuel Veth. According to the former, “Two Italian clubs” were interested in January, while the latter shared that “German clubs” could also make a move.

At the international level, Pepi is a dual-national who in the past accepted invitations to Mexican camps. He was a fixture with the U.S. U-17 team, a commitment that was a difficult decision considering his family’s support of El Tri. The striker played a key role in helping the squad reach the 2019 U-17 World Cup and featured in two matches at the competition. Despite being curiously left out of the doomed Tokyo Olympics qualifying campaign, Gregg Berhalter named him to the 59-player provisional roster for the 2021 CONCACAF Gold Cup. Inclusion in the final group would provide the opportunity to perform on the biggest stage of his career, a chance to advertise his abilities against a more advanced level of opponent.

A “brave, creative, mobile” forward, Pepi is viewed in Dallas as a mature, coachable player who is a “tireless worker at practice.” In addition to scoring, his link-up play and field switches fulfill the distribution responsibilities required of a target striker. A delicate touch with the ball and deceptive mobility belie his larger frame, allowing for occasional deployment on the wing and to thrive in a variety of attacking systems.

One of his greatest strengths is the basic ability to get open, a natural instinct to put himself in a position to receive passes in advantageous areas behind the back line. He is capable in possession, completing an above average number of attempts. On the defensive side of the ball, Pepi frequently presses the back line and forces turnovers. One area for improvement is retaining the ball, as well as his self-evaluation of “learning more about the game and probably getting stronger.”

Strikers can go through periods of feast or famine, with torrid form ideally occurring in tandem with major international competitions. Already featuring several promising talents, the USMNT benefits from a diverse and deep group of attackers to weather those individual peaks and valleys. Pepi appears to be on track to join that depth chart, possibly in the near future for the Gold Cup. At only 18 years old, he has displayed a penchant for big moments and confidence well beyond his years, a potential star ready to be unleashed for both club and country.