There was a moment — officially 81 of them – when it seemed plausible the United States men’s national team could be swallowed by another Trinidad and Tobago calamity. It took nearly the length of an entire soccer game before that burgeoning sense of dread could be erased in a flash by the foot of Ricardo Pepi, his opportunism transforming the night into a celebration for those watching in Austin and across the American fan base.
What a long night it could have been for everyone with the USMNT had Pepi not slashed in front of a defender to flick Jedi Robinson’s pass off the goalkeeper’s fingertips and into the left corner of the net. That was followed by two more goals inside the next 8 minutes and a 3-0 U.S. victory that provides a comfortable aggregate advantage entering Monday’s second game.
It took forever to conjure that first goal. The USMNT entered the opening game of the two-leg series in this CONCACAF Nations League quarterfinal without the two players who’ve been their most consistently impactful attackers since last autumn’s World Cup, Christian Pulisic and Timothy Weah. They encountered a T&T team perfectly content to build a wall of defenders in front of their goal and worry not about scoring until they returned home for the second game. When midfielder Noah Power was ejected for picking up two yellow cards in the first half, they thought even less about trying to grab a goal.
On the night, the U.S. fired 26 shots, and eight of them went on goal. They commanded better than 75 percent of possession and completed 444 more passes than Trinidad. And all of that did not result in the goal so badly needed until Pepi knocked in that one just 15 minutes after entering the game off the bench. It was his fifth international goal as a substitute in 2023, making him the first USMNT player ever to score five times off the bench in a calendar year.
That is not his only distinction as a national team player. How many ever have traveled the road with this team that Pepi has since committing to the United States over Mexico in August 2021? How many ever endured such painful lows so soon after reaching amazing heights and recovered to perform at this level? And all within the boundaries of the first three years of his 20s?
“I feel the most important thing is my mentality: Whenever I come on the pitch, it’s just about going in and doing the best I can for the team,” Pepi told Turner Sports. “And, hopefully, I can score. Wanting to score goals and helping the team is what’s driving me.”
The USMNT’s seemingly perpetual search for a dangerous striker appeared to have been satisfied when Pepi pledged his international future to the Yanks. He scored three goals in his first two games, both World Cup qualifiers, one of them the game-winner in a heroic comeback on the road against Honduras.
And then: nothing.
For the national team, he did not score again for 18 months. During that time, he transferred from FC Dallas of Major League Soccer to Augsburg of Germany’s Bundesliga. He didn’t score for them, either. And that drought, even though it was technically broken following Pepi’s move to Holland’s Eredivisie, led USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter to leave him off the roster for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
“I think that’s in the past. He’s shown it early and often this year that he left the disappointment in the past,” Berhalter told reporters following the win over T&T. “More importantly, I had a conversation with him about his club situation. He’s a backup there, he’s a backup here, and all he’s doing is everything he can. All he does is: When he gets the opportunity, he takes advantage of it.
“And he’s in a great spot. If you think about it, his team in its league is undefeated, they’re doing well in Champions League. Last year, his team was relegated. The year before, he wasn’t playing at Augsburg. So he’s significantly increased his situation. For us, he’s established himself as a guy that’s hard to take out, because he keeps performing.”
That was an odd choice of wording from Berhalter. Because Pepi rarely is part of the starting lineup – he last opened a game for the USMNT in March – it might have been appropriate to say he’s an easy guy to put into the game.
That’s another daunting aspect of Pepi’s journey: While he was in the process of recovering his scoring touch, the U.S. was out pursuing another dual-national candidate to play the same position: Folarin Balogun, now with AS Monaco. Balogun became an immediate starter.
Against Trinidad and Tobago, Pepi did not enter until the 66th minute, but Berhalter wisely chose to remove winger Malik Tillman and allow his two most potent strikers to play together. Each was involved in a goal.
“There were a few clips at halftime that we saw where we just had no occupation in the penalty box,” Berhalter told The Sporting News. “It was only Balo against three guys.
“We had a ring of players outside the penalty box, and none of them inside. So we had to adjust that … We wanted to put their defense in problems, we wanted to make it difficult for them, so Rico was a perfect fit for that.”
This also was, for Pepi, the perfect venue. Or, close enough. It might have been more fitting had the game been played at Toyota Stadium near Dallas. But it was in Texas, so close enough. Pepi was born in El Paso and grew up as a player at FC Dallas, and he has scored three of his 10 international goals at Austin’s Q2 Stadium. The thrill of rescuing this game for the U.S. obviously impacted his assembled family, some of whom were in tears when he joined them for a hug following the final whistle.
“Being a Texas boy, it feels like I’m at home. There’s no way I wasn’t going to score here. And, you know, it’s just a special moment.”
It has been said the hardest thing in soccer is to score goals, but that’s not entirely accurate. It’s even harder to score them consistenty in limited opportunties, in brief appearances. That takes an exceptional person. For Pepi still to be smiling after all he has endured in such a short time, he seems worthy of such an adjective.