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Ricardo Pepi gives USMNT needed scoring boost again in World Cup qualifying win
United States

Ricardo Pepi gives USMNT needed scoring boost again in World Cup qualifying win

Updated Oct. 8, 2021 12:52 a.m. ET

By Doug McIntyre
FOX Sports Soccer Writer

A U.S. men’s national team missing key attackers Christian Pulisic and Giovanni Reyna kicked off its second three-match World Cup qualifying window in two months with a 2-0 victory against Jamaica on Thursday in Austin, Texas. And just as he was in the 4-1 win in Honduras in September, Ricardo Pepi was the showstopper.

After a pair of controversial plays that could have reduced the Reggae Boyz to 10 men went against the hosts in the first half, the Americans dominated the second, with the 18-year-old Pepi scoring twice, including the game-winner for the second consecutive match.


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"What I really like is he has this instinct, and it’s really hard to teach that to players," U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter said of Pepi. "He has an instinct to score."

Here are three quick thoughts on Thursday's contest.

1. Pepi does it again

The FC Dallas striker earned the start after his heroics in San Pedro Sula, where he was involved in every U.S. goal. As in that match, Pepi shook off a difficult first half in this one — a slick through-pass to Paul Arriola (more on that later) was his main contribution — to become the difference-maker in the second.

"It’s about being patient," Pepi said. "I feel like if you ask any striker, whenever you don’t touch the ball a lot, when you don’t get a lot of [scoring] opportunities, you just gotta stay ready for when you do get a chance."

That might be the most impressive trait Pepi possesses after his ice-cool finishing: mentality. Despite his tender age and lack of experience — this was his second USMNT appearance — the young man doesn’t seem to get fazed, even in the white-hot cauldron of CONCACAF qualifying.

"I feel like it’s coming. I don’t know if it’s too fast or too slow," Pepi said of his rapid rise to the top of the USMNT’s scoring chart. "I feel like I have to be ready for it, be prepared."

Through four games, Berhalter has started eight different forwards and 23 players in all. With two more matches looming, he could be tempted to rest Pepi, whom he subbed out of the match with just more than 20 minutes to go. On the other hand, how can Berhalter keep him off the field?

"He’s really grown into this striker that is so deadly in the box," said winger Brendan Aaronson, who assisted on Pepi’s second goal. "It’s a dream to play with a striker like him because you know he’s going to be in those spots. His hold-up play is good, he plays simple, he doesn’t try to do too much. And when he gets in the box, he scores. That’s something you can see.

"It’s unbelievable what he’s doing. The sky is the limit for him."

2. The shorthanded USMNT’s game plan worked to perfection

With shifty dribblers Pulisic (ankle) and Reyna (hamstring) unavailable, Berhalter instructed his team to use long passes to get behind the Jamaican defense. Right from the start, the scheme put Theodore Whitmore’s side under pressure.

"The first thing we wanted to do was take it to them," Aaronson said. "We executed the game plan."

The intent was clear even if things didn’t click right away. In the second half, everything came together. As much credit as Pepi deserves for his second straight Man of the Match performance, both of his strikes were team goals. On the first, Yunus Musah surged out of the midfield and played the ball wide for Sergiño Dest, who sent a pinpoint cross onto Pepi’s forehead with his first touch.

On the second, left back Antonee Robinson found Aaronson streaking into space in the middle. Aaronson, who again was dangerous throughout, put his pass right onto Pepi’s foot to double the advantage.

"That’s something we’ve been working on: telling each other that we need to work as a team," Aaronson said. "We did."

It was important to see after the U.S. struggled to find any sort of sustained chemistry last month. It also bodes well for the games against Los Canaleros and Costa Rica, provided these young Americans maintain their focus. This was the second-youngest USMNT lineup for a qualifier. The match before it was the youngest.

"We can’t get too carried away," Berhalter said. "It was excellent intensity. Everything was pretty good about this game. The trap is going to be us thinking we’re great or that we’ve qualified for the World Cup. And if we do that, we’ll get our ass kicked in Panama on Sunday."

3. The atrocious officiating could’ve changed the outcome

In his first World Cup qualifying match, referee Reon Radix had a shocker. Less than a minute in, Radix decided not to issue a red card to Jamaican fullback Kemar Lawrence for yanking Arriola, who had only keeper Andre Blake to beat, down by his collar. The rules say that’s an automatic red card. 

"He’s through on goal, you know?" Aaronson said. 

But with no video assistant referee in use during CONCACAF’s qualifying tournament, Lawrence stayed on the field.

Radix did it again when he gave Damion Lowe a yellow for tripping up Aaronson in the 32nd minute, even though Lowe was clearly the last defender.

In a home qualifier four years ago against Costa Rica, Jozy Altidore was not awarded a penalty kick for a stone-cold early foul. The U.S. went on to lose that game — a defeat that contributed mightily to their missing the following year’s World Cup. The officiating errors on Thursday didn’t impact the result, but they could’ve. CONCACAF has to do better.

One of the most prominent soccer journalists in North America, Doug McIntyre has covered United States men’s and women’s national teams in more than a dozen countries, including multiple FIFA World Cups. Before joining FOX Sports, the New York City native was a staff writer for Yahoo Sports and ESPN. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.


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