United States’ Recardo Pepi makes case for striker role with stellar showing against Jamaica

United States’ Recardo Pepi made the case for a striker role with his stellar showing against Jamaica. The U.S. Men’s National Team has struggled to find a consistent goalscorer, but Pepi looked like he could be that man in his first game of 2018.

AUSTIN, Texas (KTRK) — Striker Ricardo Pepi glanced to the sideline in the 68th minute of the US’ 2-0 victory against Jamaica on Thursday night and spotted his number on the replacement board. He quietly trotted toward the bench, and the American supporters at Q2 Stadium rose to their feet as he did so.

Some erupted in applause, while others shouted his name.

“Pe-pi, Pe-pi, Pe-pi,” says the narrator.

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The scene may have looked fanciful two months ago, and it probably still does for Pepi. Pepi, on the other hand, earned his hero’s exit after scoring two second-half goals to give the United States a dominating lead in a crucial World Cup qualifying match.

Pepi, an El Paso native who chose the United States over Mexico in August, said, “It’s a unique feeling being able to simply score here in Texas.” “Not just in Texas, but also in front of our supporters. It’s an incredible sensation.”

Pepi, who is 18 years old, became the second-youngest player in USMNT history to score in back-to-back games and the second-youngest to have a multi-goal game in a World Cup qualifier, behind only Christian Pulisic.

His brilliance against Honduras in the second half last month saved the US after two draws to start the qualifying campaign, and his performance in Austin guaranteed that chances would continue to come his way. The sample size is small enough to avoid overreaction, but Pepi’s ascension is the most dramatic the club has seen in years at the position.

“Everyone is ecstatic,” Berhalter remarked. “We’re simply sitting there, waiting for the train. He’s an 18-year-old who recognizes an opportunity and seizes it. What you see and what I admire about him is that he has this sense, which is very difficult to teach to players.”

Pepi’s first goal, scored in the 49th minute, highlighted why American soccer’s future has never been brighter. Sergino Dest, a 20-year-old Barcelona right-back, began the move by passing centrally to Yunus Musah, an 18-year-old Valencia midfielder, just beyond the midfield line. He moved the ball forward and, as he neared the penalty area, passed it back to Dest, whose cross found Pepi’s head to put the United States ahead.

After scoring a goal against Jamaica in World Cup qualification, US players celebrate. courtesy of Getty Images

Thirteen minutes later, Antonee Robinson, a 24-year-old Fulham left defender, found Brenden Aaronson, a 20-year-old FC Salzburg striker, in space, who delivered a beautiful pass to Pepi’s feet. The FC Dallas attacker had beaten his man and scored gently, throwing the crowd into a frenzy.

Aaronson remarked, “I think he’s really developed into this attacker that is just so lethal in the box.” “He’s a person who is constantly present. It’s a dream for a midfielder/winger like me to play alongside a striker like him because you know he’ll be in these positions.”

The starting XI for the United States was the second youngest (average age 23 years, 111 days) it has ever fielded for a World Cup qualifier, behind only the team Berhalter played the previous time out.

Musah was another standout performer, putting up a strong showing in his maiden World Cup qualifier. After an inconclusive COVID test on Wednesday morning, Berhalter’s availability was questioned until shortly before the team supper that night, when he was given the go light. Musah plays on the flank for Valencia out of necessity, but he prefers to play in the center, which is where he was placed against Jamaica as part of a midfield trio that featured Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie. His ability to move the ball on the dribble, something the squad has lacked in the past, looks to be crucial for the remainder of qualifying.

With Jamaica near the bottom of the qualifying rankings, it was the kind of game the Americans should have expected to win, but they were nonetheless pleased with their performance.

Even without top strikers Giovanni Reyna and Pulisic, who are both out due to injury, the US dominated the game from start to finish on Thursday.

Paul Arriola was passed in behind by Pepi in the first 20 seconds of the game, only to be hauled down by defender Kemar Lawrence around 12 yards outside the penalty box. There was no one between Arriola and the goal, prompting calls for a red card, but the referee — Reon Radix of Grenada, who was working his first World Cup qualifier — gave Lawrence yellow after consulting with the linesman.

In the 33rd minute, Aaronson was tackled from behind by Damion Lowe, inches outside the box and free on goal, forcing Radix to make another tough judgment. Lowe seemed to grab the ball cleanly, but Radix’s judgment made it obvious that he didn’t agree, which made it a strange choice when he showed yellow once again.

The United States was unable to capitalize on either of the following free kicks, raising concerns about why CONCACAF has not made the required investments throughout the region to guarantee VAR can be used in qualification. It wouldn’t be a problem in any stadium in the United States, where VAR has been utilized in Major League Soccer since 2017, but the Federation says the absence of infrastructure in certain member countries is a barrier.

McKennie’s return to the lineup was announced on Wednesday, and although he didn’t stick out, Berhalter praised him for doing a “professional job.” After been sent back to Juventus early last window for breaching COVID rules, his readmission into the squad was a crucial step in the team’s effort to close the door on that chapter.

Following Mexico’s 1-1 draw with Canada, the US and El Tri are tied for first place in the qualification rankings with eight points after four games. The Americans will play in Panama on Sunday before coming home to face Costa Rica in Columbus, Ohio, on Wednesday to finish out the window.

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