For all the attention given to the courtship of 21-year-old Folarin Balogun, the USMNT already has in its midst the center forward of the future.
That player is 20-year-old Ricardo Pepi, who was the USMNT's center forward of the future as recently as a year ago until he wasn't.
Pepi scored three goals in his first two national team games to give the USA wins over Honduras (4-1) and Jamaica (2-0) that jump-started its World Cup 2022 qualifying camp, but those were the last goals he scored for the USA until he scored three goals in the Concacaf Nations League wins over Grenada (7-1) and El Salvador (1-0), ending a 10-game scoring drought.
"It is been a roller coaster, to be honest," he said after his goal against El Salvador. "Happy to be just in the squad, scoring goals again after missing the World Cup."
That drought spilled over to the club level, where his reported $20 million transfer from FC Dallas to Augsburg proved to be a bust. He failed to score in 15 Bundesliga games and he was loaned out to Dutch club Groningen. He rediscovered his scoring form in the Eredivisie but it was too late.
Pepi wasn't picked by head coach Gregg Berhalter for the U.S. World Cup team, which included forwards Josh Sargent, Haji Wright and Jesus Ferreira.
"I remember exactly the moment," Pepi told the Kon Veel Minder podcast in January. "I hopped on a phone call with [the] national team coach. He said I wasn't on the roster so then I just hung up the phone on him."
Pepi was not called into last year's four-game June window — Berhalter said Pepi needed a break after his difficult move to Augsburg — but he was picked for the two games in late September against Japan and Saudi Arabia. He was in shock after being passed over.
"It took me five minutes to get it in my mind," he said. "I just couldn't believe it ... I called my agent immediately and then I called my dad. They thought I was playing with them."
USMNT: Center forward production (2022-23)
• Ricardo Pepi, 87 minutes, 3 goals
• Brandon Vazquez, 90 minutes, 1 goal
• Daryl Dike, 93 minutes
• Jesus Ferreira, 63 minutes
• Matthew Hoppe, 27 minutes
Games: 4. Goals: 4 (2 vs. Grenada, 1 vs. Serbia, 1 vs. El Salvador).
• Jesus Ferreira, 567 minutes, 5 goals, 1 assist
• Haji Wright, 254 minutes, 2 goals
• Ricardo, Pepi, 277 minutes
• Josh Sargent, 203 minutes
• Gyasi Zardes, 87 minutes
• Jordan Pefok, 30 minutes
Games: 16. Goals: 7 (4 vs. Grenada, 1 vs. Panama, 1 vs. Uruguay, 1 vs. Netherlands).
Pepi scored five goals in eight Eredivisie games for Groningen before the World Cup announcement and has added four since then to give him nine goals, tied for seventh in the league.
“I understand the disappointment that he had missing out on the World Cup," said Anthony Hudson, who was an assistant coach under Berhalter on the World Cup team and is now the interim coach. "I can’t imagine what that must have felt like for him, for a young player to go through that. I would say this for a lot of the young players going over there: It’s not easy. I think slowly now, he’s really finding form, finding confidence, and he’s been doing well.”
Hudson went to Europe this winter to visit national team players and assess their form.
"I think you notice straight away that it's tough for these young guys," he said after Pepi's two goals in the win at Grenada. "There's a lot of pressure on them. Some of them are on their own. They don't have family. Family come and visit every now and then. They're integrating into a new culture and language, all of these different things. It's important to go over there and really see it and appreciate that. It's tough, and I think Ricardo's had a tough start over there."
Pepi has been scoring for Groningen, but it collapsed after play resumed following the World Cup break and it sits in the relegation zone. What Hudson appreciates is Pepi's work rate up top.
"One thing we've seen from Ricardo," he said, "is that he is constantly working for his team in Holland, constantly leading the line, constantly running behind the line. For a player who doesn't always get the service, he's just always running behind the line and working and pressing. And he's got an incredible attitude. He's a great guy. He's a really great guy to have around. So I'm just pleased that he's come in and I'm pleased that he's done well."
The USMNT has often been a refuge for players who have struggled abroad or whose clubs are in difficult positions, like Pepi at Groningen.
“They’re not in a great place in the table," Hudson said, "and it sometimes can be tough when you're down there at that end of the table. When you come out of that environment, you come back to your national team environment, it sort of gives you a little bit of a break, which I think that in itself helped him."
For all his ups and downs, Pepi is further along than Balogun was at his age. He's the third youngest USMNT player to score six international goals behind only Landon Donovan and Jozy Altidore.
Pepi had scored 25 goals in 96 games for FC Dallas, Augsburg and Groningen. Balogun has enjoyed a breakout season at Reims with 17 Ligue 1 goals, but before that when he was 20 — Pepi's current age — he's scored only three goals in 20 games for Arsenal and Middlesbrough in the League Championship. (Most of Balogun's time was spent with Arsenal's U-23s in the Premier League 2.)
Pepi's two goals against Grenada were easy, but his goal against El Salvador, two minutes after entering the game, showed off all his talents.
He ran on to a through ball from Weston McKennie, took a touch and held off defender Roberto Domínguez before chipping the ball delicately with his right foot over Salvadoran keeper Mario Gonzalez.
"I think I made a big statement tonight," Pepi said, "and I'm just happy to be fighting with my teammates again and helping them out."
Photos: Concacaf.com, Imago/ANP