USMNT's center forward of the future might already be in its midst

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
: 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
: 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:, Imago/ANP

17 comments about "USMNT's center forward of the future might already be in its midst".
  1. frank schoon, March 30, 2023 at 9:59 a.m.

    Why not interview Pepi about what he has learned in Holland about offensive play and scoring and just soccer in general ,there. No doubt, it was his good fortune to go to Holland.And ask him what the difference is playing in Holland vs in Germany. How did the dutch training help him score better.

    I,the American soccer fan should not jump for joy and think we have a real goal getter, fianlly. Scoring 2 goals against  Granada's All-Star Pizza Hut, is not a good example... The goal he scored against ES was better, but if he didn't and that McKennies was off than we wouldn't be discussing the future goal getter .... Pepi was lucky he was facing a chubby ,slow,defender, who could not keep up with Pepi. Furthermore that goalie should never have come out of his goal and committed to go down first, but should have waited and just caught off the angle, first. The goalie broke the golden rule and that is ,as long as the defender is next to the scorer don't come out and commit.

    Realize ,it is not the goal that is scored to judge if you have an upcoming goal getter in your midst but judge all the other things that lead up right before the shot that you judge a goal getter on, his tool box so to speak.

  2. Goal Goal replied, March 30, 2023 at 6:09 p.m.

    We have a tendency to make stars out of our athletes far to soon in this country.  However yesterday I think I was looking at an article in ESPN and they rated the top 39 soccer players in the world under age 21 and low and behold the Reyna kid is there.  How does that work?

  3. humble 1 replied, March 30, 2023 at 11:07 p.m.

    Frank, journalists here, just won't have the background to write the technical material.  Even coaches and many that have 'played the game' here cannot.  Soccer, as we call it here, the bulk of folks experience here, is HS and College.  This is with the countdown clock and unlimited sub, and re-subsititution.  This is not football or 'voetbal'.  For sure Pepi is in space where he will learn.  Whether he takes notes, and records and returns to the USA to one day implement a version of this as a coach or teacher, this is another matter all together.  This is what would be necessary.  I became aware from a Hungarian trainer and subsequently a Croatian, the continental European approach to the game at the youth level.  It helped me understand.  Can I train as they do, impossible.  These guys had experience as players and coaches, dedicated their lives.  They did it for passion not pesos.  We are making progress. Long way to go.  Everyone trying to monetize the game here, is another of many stumbling blocks in our path.  My player has the passion. It is a marathon, voetbal, calcio, futbol, soccer, not a sprint, in all aspects.  One step, one player, one coach, at a time.  Keep it going!     

  4. frank schoon replied, March 31, 2023 at 11:42 a.m.

    Guys, look at the pressure Christian Pulisic has been under since he joined Dortmunt, England ,the NT. I read in some American publication or media that he is world star, along with other nonsense. This kid with all the press he has gotten all this puts him under pressure to perform...If you saw him play against ES, and then look at his face, I saw a face telling me he's is frustrated, not happy....He works his butt ,running back to midfield. If Cruyff was coaching this kid like he did with Bergkamp when was young, he would have told him, "Go out and have fun, and don't worry about your immediate opponent, for he sucks; and don't run like an idiot back on defense for you lose all your attacking energy ". This is exactly what he stated to Bergkmap.....

    Look at Pepi, Reyna, idem ditto. Players like that who have some (not necessarily Pepi) need to be guided by people who have played the game, who have a feel what is needed at their current stage of development. But Instead we get A-licensed Rumdumb who played defense in division 3 or somebody with a coaching license who likewise doesn't have the talent and knowledge to understand the finer aspects of the game.
    It behooves those to look at things with a more realistic eye. We haven't in 50years yet to develop, naturally or otherwise with good development a player that the world can enjoy for his great passing or dribbling or thinking abilities. We need to backoff with all the hyperbolies...

  5. Kevin Leahy, March 30, 2023 at 10:37 a.m.

    It's overreactions to the young players in the group that, makes me a little crazy. He wasn't dead in the water before the WC and he isn't top of the heap now. He also had some glaring misses in the last two matches. The ability to score or create goals for your team on a consistent basis is what the USMNT needs. 

  6. Frans Vischer, March 30, 2023 at 11:42 a.m.

    Frank, I think you're being a bit hard on Pepi. Granted, the 2 goals vs Granada mean nothing, and the ES defense was tiring when Pepi entered. But he fought off a bigger player, and under pressure made a good decision and executed with a deft touch to score. Very Dutch. 
    He should have scored again, and he wasn't always sharp, but generally his first touch was quite good. And he looked confident.
    That all said, It's silly to call him THE striker for this team. Pepi has lots to learn, but he's only 20. Hopefully Groningen can stay up, and he gets another year in the Eredivisie and really learn how to be a striker. 

  7. frank schoon replied, March 30, 2023 at 11:51 a.m.

    Frans, I'm not hard ,I'm being realistic and besides, if I'm hard it is only to those who go nuts over his accomplishments.  I remember when Pepi first came on the scene 2years scoring those 2 goals, he was all of sudden  pushed as the new goal getter , which is so overdone and overhyped, while he hasn't even the game ,yet....We need to put the brakes on our judgement and wait till gets consistency, which is not salient in Pepi's development currently

  8. Bob Ashpole replied, March 30, 2023 at 1:23 p.m.

    The article claimed that Pepi the USMNT's star striker. The article wasn't speculative; it was definite. US media and fans habitually proclaim young players as international stars. The problem is that it places unreasonable expectations and unnecessary stress on young athletes who already are under lots of stress.

    Frank didn't say that the player didn't have potential. He was just throwing cold water on unreasonable expectations. I have no doubt that Frank can build a compliment sandwich as well as any coach, but why build one here?

    Frans, I have read both comments and thought you and Frank are saying the same thing, just in different words.  

  9. frank schoon replied, March 30, 2023 at 2:02 p.m.

    Bob, we're both Dutch :)

  10. humble 1 replied, March 30, 2023 at 10:52 p.m.

    If Groningen goes down, then Pepi did not have a huge positive impact.  I own a Groningen jersey from 2005/6, it bears the #9, the number Luis Suarez wore.  He was 19 when he arrived Groningen.  The impact of Suarez was felt on that team.  He changed their trajectory.  A year later he was at Ajax.  He will never be forgotten at Groningen.  Look up the Groningen Umbrella Game and Luis Suarez - you will see the story.  He did not hit the ground running - it took time - but his single year at 19 revealed his greatness to come.  If Pepi cannot lift Groningen from relegation, it does not mean he is not a good striker, it does mean, he is probably not destined for greatness.  Could be, but not likely as greatness in the making has already been defined at Groningen.  Thank you. 

  11. frank schoon replied, March 31, 2023 at 8:22 a.m.

    Humble, I keep forgetting about Suarez having played for Groningen...I didn't expect Pepi to help Groningen, instead the other way around which ,I think, it did....

  12. humble 1 replied, April 3, 2023 at 2:05 p.m.

    Frank, for sure you are, again, correct.  What happened to Pepi was that Dallas got paid for him to move to Ausburg - and this was good for Dallas - but - not the right move for Pepi.  The history of translation of goals in MLS by players to goals in leagues around the world by players is pretty clear.  Ausburg messed up on this, Dallas had to take it, it was millions. Pepi, from a pure career development maybe should have nixed it, but, he got paid too, and now, a year later, he's where he should have been at the outset, with plenty of runway.  But still not runway to stardom, runway to a career as a #9 in Europe.  May not be the next big star for MNT, this is OK, having a career at that level is darn good.  Do not put cart b4 horse. We are on same page on this.  

  13. humble 1 replied, April 3, 2023 at 2:15 p.m.

    Maybe not next start for MNT - but still maybe yes - not intend to close that door - all I meant to say here is - the player should be focused on becoming an impact player in his position in Europe first - if that is his goal.  The MNT opportunities will naturally fall from there - other things being equal and normal - no burnt bridges - no other player coming a long that is unequivically better in the position - etc.   

  14. Bob Ashpole replied, April 3, 2023 at 5:33 p.m.

    Good comments, humble1.

  15. Alan Blackledge, March 30, 2023 at 1:12 p.m.

    Time will tell...he is certainly not ready to be was stated, he also had some fantastic opportunities against ES that he badly missed or didn't get off.

  16. John Richardson, March 30, 2023 at 5:57 p.m.

    He's off to a good start.  Hopefully his parents keep their mouths shut or just suck on a lolipop !

  17. Dave Davis, April 18, 2023 at 5:15 p.m.

    Why are you comparing Pepi to Folarin Balogun? Are you saying that scoring 17 goals in Ligue 1 is the same as scoring 17 goals in the Eredivisie? Pepi is good and getting better, Maybe you need to go back and look at both players right now. BS!!

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