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Austin served as a welcoming host on a historic night, and the U.S. men’s national soccer team proved more than a gracious guest.
Playing in its first World Cup qualifier in the state of Texas, the USMNT took another step toward next year’s finals in Qatar with a 2-0 win over Jamaica on Thursday at Q2 Stadium. Fittingly, native Texan Ricardo Pepi proved right at home on Lone Star soil while scoring both U.S. goals.
“It was a special moment for me and the team,” Pepi said. “To be able to score and get a win in front of friends and family, it’s an amazing feeling.”
Pepi, an 18-year-old from El Paso in just his second start and second appearance for the national team, has long expressed pride in both his home state and his Mexican-American heritage. The FC Dallas striker weighed opportunities with both the U.S. and Mexican national teams before committing to the U.S. squad in the summer.
That commitment has paid off for both the U.S. and Pepi, who became the youngest American to ever score in consecutive World Cup qualifiers.
“We were in front of all our fans, and we just needed to get the win,” Pepi said.
Pepi’s first goal came in the 49th minute when he headed home a cross from Barcelona winger Sergino Dest. Twelve minutes later, the 6-foot striker glided into an open spot in the box and slotted in a pass from Brenden Aaronson.
Ironically, Pepi now has as many goals in Q2 Stadium this year as any Austin FC player. Cecilio Domínguez, Alex Ring and Diego Fagúndez have scored four times for the Verde and Black. Pepi scored two goals for FC Dallas in a win over Austin FC at Q2 Stadium earlier this year, giving him four goals in two appearances in Austin.
Pepi’s second-half outburst proved more than enough for the U.S., who applied constant pressure on an outmanned Jamaican side still stuck in the cellar of CONCACAF qualifying.
U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter’s son, Sebastian, plays for Austin FC and Berhalter has visited the stadium to watch the home side. The raucous atmosphere gave the Americans the jolt they needed, especially after a frustrating first half.
“When you have an atmosphere like this, it gets the guys ready to play,” Gregg Berhalter said. “Fantastic fans, fantastic field, fantastic stadium. … this is why we chose to play in Austin.”
The first half gave the Austin crowd plenty to grumble about, especially CONCACAF’s disregard for the use of VAR, a much-maligned but integral part of the game in Europe and most other FIFA federations.
Jamaica somehow avoided two possible red cards, including one of the first minute when U.S. attacker Paul Arriola got tugged down from behind on a breakaway by Jamaica’s Kemar Lawrence in the first minute. The second possible red came in the 32nd minute when Aaronson drew a foul – again from behind – just on the edge of the penalty box.
But official Reon Radix of Grenada chose yellow over red both times and Jamaica escaped into halftime with a scoreless draw despite the U.S. dominating possession and the pace of play.
While the U.S. put on a show in the second half, Austin had quite the performance throughout the week. Austin FC’s training complex in North Austin drew praise from the U.S. players prior to Thursday’s match, and the match drew a sold-out crowd of an announced 20,500.
Match day belonged to the American Outlaws national supporters rather than the Verde backers, but the locals still made themselves known. The “dale, dale, dale USA” chants heard in the supporters’ section may not ring much in Midwest cities such as Dayton or Kansas City but are common in most MLS markets with a large Latino population like Austin, and the chest-thumping chants inspired by Austin spirit animal and Austin FC minority owner Matthew McConaughey’s role in “The Wolf of Wall Street” were pure Austin.
“Austin certainly did its part,” Berhalter said. “We’d love to come back one day.”
The U.S. won’t get much time to enjoy the win. The squad faces a rugged road test in Panama on Sunday before hosting Costa Rica in Columbus, Ohio, on Wednesday.
With eight points after four matches in the 14-match qualifying round, the U.S, moved into a tie with Mexico atop the CONCACAF standings after Mexico drew with Canada on Thursday. Canada and Panama are tied for third with six points.
The top three teams automatically qualify for next year’s World Cup finals in Qatar, and the fourth-place team will compete in an inter-federation play-in match.
This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: USMNT prevails in its first World Cup qualifier in the state of Texas