When Ricardo Pepi got the fateful call that every U.S. men's national team player dreaded — when Gregg Berhalter rang in early November to break the news that he wouldn't be going to the World Cup — Pepi hung up.
He wasn't necessarily angry. "I was in shock," he'd later say. "It took me five minutes to get it in my mind. I just couldn't believe it."
So he called his agent and then his dad. They all processed their disbelief. He never thought to ask Berhalter for an explanation, he said, because "I didn't want to give myself any excuses." Instead, he said on a Dutch podcast in January, "My mentality was: 'I didn't make it. It's time to get to work.'"
Which is what he did, and that work led him back to the USMNT four months later, for two CONCACAF Nations League games this past week. And in both, Pepi reminded teammates and fans of the teenage talent that had carried them through World Cup qualifying. He started and scored twice in a 7-1 pounding of Grenada on Friday.
Three days later, he came off the bench and unlocked El Salvador with his second touch:
Ricardo Pepi with the immediate impact 💫
Watch on TNT 📺 pic.twitter.com/2LOKrgtZps
— B/R Football (@brfootball) March 28, 2023
His goal — the product of a sharp, explosive run and a clever, composed finish — was the only one of a 1-0 U.S. win over El Salvador on Monday. It clinched the Americans a place in June's Nations League finals, where they'll defend the inaugural title they won in 2021 — and where they could meet Mexico in the semis.
But that was all but assumed. (The U.S. needed only a draw to advance.) The bigger news was that Pepi, El Tren, is back on track.
He was the USMNT's No. 9 for much of the qualifying cycle, shortly after choosing to play for the country of his birth over that of his parents, Mexico. He scored pivotal goals and earned a $20 million move to Augsburg in Germany.
Then the goals dried up, for club and country. Pepi played more than 1,300 minutes of soccer over 11 months — in seven different countries and five different competitions for four different teams — and didn't once hit the back of a net.
Then he went on loan to Groningen in the Netherlands and rebounded.
Then he fell short of the World Cup roster he assumed he'd be on.
He has likened it all to being on a "roller coaster," an emotionally draining one. But he never leapt off.
His temporary club, Groningen, is struggling mightily, but when interim U.S. coach Anthony Hudson would watch Pepi, often through a screen but also in person, he'd notice one constant. "This guy just doesn't stop working," Hudson said Monday. "Doesn't stop running behind the line. He shows an incredible attitude."
So Hudson and the national team provided a reprieve this month. And Pepi, in return, provided a lift after a sleepy first half Monday. Two minutes after replacing Daryl Dike, he detected a channel and burst into it. He powered past a Salvadoran defender, then shrugged him off with a strong arm and a shoulder. With his angles evaporating, he dinked a delicate chip over the keeper and into the net.
And he smiled.
So did his teammates, including Gio Reyna.
He wheeled away in celebration, as if it were 2021 again, and as if the kid from El Paso, Texas, was on high-speed rail toward superstardom. Because, you know, he very well could still be.