As one of the top 2003-born American players, Pepi's breakthrough boosts Dallas
July 06, 2021
IN TERMS OF THE GROWING wave American prospects that has been emerging the last five years, Ricardo Pepi has been know for quite some time. A staple of U.S. youth national teams and a top member of the 2003 birth year, Pepi has been a promising player in the elite FC Dallas Academy that now seems to regularly churn out very good players.
The past month, however, Pepi has begun to put it all together and bridge the difficult gap between being a top prospect and an impact player that deliver game-changing performances on the field.
Last season, Pepi, 18, showed glimpses of it when he scored a critical winning goal for Dallas in an away playoff game against Portland. In recent weeks Pepi has raised his game. With Dallas struggling in the standings, Pepi earned a start against East-leading New England and scored two goals in a 2-1 upset win. That performance earned him a spot on the league’s Team of the Week. Then over this past weekend, Pepi scored again in a 2-2 draw with Vancouver.
Now FC Dallas will be looking to climb the standings in the midst of a difficult three-game road trip that starts this Wednesday with a visit to the LA Galaxy and continues against Portland and Colorado after the Gold Cup break.
Here is Pepi’s goal.. nice cross from Ferreira. The kids are carrying Dallas at the moment pic.twitter.com/WmpX5GJd5H— Brian Sciaretta (@BrianSciaretta) July 5, 2021
“Personally, it's a good place where I'm at,” Pepi told ASN. “I feel like I've been working hard and I've been growing as a player. I just wanted to fight for the team. I know the team needs to win. The team needs points. I always try to do what's best for the team and what's best for me - if you put those things together, everyone is going to end up winning.”
“I've grown a lot as a player ever since last year - even since I first signed, I feel like this year has helped me grow a lot,” he added. “A lot of the experiences I've had, with Bayern Munich or with the national team or things like that have also helped me grow. But I feel like as a player, I've just been able to read the game better. I've gotten better this year and have in the last couple of years.”
At the core of Pepi’s development has been Dallas head coach Luchi Gonzalez who has held the position for two seasons but was previously the head of the Dallas academy. Under Gonzalez, many players like Pepi, Jesus Ferreira, Tanner Tessmann, Justin Che, and previously Bryan Reynolds and Reggie Cannon have been able to maintain continuity in their development during their most formative years.
“Having him as a first-team coach now and then having him back the academy, I feel like Luchi is the same person, the same coach,” Pepi said. “If he knows you have the talent, he knows you have the tools, and he knows you can do something - then he's going to demand it from you. He's a great coach and he believes a lot in the young players. That relationship between me and him is very important because he knows what I'm capable of and I know what he wants on the field. It fits perfectly.”
A native of El Paso, Pepi wears the badge of the club’s academy with pride and acknowledges that the bond between the alumni is always tight, even after the players leave FC Dallas.
When the United States national team defeated Mexico in the final of the Nations League last month, Weston McKennie, Reggie Cannon, Kellyn Acosta, and Bryan Reynolds all gathered for a picture with the trophy together.
Then last week, Weston McKennie returned to Frisco to address the media and talk about how Dallas helped him become the player he is today. It’s a sentiment that is shared by Pepi.
“The academy has always developed good players, top quality players,” Pepi said. “What brings that is just the way they treat the players from a young age. You're 13, 14 years old and you're getting treated like a pro. Obviously the atmosphere they make is just as professional as they can be. That has a big part to do with it. Just they always want you to keep going. They always want to help you get better. This is just a professional atmosphere that they put you into. Everything they do helps a lot when it comes to transitioning to the first team or playing in North Texas. Things like that just makes it so much easier.”
"We kind of have our own little society of FC Dallas guys"— FC Dallas (@FCDallas) June 25, 2021
Grateful for the Weston McKennie Mentorship Program. pic.twitter.com/6NNoFT3RH9
“There's always an attachment with the players,” he continued. “For example with Byan Reynolds, Reggie Cannon - those are players that I got to share the field with. That relationship is always going to be there and it's always going to be a positive one and one that supports each other. We both come from the same place. We both started playing in the same academy.”
Like many players who have come through the clubs academy, Pepi holds European ambitions and is hopeful of making a move at some point. He can’t specifically say when as the trend has been for top players to get serious offers at younger ages.
European teams have also become more bullish on buying American players too. Tyler Adams left while he was still a teenager but he had been a starter for New York for two season. Other players like Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie also had multiple years of experience under their belt before leaving.
Last season, however, the sale of Bryan Reynolds from Dallas to Roma was significant in that he fetched a significant sum after being a starter for just a half season. That sends a signal that clubs are actively scouting the league and that some clubs like Dallas will listen. Pepi still has goals of being a dominant player in MLS before he leaves, although it remains a question if he will get that chance.
“Personally, I think the measuring sticks for me will be being able to play good soccer in MLS and being able to be dominant in the league,” Pepi explained. “I feel like that would be a good point for me. Having a good season, scoring 10-15 goals. That would be like my goal - to be just be able to go to Europe after being dominant in the game, being able to read the game.”
On the national team front, Pepi is a talented dual national with Mexico and, despite playing for the U.S. youth national teams, he remains unsure of which country he will decide on representing – should the opportunities arise.
Indicates that his family remains supportive of whatever decision he will make, but Pepi for now is opting to remain focused with his club.
“Things like that - I put them to the side until an opportunity comes,” Pepi said. “Right now I am just focused on FC Dallas. The next few games are very important and we need to get results. Whenever that day comes, I will make that decision.”
The one thing U.S. Soccer has in its favor with Pepi is that there is a history with the two sides. Pepi was widely expected to have been a part of the U.S. U-20 team for the 2021 World Cup before that tournament was cancelled due to COVID-19.
Fortunately for Pepi, he is young enough to be eligible for the next U-20 team that will push forward to the 2023 World Cup in Thailand. That class of American players has the potential to be exceptionally strong and many players such as Caden Clark, Cade Cowell, Moses Nyeman, Kevin Paredes, and Justin Che, and Michael Halliday are already first team starter two years away from the World Cup.
Pepi meanwhile is one of the top players from that age group and realizes he could potentially be part of another promising generation if he opts for the United States.
“It's always a pleasure to represent your country,” Pepi said. “I was looking forward to the U-20 World Cup that got canceled because of the pandemic. I just miss just being able to represent a country. It's the best thing in the world and I'm just waiting for it to start back up and see what we can do.”
“We have a good class,” he added of the other players in his birth year. “I feel like we're quality players and we all have something to bring to the table. Some of the players that are in the league like Caden Clark or Cade Cowell are players that I played with at the youth national teams, but I haven't kept in contact ever since. I know they're doing well and they know I'm doing well. So it's always a good relationship - competing against each other and making each other better. That will help if we do play together in the national team.”