After choosing U.S. over Mexico, Ricardo Pepi faces El Tri in World Cup qualifier

Border Report

United States´ Ricardo Pepi, center, and Panama’s Edgar Barcenas battle for the ball during a qualifying soccer match for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 at Rommel Fernandez stadium, Panama city, Panama, Sunday, Oct. 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)

Ricardo Pepi sat down with his family to discuss his big decision: whether to play for the United States or for Mexico.

“I was just bringing everything to the table to them,” he recalled. “I was talking about what it would be like walking out, playing in a game versus Mexico. We’ve talked about how special that would be and how motivating that would be for me.”

He committed in August to the red, white and blue, the land of his upbringing, rather than El Tri, the team of his parents’ nation, and the 18-year-old striker became one of soccer’s most sought-after prospects when he scored three goals in his first two international appearances.

Pepi figures to face Mexico for the first time in the crucible of World Cup qualifying when the region’s top two teams play Friday night at Cincinnati’s new TQL Stadium.

All 25 players on the U.S. roster practiced Tuesday at Mercy Health Training Center in Milford, Ohio.

Pepi scored a go-ahead goal in September at Honduras in his international debut, then had both goals in last month’s home win over Jamaica.

United States’ Ricardo Pepi, left, keeps the ball away from Costa Rica’s Francisco Calvo during the second half of a World Cup qualifying soccer match Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021, in Columbus, Ohio. The United States won 2-1. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)

He was 16 when he made his professional debut for North Texas in March 2019, then played his first Major League Soccer match that June. Pepi scored 13 goals in 31 league games this season, topping Dallas and 12th overall in MLS.

“He’s taken his opportunities real well,” U.S. teammate Kellyn Acosta said. “He’s a guy that’s pretty level-headed despite everything going on around him. He’s done a great job of being confident and quietly being a quiet assassin on the field.”

Goals have increased transfer speculation, with reports linking him to many of the world’s top clubs. He’s spoken with U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter, Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie for advice.

“Just be able to keep my mind on what’s next and not focus on the future,” he said.

Pepi is the only pure striker, a No. 9 as the position is known, on the roster for the game against Mexico and next week’s qualifier at Jamaica. Berhalter left off Josh Sargent, Jordan Pefok, Daryl Dike and Matthew Hope.

“We want dynamic movement in the penalty box,” Berhalter said. “We see Ricardo playing a large portion of these two games.”

Pepi remembered watching U.S.-Mexico games with his family when he was 10 or 11. He expects at least 10 family and friends to be on hand, and the dual ties will run through his mind during the national anthems.

“I’m going to get some goosebumps for sure,” he said.

He was in a position similar to those of Salt Lake goalkeeper David Ochoa and LA Galaxy right back Julián Araujo, who each played for the U.S. national team before switching affiliation to Mexico.

“Just follow your own path, and also just make your decision with your heart,” Pepi said. “I feel like it’s very important to just be able to have a feeling, a connection between you and the national team that you are playing for. So just follow your heart.”

Pepi was born in El Paso, Texas, and raised in nearby San Elizario.

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