Ricardo Pepi is riding high. The FC Dallas striker is scoring goals, having fun, and the images of his wide smile at the MLS All-Star Game festivities this week show a player full of confidence, enjoying moment and embracing his blossoming stardom.
The 18-year-old will take part in Wednesday’s All-Star Game, and will return to FC Dallas soon after, and if U.S. men’s national team head coach Gregg Berhalter is on his game, Pepi should follow that up with a trip to USMNT camp ahead of September’s World Cup qualifiers.
Pepi told media in Los Angeles this week that he isn’t ready to make a decision on his national team future yet — he is eligible to play for the USA and Mexico — but that should not deter Berhalter from extending the invitation, even if it it comes with the accepted parameters that Pepi won’t play in the qualifiers.
Why have Pepi come to camp if he isn’t going to play? Consider it a chance to let him experience the USMNT setup and get a feel for it, while also reuniting with former U.S. Under-17 teammates Gio Reyna and Gianluca Busio (the above photo of Pepi was from his time with the U-17s). Berhalter did the same with Efrain Alvarez and Ayo Akinola last December, and while both players wound up choosing different national teams, it didn’t mean the gestures weren’t worth doing.
You could argue Berhalter did the same thing this summer with Yunus Musah and the Concacaf Nations League finals in June. Berhalter danced around his reasons for not playing Musah in the Nations League, but it was clear he wasn’t forcing the issue with a player who might not have been ready to be cap-tied, bringing him along anyway and allowing Musah to experience a memorable tournament victory.
Of course, Pepi could still turn down a USMNT invitation, much the same way Julian Araujo turned down a Gold Cup call-up from Berhalter, but extending the invite, and making the effort to show Pepi there is clear interest, is a must.
This isn’t just a case of trying to keep Pepi away from Mexico, calling the FC Dallas striker makes sense because he’s the most in-form American striker in MLS right now, and is just 18. He is currently tied with veteran Nashville SC striker C.J. Sapong for most goals by an American in MLS with nine.
There is also the fact that the USMNT striker pool has been hit with the injury bug, with Gyasi Zardes now sidelined with a hamstring injury, and Matthew Hoppe not having played a single minute since the Gold Cup ended almost a month ago. That doesn’t mean Hoppe won’t still be called as a wide forward option, but if Berhalter is looking for an in-form striker playing regularly, Pepi fits the bill.
Josh Sargent and Jordan Siebatcheu are the top two striker options right now, but the spot for a third option is wide open, with Nicholas Gioacchini another possibility.
The good news is the upcoming USMNT camp was always going to be larger than normal due to the three qualifiers in the window, which means Berhalter has some cushion to bring an extra player, and Pepi should be that player if he is willing to accept the invitation, even if he isn’t yet ready to be cap-tied.
What do you think of Pepi’s situation? Think Berhalter should extend an invitation even if Pepi isn’t ready to commit to being cap-tied?