Heading into Saturday’s friendly game against Bosnia and Herzegovina, USMNT starting striker Ricardo Pepi is using the opportunity to keep his rhythm before January’s critical World Cup Qualifiers.
All eyes are on the 18 year-old striker, who has not only risen to be the starting forward for Gregg Berhalter’s squad in this critical time, but who is also rumored to be a hot commodity for a growing list of major European clubs.
After his breakout 2021 season for FC Dallas in MLS, which saw him take home the award for MLS Young Player of the Year, ended in November, the current USMNT camp and Saturday’s game is something he views not only as a chance to add a few more goals to his growing international tally, but also as the opportunity to stay fresh for the important qualifying games beginning in late-January.
“I haven’t been playing, I’ve haven’t had a game in about three or four weeks, so this will be my first game,” Pepi remarked about the break following his last MLS game on November 8.
With most MLS-based players seeing their seasons already ending in early-/mid-November (only four teams participated in the semifinal and final rounds in December), the two-plus month break before the start of the trio of qualifiers beginning in late January is an unavoidable issue for the significant number of players who ply their trade stateside.
As one of these players, if not the most prominent of them, staying fresh and keeping the momentum from what was by all means a hugely successful season is priority number-one for Pepi.
“I’ve got World Cup qualifiers coming soon,” he noted, continuing, “I want to be part of that group, so I want to be able to get my rhythm back, get on the ball again and be able to play the game.”
Nevertheless, after a week of work with Berhalter and the rest of the December squad, the Texan is confident that he is fully ready for the final game of the national team on Saturday.
“I’ve been training and I’ve ben trying to get my rhythm back,” he emphasized, adding “I dont feel rusty, I feel like I’m prepared and ready for the game.”
The December camp, which due to international scheduling has served as a modern version of what was often referred to as “Camp Cupcake” in previous years, has seen a diverse mix of MLS-based USMNT veterans, newcomers, youth players, and even some forgotten Americans playing abroad battling to make an impression on the coaching staff.
For Pepi, who at 18 years old is ironically already one of the capped members of the roster, being able to link up again with many of the players in his own age group has been a special experience.
“It’s been great sharing the field with some of the players that are my age,” he admitted. “These are players that I grew up playing with in the youth national team. Having not had them in the senior national team makes it a little bit special. They are my friends so it feels good.”
Similar to Pepi, who was born in El Paso with both American and Mexican citizenship, several of the younger players in the squad for the friendly game on Saturday have multiple options for what national team they will eventually represent. The FC Dallas star obviously registered his allegiances with the Stars and Stripes, but many of his teammates have yet to make the ultimate decision about their international future, and will still have a hard decision to make even after the weekend’s game.
As the game against Bosnia and Herzegovina is only a friendly, it does little to tie any player to the US should they take the field, meaning that they will go home from the current camp with the experiences with the coaching staff and their teammates weighing heavily on their hearts.
Perhaps the most prominent of these players is 18 year-old defender Jonathan Gómez, who has bounced back and forth between the USA and Mexico setups on various levels, and who will join the Real Sociedad setup in Spain starting in January.
Pepi respectfully sympathizes with this decision, having gone through it himself very recently, and simply offers himself as a willing ear for any players who are facing a similar difficult choice, without trying to pressure them to choose for one team or another.
“For players like Jonathan Gómez, I’m always open to talk to them,” he stated. “I alway try to tell them to do whatever they think is best, and go with their heart.”
“Whatever they think is best for them, [they should] just take that choice. I don’t personally go up to them because I feel like that’s their space, and that’s personal. I let them come to me, and if they do come to me I do my best to help them out.”
The Texan is almost certain to be a major figure when the team kicks off against the visiting Bosnians on Saturday, at 5:15pm local time in California.