Former FC Dallas scout and academy coach Francisco Molina, who helped the club spot, recruit and develop him, heard talent evaluators use the same kind of language to cast doubt on Pepi that others had a decade before with Javier Hernandez.
“‘Well, he’s a little goofy in the way that he runs,’,” Molina, speaking to MLSsoccer.com earlier this month, recalled a Mexican scout saying about Pepi. “And I'm like, 'Oh my god, come and watch him play. Watch him in the games.'
“It’s the Chicharito effect – he’s not crazy skillful and he scores with the back part of his head, the ball hits him in the shoulder and it goes in. Yeah, but he played at Real Madrid and he played at Manchester United and he played in Germany, and he scored. Isn't that what a No. 9 should be doing? Scoring?”
With both on 13 MLS goals this season, they’ve certainly done plenty of that in 2021, and on Sunday they’ll go for more when FCD visit the LA Galaxy in a nationally-televised Week 32 nightcap (10 pm ET | UniMás, TUDN and Twitter). It’s a meeting of poachers, two of the most instinctive finishers in MLS, both of them untraditional in certain aspects, offering more than meets the eye.
Eleven years ago Chicharito joined Manchester United in a blockbuster transfer from his first club, Liga MX's Chivas, one of the highest-profile moves in Mexican soccer history. It was the start of a decade-long European adventure that also took him to Real Madrid, Bayer Leverkusen, West Ham and Sevilla, racking up goals and shrugging off quibbles about his game at nearly every stop.
Most observers expect an 18-year-old Pepi to embark soon on a similar trans-Atlantic journey of his own, one that could turn out to be every bit as illustrious.
“They're both very similar in the sense that they're in-the-box strikers, right? But I think Ricardo offers a little more at this stage than Javier did at his age,” retired Mexican-American striker and ESPN pundit Herculez Gomez told MLSsoccer.com this week. “[Chicharito] was much more of a late bloomer than Ricardo Pepi. Even though they’ve got certain traits in the box, they're very much different players in how they set themselves up in the box.
“Javier, at his peak, blistering first step, unreal vertical [leap] for his size, very, very brave and kind of poacher-esque. And I think Ricardo, he’s very raw but he’s shown an ability already with his back to goal, getting others involved. I still think Javier hasn’t been shown to really grasp that at an elite level. And I'm not saying that Ricardo has it at an elite level, just that he’s showing more than Javier did at the same age.”
Gomez’s ESPN colleague Taylor Twellman, a hard-running No. 9 with a nose for goal in his playing days, sees similarly rich upside in the Mexican-American kid from El Paso, Texas.
“He’s raw in that understanding and knowing the little things,” Twellman said of Pepi, who finished No. 1 on this year's 22 Under 22 presented by BODYARMOR list. “I mean, his body hasn't even filled out, he’s just turning into a young adult, so what happens when he fills out a little bit? I love the prospect of his mobility and to be honest, Chicharito was very similar at that age.
“In the final 20 yards, it's more often than not instincts. Do you have it? Do you have the ability to find a half a yard on your own? Do you have the ability to find a half a yard off of service?”
As clinical as he was in the box, as clever as his movement was, a common knock on Hernandez was and is his reliance on quality deliveries from his teammates. If Pepi can keep honing the more advanced skills in his toolkit, his value could climb even higher.
“Chicharito relies 100% on service, and right now, Pepi does [too],” noted Twellman, who’s keen to see whether the FCD product can evolve “into someone that can pull a ball from 25 yards away from goal, half-turn the defender, square him up 1-v-1 and create a chance for himself. Because I do think there is a possibility to him having that and evolving into that.
“Now the one thing you never want to touch, and even change, is the instincts that he has,” added the scorer of 101 MLS goals from his New England Revolution career. “The final 20 yards, a lot of times you're born with it, and he's born with something that is very difficult to try to teach, and understand where the ball is going to fall, and this sense of how the play is going to develop.”
It was against the Galaxy that Pepi marked one of his biggest milestones so far, becoming the young hat-trick scorer in MLS history during a 4-0 rout of LA on July 24. Hernandez missed that game due to injury, but with 2g/2a in his last four matches, the Mexican star is regaining form as he tries to help power his club’s Audi MLS Cup Playoff push. FC Dallas, on the other hand, were officially eliminated from postseason contention with Wednesday’s 3-2 comeback home loss to LAFC.
Pepi still has much to play for, mindful of the scouts watching his every move, and his US men’s national team’s massive World Cup qualifiers against Mexico and Jamaica next month. Gomez sees rhythm and confidence as key factors in the 18-year-old’s stunningly rapid progress over the past year or so.
“When I first started watching him this season, calling his games, I saw a very raw product, very, very raw. The decision-making, the first touch, the back-to-goal play, the effort at times,” said Gomez. “What I see now is a player that, with his confidence level, his talent level has gone up. He's confident in a way now that he feels comfortable with his back to the goal and getting others involved.
“People knock his ability on the ball, but Javier is so smart,” he continued, “so smart at not over-complicating things and getting players the ball to get him in position. He was so good with his movement, at understanding how the play would develop. Ricardo is going to develop that.”
Then there’s the resilience Chicharito displayed in weathering the highs and lows of life at big clubs, under harsh spotlights. The 33-year-old also stands as El Tri's all-time leading scorer with 52 goals in 109 caps.
“There's nobody better at being mentally strong in his early years than Javier Hernandez. That was his biggest trait, whatever you threw at him,” said Gomez. “He just confronted everything with such a great attitude.
“His willingness to work and get better was better than his actual talent, and that took him so far. [Pepi] can learn from that,” Gomez added, noting with approval the quiet swagger the teenager has flashed this year. “Javier went to [Man] United, he wasn't the first choice. They had a tall pecking order, but guess what? Because of goals, he stood out, and because of his work rate and his good attitude, people liked him. And it's just one goal added to two, added to three, added to four, and it kept building, kept growing. Ricardo Pepi needs that. He needs that same attitude, same work rate, that same hunger as Javier Hernandez had early in his career.”
Merely being compared at such an early age to one of the greatest scorers in North American soccer history is already a high compliment to Pepi. On Sunday they’ll get a chance to face off in person, the present and future going head to head.