Matt Doyle: Why Ricardo Pepi should spend the 2022 season in MLS

Ricardo Pepi midfield pass

The grass may not be greener on the other side – at least not yet.

Extratime co-host Matt Doyle offered that cautionary perspective when discussing the transfer buzz surrounding FC Dallas forward Ricardo Pepi, an ascendant 18-year-old homegrown who’s reportedly drawing interest from Champions League-level clubs across Europe.

Evaluating the situation through a US men’s national team lens and their hopes of navigating the Concacaf Octagonal to make waves at Qatar 2022, Doyle feels Pepi may actually be better suited to remain in MLS for another season.

“I just think in the interest of a sure-thing and making certain that our best young players are getting minutes at their best positions, I honestly hope that Ricardo Pepi doesn’t leave this winter,” Doyle said. “I think it’s very, very likely that he will. I think the Hunts will probably get an offer that’s too good to refuse. But I’m not convinced that [it’s] going to be in the best interest of the player’s development or the US national team.”

One cautionary tale? Doyle referenced USMNT striker Josh Sargent, who joined Premier League side Norwich City this summer rather than remaining with Werder Bremen in their quest to gain promotion from the 2. Bundesliga. The St. Louis-area native could still come good in England, but early signs offer indicators of how things could turn south.

“I think we’ve seen with the Josh Sargent experience what can happen when a talented young forward just tries to get to the highest level possible as soon as possible without necessarily having put enough thought into what it could mean for his career development,” Doyle said. “Because from age 18 to 21, Sargent didn’t develop at all. I’d argue he’s actually a worse player now than he was as an 18-year-old because he got put into a situation with first Werder Bremen and now Norwich where he’s on relegation-bound clubs and they just need to get somebody out there on the wing or playing underneath in the half-spaces.”

Would Pepi follow a similar path? Perhaps not, but staying in MLS for 2022 could offer a guaranteed role. This year, he’s the league’s top domestic scorer with 12 goals and three assists in 25 games. And he’s looking to build off an incredible USMNT debut in September’s World Cup qualifier when he sparked a 4-1 win at Honduras.

“We’ve seen it over the years, not just with Gyasi Zardes but the three top scorers in US national team history are Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore,” Doyle said. “All of them, their most productive years for the national team came when they were playing in MLS. So again, I think he’s probably gone this winter. I think it will probably work out because he is that level of a talent. As a US national team fan, I am a little bit hesitant about that and I would rather see him play it safe and say, ‘You know what? Let’s win the Golden Boot in [2022] and then go to the World Cup and then I’ll have my pick of teams in winter of 2022-23.’”

Offering one last pump-the-brakes thought, Doyle even referenced several FCD academy products who are currently in Europe. Center-mid Tanner Tessmann (Venezia, Italy) and fullbacks Reggie Cannon (Boavista, Portugal) and Bryan Reynolds (AS Roma, Italy) all moved overseas in the past year, though haven’t found minutes en masse.

“Those were all great offers and I think in the long-term, all of those guys are going to be national team players and they’re going to be, I hope, very good players in big-five leagues in Europe,” Doyle said. “But they’re not right now and right now matters a ton. Right now over the next 12 months matters more than any other time in the cycle, and I am willing to sacrifice a little bit of the top-end that you could conceivably get if Pepi walks into Borussia Dortmund as Erling Haaland’s replacement … to make sure that the floor is really, really high. And that’s what you get from 2,500 minutes in MLS.”

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