Believe it or not, as many precious goals as he’s banged in for North Texas SC, FC Dallas and now the US men’s national team – and as explosively as they’ve powered his rise from gangly teenager to MLS’ hottest transfer target – there was a time when Luchi Gonzalez and his colleagues at the FCD academy decided Ricardo Pepi was scoring too much.
“There were a lot of question marks from a lot of people about him because he physically was an early developer. He was bigger than everybody else,” Gonzalez recalled to MLSsoccer.com last week. “But it was just in his height, it wasn’t in his strength or speed. He was just taller, he was tall and lanky. And he would tower over everybody.
“When he was U-13 and U-14, we would play him in different positions. We’d play him at center mid, we even played him at center back because he was scoring too many goals. He’d score five goals and we were like, this is not helping his development. We need to have him challenged in different parts of the field. So we did a bit of that between U-13 and U-15.”
Counterintuitive as it may sound, decisions like that were key signposts on Pepi's path from the blue-collar El Paso suburb of San Elizario to FCD’s pioneering academy, then its two pro teams, the USMNT and eventually the world stage. And now he has the No. 1 one spot on MLSsoccer.com’s 22 Under 22 presented by Body Armor list.
“We saw this kid on this patchy, rough field, not a nice field. But he's scoring goals,” Gonzalez said of the first time he saw Pepi play firsthand when the striker was just 12. “He's playing up with the 13-, 14-year-olds and he is gangly, but he still has coordination. And he always had the ability to get the shots off, and he always found the right space to attack the ball and get a finishing opportunity. So he immediately stood out. And we talked to him, we talked to his family, we talked to the directors there, and we formed a plan for him to join.”
As FCD’s academy director at the time, Gonzalez – who was dismissed from the club’s first-team head coaching position a few weeks ago amid one of their most difficult seasons of the past decade or more – was guiding one of the most ambitious endeavors in MLS history, a sweeping commitment to spotting and growing talent instead of buying or drafting it. And that skinny kid from West Texas with what his father calls el olfato del gol would become one of its crown jewels.
The first step: Ask the Pepi family if they could take Ricardo across the Rio Grande to Ciudad Juarez and catch a plane to Puerto Vallarta, where he would play for Dallas’ new Monterrey-based affiliate club in a youth tournament. It also happened that FCD’s mothership had sent a team down to compete in a different age group, so Pepi would end up pulling double duty.
“The ages overlap a little bit, parts of the tournament with younger players are on Saturday through Tuesday with the final being on Wednesday, and then the older brackets, the older age groups start Tuesday and finish the next Saturday,” explained longtime FCD coach/scout Francisco Molina. “So he got to play with the Monterrey affiliate with his age group and then he played with the FC Dallas team. He stayed and he played with the kids that are one year older than him. It was a great week for him and everybody was asking about him. The Chivas scouts and the Atlas scouts and the Mexican national team scouts, they were all talking to me about him.”
Liga MX clubs recruit along the borderlands too, like Santos Laguna did with Pepi’s fellow dual-national friend Santiago Munoz, who’s now at Premier League side Newcastle United. There were no shortage of options to the south. As proud Club America supporters, the Pepi family had immersed their children in Mexican soccer culture, but that route entailed just as much distance and difficulty as FCD, probably more.
“I'm not gonna lie, I would’ve wanted to see my kid playing for a Mexican team or for the Mexican national team. But it's so different,” his father Daniel said last week, pulling off the highway on his drive from one construction project to another to speak with MLSsoccer.com. “Going into southern, central Mexico, we really don't know the customs out there, and it was going to be harder for us.
“At that time the violence was real bad in Mexico. Besides that, he was playing a different style, because the Mexican soccer style and the US style are totally different. We still wanted him to get into a good education, we didn't know how good of an education he was going to get down to Mexico. The thing about being a Mexican-American, language can be a barrier, too. So we just decided to go with the American team.”
As a passionate “junkie” of the game, in NTSC coach Eric Quill’s words, who started playing at age 4 under Daniel’s watchful eye and soon grew accustomed to dominating every level he was presented with, Ricardo thrived on new challenges. His coaches quickly learned this was a driven kid, ready for the fast track, whatever sacrifices were required.
“For me what stood out immediately was his mentality,” said Quill, himself a Texas teen prodigy who turned pro early as one of the first members of the MLS Project-40 initiative in 1997. “The kid was really focused on what he wanted to achieve and what he wanted to be each training session. He wasn't a guy going through the motions … if it’s 20 minutes of finishing, he’s intense for 20 minutes. He doesn't take plays off. You can just see the ambition in everything that he does, from warm-up to the end of the training session. So he's just a kid that had a professional mentality and he was hell-bent on making it, and held himself accountable to the highest degree.”
Molina was a central figure in recruiting Pepi to leave his parents and siblings behind at age 13, and relocate some 600 miles east to Frisco to join the club’s vaunted academy. While most such out-of-market prospects arrive at older ages and live in group houses, “he was too young,” in Gonzalez’s words; “he needed parenting, needed guidance, needed more support.”
So Ricardo lived with a host family, the Fimbreses, whose son Victor was also a rising prospect. Molina and Gonzalez, at that time the academy director, oversaw much of Pepi’s progress through the ranks. Molina recalls a pivotal juncture when he was 14, still on the conventional youth schedule of morning classes at Lone Star High School followed by afternoon academy training sessions.
“He used to be bored training with kids his age and one year younger because he was a man amongst boys,” said Molina. “He was like, ‘OK, what's next?’”
FCD’s partnership with the high school allows them to customize their youth players’ academic coursework to coexist with their soccer activities, enabling a prospect like Pepi to join the first or second teams’ sessions and spend extra time on his craft. So they did.
“When we moved him that December to afternoon classes, so he can practice in the morning, I think that's when he really excelled,” added Molina, “and he really started being Pepi, this very, very great talent.”
That proved a milestone in what Gonzalez, Molina and others central to the 18-year-old striker’s journey affectionately call “the Pepi Project.” Dallas’ attention had been drawn to El Paso by promising talents like Alex Zendejas, a winger they signed in 2014 and later sold to Chivas Guadalajara for $500,000 who currently captains Liga MX side Necaxa, another homegrown named Aaron Guillen (presently at the USL Championship's Tampa Bay Rowdies) and fullback Mikey Ambrose, now with Atlanta United.
But Pepi proved to be the special one, from an early age the resourceful finisher, perhaps the most elusive (and expensive) quality in world soccer.
Photo credit: FC Dallas
“It didn't matter what position he was playing, he would always find a way of scoring,” said his father, who’d emigrated from the central Mexican state of Guanajuato in his youth. “If there was a kid that just came into the team or was trying out for the team and he was good, and he was playing that same position that Ricardo was playing, I knew he could play it somewhere else, so I just moved him around. Just give the new kid that spot, and Ricardo, now you're gonna play 6. I know you were playing 8, but you got to play the 6. When we used to go to tournaments and I needed somebody to defend I was like, ‘Ricardo, you got to go to defense.’ And he would always find that goal. He’s always had that smell, that killer instinct for goal.”
So when Molina, Gonzalez and their coaching colleagues played him out of position, knowing full well how he projected as an elite No. 9, it was for a reason.
“There’s definitely those that it comes natural to,” said Molina. “You become a hunter inside the box, and he definitely has that. … FC Dallas helped him polish it, always playing up one or two age groups, that also helped him, because it challenged him. We would always bring him down to his age group as well, so he can learn how to carry a team and start showing a little more personality and character about carrying a team. So all those dynamics really helped him.”
All the while, the goals piled up. Some were bangers, others were ugly and opportunistic, but they kept flowing. He netted 18 goals in 15 games for the FCD U-13s, then 12 in 13 games for the U-14s, then 19 in eight games for the U-17s. He would later bag nine in 13 USL matches for North Texas, always playing up in age.
Word started to spread about this prolific finisher and invites from both the Mexican and United States youth national teams arrived. He hit the net when he got to those camps, too.
“Both Mexico and the US national team, they didn't like Pepi at the very beginning,” said Molina. “But the son of a gun would score – go play on the weekend, score eight goals because he would play on Saturday and Sunday with two different age groups. Every week, it was score, score, score. We didn't even ask what the score was. We asked, ‘How many goals did Pepi score?’ And that's what we want from our No. 9, is for him to score, whether it’s with his shoulder, with his hip, whatever.”
Even over the phone, you can hear Molina’s eyes rolling as he describes some of the doubts that were expressed to him – to his mind, the same type of quibbles leveled at the likes of Jozy Altidore and Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez over the years.
“It’s not always the perfect one – and that’s what they say about Pepi,” he remembered. “The Mexican national team scouts were saying, ‘Well, he’s a little goofy in the way that he runs.’ Things like that. And I'm like, 'Oh my god, come and watch him play. Watch him in the games.' Don't see him walk from the locker room to the bus, because yes, he's a little goofy, and he's not all into the style of clothes or anything like that, he still wears strictly sweats, gets in his car and takes a nap, things like that.
“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?”
Dallas decided to launch their second team in 2018, founding NTSC as a USL League One side to give their burgeoning crops of youth talent another outlet for competition and experience. Pepi became the team’s first-ever signing, at the tender age of 15. In that respect, he would become something of a case study for Dallas as they built out their developmental pathway.
“The idea is that you have a kid that's an early developer, but you put him with kids biologically his peers or even above him, physically, and then you start to really see how kids adapt,” said FCD academy director Chris Hayden. “Because they have to use other mechanisms to compete, to be able to find ways to have success rather than just sort of running past kids. And yeah, he always met the challenge; that was the thing.
“He was always in his own age really productive, he scored a lot of goals. and when we would move him up, he still was opportunistic and scoring goals and getting himself into good positions. He always had a great engine and work rate, great personality and great attitude. Just sort of a perfect storm of attributes and opportunity that I think led to him continuing to prove at every level that he needed to go to the next one.”
Quill marveled at how clinical Pepi was becoming, almost always directing his shots on frame while showcasing an increasingly clever sense of movement in and around the penalty box.
“He was one of the one or two guys that we knew were first-team projections that we wanted to sort of fast track through North Texas,” said Quill. “He was the guy and so we wanted to put him in front of goal as much as possible. So we did a lot of repetitions and finishing patterns. … and what stood out to me was a variety in which he can finish. He was not one-dimensional. He's got a left foot, he's got a right foot, he can hit for power, he can hit for finesse, bend. There's just not an area of finishing that he doesn't have an elite quality in.”
While thrilled that their oldest son had earned an opportunity to flourish in such a system, Daniel, his wife Annette and their two younger children found it “unbearable” to be separated from him at such a young age. Daniel remembers an emotional conversation following his first year at FCD, when he began to understand the full extent of Ricardo’s passion and determination after the boy rebuffed their request to return to “San Eli.”
“We really didn’t think he was going to be such a special player until he hit the academy in FC Dallas,” Daniel Pepi said. “I mean, he's always had that determination, I think that's his biggest strength.
“We told him, 'We want you to go back because we're not moving.' He was like, ‘Oh, I'm sorry Dad. I wish I could have you guys here.’ And he started crying. But he told me, 'It's my dream, this is what I want to do. So I’m staying here without you guys.' So that's when I was like, man, he's really determined to reach that goal.”
So the Pepi family moved to North Texas, too. His younger brother Diego would follow his footsteps into the academy and is showing that same nose for goal. Meanwhile Gonzalez was promoted to head coach of the first team, taking his belief in Pepi’s potential with him. Less than a year into his first professional season with NTSC, Ricardo was called up to the MLS squad.
He didn’t score his first goal at that level until March 2020, but his innate qualities soon wrought a breakthrough, even with a veteran Designated Player, Franco Jara, on the depth chart ahead of him. For Gonzalez, it was only a matter of time and application.
“He has an internal ego and a bite and a selfishness to score,” said Gonzalez. “He's pissed at himself if he doesn't score, doesn't matter if it's going to be in a World Cup or with FC Dallas or in Europe one day, or with the U-14 academy – he's a motherf, he's a hungry son of a b on the field. But off the field, his mentality, his demeanor is so calm, it’s confident, it's mature. It's supportive of the team – always, always supportive of the team. Always. And that's the beauty of this kid.
“He’s a mental warrior, he’s a mental beast.”
FCD’s leading scorer this season, Pepi’s rapid rise presented him with an agonizing decision in August. After spending time with the youth national teams of both countries, now he would have to choose one for his first senior call-up.
“All we told him is, ‘We got you, whatever national team you decide to go with,” said his father. “We're 100% behind you.’ It's that simple.”
Pepi chose the US, and the rest is history – albeit the living kind, unfolding right in front of us in real-time. Daniel made it to both of his first two home World Cup qualifiers in a USMNT kit and plans to keep doing so, placing his beloved El Tri jersey in the back of the closet.
His son has applied that same grit, intensity and olfato del gol to his national-team career, becoming the second-youngest debutant in USMNT history behind Christian Pulisic and the youngest ever to score in his first two qualifying appearances. His family are “a little surprised, but not that much” at his meteoric rise, and plan to keep him grounded as he climbs into the stratosphere.
“He's got this determination, this mindset that he's going to go 100%,” said Daniel. “There's no challenge that you could put in front of him that he's not going to find a way.”