We now know that James Sands (New York City FC) and Miles Robinson (Atlanta United) are capable of some impressive performances at the international level. We’ve seen that Gianluca Busio (Sporting Kansas City) is climbing up Gregg Berhalter’s central midfield depth chart. We’ve also learned that Matthew Hoppe’s highest ceiling may be as a winger rather than a No. 9 -- and that he’s certainly not short on confidence.
But in Sunday night’s 1-0 quarterfinal win over Jamaica, we were reminded of something that we’ve known for a while: the USMNT’s starting No. 9 spot is up for grabs.
The USMNT has advanced to Thursday's semifinal against Qatar (7:30 pm ET | FS1, Univision, TUDN), but they won without convincing play from Daryl Dike (Orlando City SC) from the jump. And when Gyasi Zardes (Columbus Crew) came off the bench and took Dike’s place partway through the second half, Zardes didn’t have a significantly better impact on the match.
The day before, a USMNT-eligible No. 9 became the youngest-ever player to score a hat trick in MLS and led his team to a 4-0 win over the LA Galaxy. That’s right, I’m talking about Ricardo Pepi. After starting the season on the bench for Luchi Gonzalez, Pepi has been a regular starter for FC Dallas over the last five weeks. Since making his way into the starting lineup, the 18-year-old homegrown forward has scored seven goals and has worked his way up to fifth in the Golden Boot presented by Audi race with eight total goals in just 782 minutes.
His first goal on Saturday was a well-taken, right-footed strike that sailed past Galaxy goalkeeper Jonathan Bond and into the back of the net. It was also Pepi’s third-highest xG shot of the season according to Second Spectrum, created (at least in part) by his center back-splitting diagonal run. Pepi’s third goal on Saturday was also especially notable. Receiving the ball at the top of the box, the teenager turned and fired a shot low and to the far post with just enough power to beat Bond.
Though Pepi is younger than the USMNT’s other primary MLS-based strikers, both the tape and his underlying numbers compare very favorably to players like Zardes, Dike, and Toronto FC’s Jozy Altidore (who may or may not be in Berhalter’s plans at this point). The likes of Mason Toye (CF Montréal) and Jeremy Ebobisse (Portland Timbers) deserve a shout, too.
In terms of non-penalty expected goals, Pepi ranks in the 95th percentile in MLS this year with 0.4 xG per 90 minutes. In 2021, Pepi is also in the 89th percentile in terms of shot quality, averaging 0.15 xG per shot.
Looking at some of the USMNT’s other striker options in MLS, Zardes is in the 93rd percentile in terms of xG with 0.36 per 90 and the 93rd percentile in terms of shot quality, averaging 0.17 xG per shot.
Because Dike and Altidore have both played fewer than 300 MLS minutes this season, their underlying numbers don’t give us the most accurate representation of their abilities. However, adding last year’s Second Spectrum data gives us a clearer picture. Over the past two seasons, Dike’s 0.22 xG per 90 puts him in the 79th percentile in MLS, while his 0.11 average shot quality puts him in the 71st percentile. With 0.39 xG per 90 and 0.13 average shot quality, Altidore ranks in the 94th and 85th percentiles, respectively.
While Zardes takes slightly higher-quality shots than Pepi, Pepi’s xG per 90 minutes ranks higher than Zardes, Dike, and Altidore and his average shot quality ranks above Dike and Altidore.
From an on-field perspective, Pepi brings a classic set of skills to the striker position. He can drop deep in possession and operate between the lines, as you can see in this clip.
But he typically tends to stay higher in possession and either occupy opposing center backs or make an occasional short diagonal run behind the opposing backline. When playing as a striker in possession, Pepi averages 13.5 touches per 90 minutes, which is 14th among strikers in MLS. Pepi isn’t an overly active off-ball runner -- he averages 8.2 off-ball runs per game when playing as a No. 9, which is less than both Zardes and Dike -- but he’s excellent at finding pockets of space to attack in the box.
Though Altidore’s lack of straight-line speed hurts his ability to exploit space, Dike and Zardes (who has made a living from well-executed movement in the box) can both manipulate defenders inside the 18. But with Pepi, the fact that he sees and takes advantage of space in dangerous areas as a teenager is especially impressive.
Later in July against the Portland Timbers, Pepi made a similar run, finding space between a pair of opposing defenders and getting his head on a cross.
Here, again against the Whitecaps, Pepi stops his run just outside the six-yard box, allowing himself to stay in a pocket of space and hit a quick shot on goal.
At 6-foot-1, Pepi still appears to be growing into his frame. He isn’t flawless with his hold-up play and can be pushed off the ball by a stronger defender.
Thinking about some of the USMNT’s other MLS-based No. 9s, Altidore is an effective presence even with a defender on his back. However, Dike has yet to impress with his holdup play at the international level and Zardes is capable of controlling the ball with a defender on his back, but doesn’t regularly leverage that control into meaningful attacking moments for the USMNT. Pepi still has time to grow into his frame and could surpass those three players with his hold-up play.
There’s room for Pepi to improve, but having an 18-year-old striker with a strong set of underlying shooting numbers, a clear ability to see and exploit space in the box, and a strong frame to grow into is a hugely exciting prospect for the United States … or Mexico.
As a dual-national, Pepi has been courted by both the USMNT and El Tri and could conceivably impact either program in the near future. He’s featured for various US youth national teams, but there’s clear and understandable interest south of the border.
It may be too late to get Pepi involved with the USMNT or Mexico for Concacaf’s first World Cup Qualifying window in early September, but if he continues to score goals and find himself in promising positions for FC Dallas, he certainly could factor in at the international level before the 2022 World Cup. It seems just like a matter of time, doesn’t it?