National Writer: Charles Boehm

"I was prepared": Ricardo Pepi's ascent continues with clutch USMNT debut at Honduras

It’s no great surprise considering how much time the US men’s national team have spent at high altitude over the past couple of weeks, jetting from Nashville to El Salvador to Honduras and back again for three intense World Cup qualifiers.

But it's nonetheless worth noting that Ricardo Pepi, “El Tren,” whose reputation has been sped along via maglev hype locomotive, got the big news on an airplane.

“When Gregg told me that I was going to start, [it was] on the plane on the way here,” Pepi said after his dream USMNT debut on Wednesday, a 1g/2a performance that spearheaded a massive 4-1 comeback victory over Honduras at San Pedro Sula’s Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano. “So it was very special. I was prepared for the moment and I took advantage of it.”

It seemed for much of this international window that such a moment might not be forthcoming. That it might be expecting too much for Pepi’s outstanding club campaign – his 11 MLS goals in 21 appearances are tied for fifth in the Golden Boot presented Audi race, earning him his first MLS All-Star nod – to carry over into his maiden voyage with the national team, embarked on just days after choosing the country of his birth over his parents’ homeland of Mexico.

Pepi did not appear in the opener at El Salvador, nor against Canada on Sunday, draws in which the US scored just one goal across 180-plus minutes. As the tension rose with each failure to win, it heaped more pressure on Wednesday’s game, even as the Yanks found themselves increasingly shorthanded by injuries and the suspension of Weston McKennie.

And then Berhalter elected to trot out a 3-4-3 lineup with four debutants and very little chemistry or time spent together, opening the door for Honduras to boss the first half and take a 1-0 lead on an overwhelmed-looking USMNT.

A no-win situation for an 18-year-old newcomer? Just a prelude to Pepi’s heroics, as it turned out.

“It was a learning experience for me,” he said of the first two games spent on the bench. “I feel like I learned about the opponents, the atmosphere that games like this are in. It was very important for me to able to take that energy, manage it and then be ready and be prepared for the next one.”

Some would have to make way for the flurry of substitutes Berhalter made as he sought to fix his flawed approach, but Pepi was trusted to continue, a decision just as important as the adjustments to the team’s shape and ideas.

His influence was all over the USMNT’s equalizer via Antonee Robinson, having disorganized Los Catrachos' backline with his movement in the box, and 17 nerve-wracking minutes later, he rose to nod home what would be the game-winner, a first senior international goal to remember.

“I saw DeAndre Yedlin ready to cross the ball, I feel like I was in a good spot, and the ball came straight to me, so I got up in the air and I headed the ball,” said Pepi. “I was ready for that moment, I was ready for the opportunity and I was waiting for the ball to come to me. So I feel like everything was perfect.”

That sent belief surging into him and his teammates, and they feasted on turnovers and transitions as the hosts crumbled down the stretch. In the 86th minute, Pepi laid on a lovely assist for another substitute and fellow MLS academy product.

“The third goal, we stole the ball in a great spot. I was going for goal, I just saw my teammate Brenden Aaronson wide open, so I gave him the ball and he took care of business,” explained Pepi.

He then forced goalkeeper Luis Lopez into a sprawling save on another such moment, leading to an empty-net tap-in for Sebastian Lletget, and sealing instant legend status for the FCD starlet.

“I think he did a great job. Worked tirelessly, competed against physical center backs, scored a really good goal and overall I think had a strong performance,” said Berhalter. “For an 18-year-old, it's really impressive what he did.”

The teenager himself was almost matter-of-fact about the incredible turn of events, hinting at the years of labor that preceded them – and a hunger for more in the days ahead.

“I was ready for the game,” Pepi said of his man-of-the-match performance, and the dizzying comet ride that’s taken him to this point. “It's been special. I feel like I've worked hard for all these moments. I feel like I've prepared myself on and off the field for these moments, and just ready to keep working for the team and prepare for the next one.

"It was after the game that I got all the emotions," he added. "I know it was important to keep the lead, I know it was important to keep working hard to get those three points. After the game all my emotions came and I was just ready to celebrate the goal with the team. And props to the team for getting these three points."