Pepi had signed a five-year contract extension in July and had only concluded his first MLS season as a regular starter in November. He was a crucial player in the first team already, leading Dallas with 13 goals as an incandescent light in an otherwise bleak season. And the boy is FC Dallas through and through, joining the club's academy at 12 years old and making his professional debut with now-MLS NEXT Pro side North Texas SC before quickly being elevated into the first team.
It is a World Cup year and Pepi is currently Gregg Berhalter's first-choice center forward for the US men's national team. Both by way of transfer value and first-team performance, they had time on their side.
But an abundance of interest across Europe turned to offers following his breakout year. Pepi's dream move was suddenly a reality. Along the way since Dallas' final regular-season game, Pepi and his camp made it clear the timing was right. In talks with the club, Pepi's father said their family is one of opportunity; and the opportunity is now. While Pepi seemed like the surest bet in American soccer, there's no guarantee the same opportunities will be waiting in the summer or next winter.
“You have to respect that from the player," technical director Andre Zanotta told MLSsoccer.com. "He showed us he was clear in his desire to go to Europe. Right now was the right time, we heard that from his family and his agent. He wanted to go and pursue that dream.”
Thankfully for Dallas, they weren't short of serious suitors. Pepi's talent has long been appreciated in Europe – Dallas had rejected offers for their homegrown star even last winter as he turned 18 – and clubs were queuing up for this winter.
Before long, those offers came closer to Dallas' valuation of the player.
Amid an avalanche of interest, Dallas and Pepi's camp eventually found a mutually beneficial move and mere days after the winter transfer window officially opened in Europe, a deal was reached with German club FC Augsburg in a club-record transfer for Pepi that is worth $20 million. It is a new league record for guaranteed money for a homegrown and among the top three overall in league history.
“Pepi is such an important player in so many different aspects, we wanted to make the best out of it," Zanotta said. "We thought it was possible to get the best deal we could get, numbers we considered to be really good.”
Pepi's camp met with the likes of Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and many more. Bayern Munich are big fans of Pepi, who has been at the club on training stints via their partnership with Dallas. Ajax, renowned as one of the world's best developmental clubs, were interested. Premier League teams like Wolves and Southampton, plus Bundesliga sides like Borussia Dortmund and Wolfsburg were also interested. A host of clubs from Serie A were among those first linked with Pepi last year, as Fiorentina sent scouts to watch him play in October. He was on everybody's radar.
“It was interesting," Zanotta said. "We had clubs who made offers, inquiring about the conditions for his transfer. High-level clubs from the top leagues in Europe. Some who thought it was too much, so we stayed and discussed with the clubs who were willing to raise their offers.”
When potential deals turned to advanced negotiations, the likes of Wolfsburg, Wolves and another Premier League club came close, but Augsburg won out. Though the Bundesliga club is in a relegation battle, they're in desperate need of goals. Even just turning 19 next week and adapting to Germany's top-flight midseason, Pepi is expected to play a crucial role.
Dallas also had some dealings with Augsburg in the past, as the German club acquired midfielder Carlos Gruezo in the summer of 2019.
“They felt the Bundesliga was the best fit for him, a league where he can continue his development. I think so too," Zanotta said. "I think Augsburg is a place that we discussed where he would have minutes. It’s never easy for a young player like him to arrive midseason and have significant minutes… Augsburg have shown they have a good project for him. I think it’s a great step for him. This league, this club. Knowing the mentality Pepi has, how strong his personality is, he’ll adapt very quickly and do what he does: score goals.”
Pepi participated in his first training session with Augsburg on Monday after being unveiled as their new club-record signing. He penned a heartfelt goodbye to Dallas on social media, writing he "will always be Dallas til' I die."
“Pepi hasn’t even turned 19 and he’s accomplished a lot, we’re proud of him," Zanotta said.
Now, FCD plot the way forward without last year's leading scorer and the 2021 MLS Young Player of the Year.
FC Dallas are in the midst of a transformative offseason.
They have already appointed a new head coach in Nico Estevez and now set a new club-record transfer with Pepi departing. Designated Player Bryan Acosta headlined a group of eight players who have left the club following a disappointing 2021 season in which they finished 11th in the Western Conference with just 33 points.
With money from the Pepi deal (as well as transfers of Bryan Reynolds and Tanner Tessmann in the last year), Dallas are looking to make a couple of splashes. They are likely in need of at least three new starters.
“This transfer fee will allow us to be more aggressive in this window and the next," Zanotta said. "I wish we had players announced already, and we’re advanced in some deals, but we can change the strategy now and in the summer. The ownership group, coaching staff – we’re all looking for high-level players. And high-level players cost money. We know we can spend a good portion of this fee to try and bring top players to create a roster that our fans are excited to watch.”
“We need to reinforce all different phases, defense, midfield and attack," Zanotta said. "We need to find some replacements for the players who left, we’re working hard to find the right fits. We have good options which we’re negotiating. Hopefully we’ll have news to announce in a short time.”
It's a new era for Dallas, as a fresh start comes from all the players leaving and a new coaching staff arriving.
“It’s a very important offseason," Zanotta said. "We already changed the coaching staff, we want Nico to have players that he feels can really make us a strong team this season. When you want to rebuild a team, it’s difficult to do everything in the first year. This offseason is key for us.”