LOS ANGELES – The question’s been on the mind of many on both sides of the rivalry for months, a low buzz that’s increased toward a relentless roar with every goal he’s scored, every beguiling performance he’s produced for FC Dallas.
And yes, it is quite safe to say that Ricardo Pepi is tired of being asked about it. The 18-year-old strike prodigy confirmed as much in a quick conversation with MLSsoccer.com on Tuesday afternoon. Still, it remains, hanging over him as his reputation grows.
United States or Mexico?
“I tell everyone that when the time comes to make that decision, that decision will be made,” the dual-national Texan, who has been in youth international camps for both countries, said after the MLS All-Stars trained at LAFC's Nectar Performance Center ahead of Wednesday’s showdown with their Liga MX counterparts at Banc of California Stadium (9 pm ET | FS1, Univision in US; TSN, TVA Sports in Canada).
For now, at least, it seems that any reports of his commitment to one side or another should be taken with a hefty dose of salt. While it’s conceivable that Pepi is putting up a facade about the status of his allegiance, it would take quite a hard-boiled cynic indeed to think that way after a face-to-face chat with the teenager about this momentous juncture in his personal and professional life.
Pepi is torn.
“Yes, I am still thinking about who I'm going to represent,” he said. “It’s so hard – it's actually very hard. I don't know, I've spent about three, four months thinking about this decision. And I feel like I'm in the same place every day. I can't lean one way or I can't lean the other way. I'm just stuck in the middle.”
His words hark back to a powerful facet of the Mexican-American experience, one that former US men’s national team striker Herculez Gomez and others have addressed in regards to the dual-national topic: Ni aquí, ni allá – “neither here nor there,” a state of being that only those with a foot in each culture can truly understand.
In another sense it’s a champagne problem, a high compliment to a player who has just 44 regular-season MLS appearances to his name but is clearly coveted by both Gregg Berhalter and Tata Martino. Pepi has scored nine goals and provided one assist in 20 league matches this season, a fuller revelation of the choice his rich talents have granted him at the international level.
It’s also made him a fast-rising commodity on the transfer market, with clubs in Italy and other points across Europe said to be highly interested. His friend and fellow El Pasoan Santiago Munoz, himself a former FCD prospect who moved on to make his name at Santos Laguna, was a late scratch from the Liga MX All-Star side due to an impending transfer to an English club widely reported to be Newcastle United.
But Pepi says he’s in no hurry there, having signed a five-year contract extension last month that underlines his trust in FCD, much like he doesn’t expect to be put on the spot by either Martino or Berhalter when they finalize their rosters for the Concacaf Octagonal World Cup qualifiers that begin in early September.
Pepi knows all this is a blessing, but it can ache just the same. Enough to force him to set it aside and live in the moment, which is easier when you’re experiencing your first All-Star week and rubbing shoulders with colleagues who were once role models, like Mexico and Inter Miami CF star Rodolfo Pizarro – who Pepi maintains hasn't hit him with a recruiting pitch for El Tri.
“Right now I'm just really focused on the team,” said Pepi of the transfer talk. “In the moment I'm focused on the MLS All-Star but at home I feel like I’m focused at FC Dallas. And if something's going to come, then it's going to come at the end of the season. But I feel like I’ve got to finish off the season good, have a good season with FC Dallas and we'll see what happens after.”