Ricardo Pepi USMNT

Gregg Berhalter uttered a great many words to explain the absence of several of his regular forward options last week when announcing the US men’s national team roster for this month’s World Cup qualifiers vs. Mexico and Jamaica, including players like Daryl Dike, Josh Sargent and Jordan Pefok.

The USMNT want to press their opponents, he noted, and prefer mobility, work rate and penalty-box movement in this November camp, which contains two matches instead of the three shoehorned into each of the September and October windows. But really, Berhalter’s justification for carrying a smaller cadre of strikers this time essentially boiled down to 11 letters: Ricardo Pepi.

“This window is a short window; we see Ricardo playing a large portion of these two games,” said the coach. “So we think we're in a good spot.”

While both Berhalter and Pepi have quickly noted that his FC Dallas teammate Jesus Ferreira, Tim Weah and even Christian Pulisic are also options at the No. 9 role, that’s quite an expression of faith in an 18-year-old player with just four career caps, all of them in this Concacaf Octagonal round.

Nothing changes, said the kid from El Paso.

“I feel like as a national team player, you always have to prove yourself. You don't have a spot saved for the team, you don't have a starting spot that's always going to be there for you,” Pepi told reporters on Tuesday afternoon. “I feel like every day you get an opportunity, you have to take the opportunity and be able to show yourself out. So I feel like I've been doing that.

“I have Jesus behind me, who is also a good player, who is also just pushing me to be better and I'm pushing him to be better. So it’s always that competition between teammates that are going to make each other better.”

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USMNT midfielder Kellyn Acosta has walked a comparable path to Pepi. Now 26, Acosta rose through FCD’s academy to become a highly-rated young phenom, and at age 21 logged a full 90 minutes in a massive US-Mexico qualifier at Estadio Azteca in 2017, helping the Yanks gut out a 1-1 draw. The Colorado Rapids mainstay likes what he’s seen so far.

“Ricardo, he's great. He's taken his opportunities really well,” said Acosta. “He showcased well in MLS and then coming into the national team, he's been great, scoring a bunch of goals, being a force up front. And for him, I mean, just keep going and doing what he's doing. I think he's a guy that's pretty level-headed despite everything going on around him. He's done a great job of being confident and being a quiet assassin on the field, and credit to him.

“This is one of those games where he knows what’s at stake. And I think he's ready, he's ready for the task. And as a team as a whole, we're all ready for it.”

It’s not hard to tell that Pepi’s three goals and two assists in those four USMNT appearances are a crucial factor in the program’s sudden reliance on him. However, the ante gets upped dramatically – in a number of ways – against Mexico at FC Cincinnati's home on Friday (9:10 pm ET | ESPN2, Univision, TUDN).

It’s not only a grudge match against an ancient rival, a regional giant and the early leader in the Ocho standings. It’s also the cradle of Pepi’s heritage, his parents’ birthplace and a country whose colors the dual-eligible talent wore at youth national team level.

“I've been an El Tri fan for most of Ricardo’s life and beyond,” Pepi’s father Daniel, who was also his first coach, told MLSsoccer.com earlier this year. “But when he decided to join the US and fight for the US – soccer-wise, I'm talking soccer-wise – I'm all USA, man. Let's go USA … My El Tri shirt, it's already behind every other jersey in the closet.”

Ricardo Pepi is No. 1 on the 22 under 22 presented by BODYARMOR list

Ricardo, who expects 10 or more family members to be in the stands at TQL Stadium, once patterned his game after Raul Jimenez and remembers eagerly watching US-Mexico showdowns as far back as elementary-school age.

“Honestly, I was just rooting for Mexico back then. And representing the US, it's very important that we go out there this next game and we go out and get the win,” he said, later adding that he visualized a moment like Friday’s as he made what he dubbed an agonizing decision of allegiance over the summer.

“There was a talk that I had with my dad, that I had with my family in general. I was just bringing everything to the table to them: I was talking about what it would be like walking out [onto the field] playing the game vs. Mexico,” Pepi said on Tuesday. “We talked about how special it would be, and how motivating that would be for me, just to be able to get called up to the national team, be able to play in that game. So that made me work harder as a player.”

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In both his choice of team and his levels of performance, Pepi carries rich symbolism for U.S. Soccer, especially in a moment where many of his fellow Mexican-Americans like Julian Araujo (LA Galaxy) and David Ochoa (Real Salt Lake) have picked El Tri. Add in the momentous winter ahead of him, during which he’s widely expected to be the subject of large transfer bids from European suitors, he would seem to carry great weight on his young shoulders.

Paso a paso; one step at a time.

“There's conversations that I have with coach Gregg, I have conversations with my teammates here in the national team, players like Christian Pulisic, players like Weston McKennie who I've always tried to take advice from, because they're in that place, in Europe, just playing at the highest level of soccer,” said Pepi. “So those are players that I’m always trying to talk to and just get some advice from them. And also just my family and my agent, I think they're very important for me to just be able to keep my mind on what's next and not focus on the future.”

He’s worn the spotlight well so far; it will surely shine brighter than ever on Friday.

“I'm going to get some goosebumps for sure,” said this year's 22 Under 22 presented by BODYARMOR leader. “I'm going to be very motivated for the game, and I'm going to be prepared for it.”