FRISCO, Texas — With 84 minutes on the clock as FC Dallas coasted past Toronto FC last weekend, Dallas head coach Luchi Gonzalez gave an MLS debut to the latest member of his youth movement at Toyota Stadium.
And while such debuts seem almost normal around Frisco, for Pepi, it was the long-sought-after reward for his family's sacrifices, as well as his own.
"It means a lot," said Pepi afterward. "I had to leave my family in El Paso. My parents had to move and leave their friends, and everything. Making this debut means a lot to me and my family because it shows that what we did sacrifice paid off."
A striker at one of Dallas' nine affiliate clubs in El Paso, at age 12 Pepi was brought to the attention of Gonzalez, then the Academy Director in Frisco, at an annual talent identification event for the club's residency program.
"Every year myself and [scouting director] Francisco Molina would go to El Paso to do a presentation to the staff about the FC Dallas way," Gonzalez told MLSsoccer.com. "Then we would also do an open training, almost a combine, just two days open training with all of the players in the age groups of the affiliate for scouting and recruiting purposes to find talent that would join our residency in Dallas. We went through that weekend and we saw Pepi in 2015 where he's just at the age of potentially joining our U-13s."
Watching a tall, powerful player dominate in such a controlled setting can be deceiving. But Gonzalez and Molina saw enough in the young striker to offer a trial for Pepi to spend time with the U-13 Academy side in Frisco.
"He had a gift for being around the goal and in the box, finishing different ways, one or two touch," said Gonzalez. "He had good mobility. He was a big boy, so there was always a concern of if he was an early developer and would just be bigger, stronger, faster than everybody, and then hit a plateau where he wouldn't continue to excel when everybody else physically catches up to him. He got a few inches taller still, and when everyone did physically grow around him he showed his game intelligence, his timing and movement."
Pepi still remembers the sessions well.
"I saw Profe Luchi and Molina, and I was motivated because I wanted to be here," he recalled. "I worked hard for two days, and then after that they talked to me and they said I was pretty good and to keep working hard. After another two months I remember they caught up and asked me to come train with the academy."
Pepi earned a spot and excelled in the academy, bagging 18 goals in his first season in Frisco. And when FC Dallas announced their USL Leage One side North Texas SC a 15-year-old Pepi became the club's first signing. He would go on to score a hat-trick in the team's opening game.
Two starts for Dallas in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup against USL Championship opposition saw a new test for the teenager, before being signed as FC Dallas' 26th Homegrown Player signing this month. While Pepi made his league debut just days later, coming off the bench with six minutes remaining, Gonzalez is keen to utilize loans back to North Texas SC to ensure that Pepi is getting enough time on the field that his development does not stagnate.
"At some point every two or three weeks we'll have to analyze and say he's made the roster, which is great, but if he's not getting significant minutes with the first team we're going to intentionally bring him down to the second team to make sure that he gets those minutes," said Gonzalez. "Those professional minutes, those experiences, so he maintains his confidence and rhythm and continues to develop."
While comparisons can be difficult as players develop, Gonzalez has at least one in mind as Pepi continues to evolve. He currently plays for Bayern Munich.
"[Robert] Lewandowski," said Gonzalez when asked to select a current player to project Pepi's future development. "It's the style. He may not be as good, but you never know. In terms of the profile, habits with and without the ball, movement, and technique, as well as similar physical characteristics, I would say Lewandowski."