It was an unremarkable type of goal – a header from just outside the six-yard box, neatly glanced low into the far corner. More notable than the finish was the identity of the scorer and what it might mean for the US men’s national team as they play their last two games before the Qatar World Cup, starting with a friendly against Japan on Friday.
Ricardo Pepi was named the MLS Young Player of the Year after scoring 13 times for FC Dallas in 2021. US head coach Gregg Berhalter had reason to be grateful for the teenager’s lethal form last September when Pepi scored on his international debut and provided two assists as the Americans recovered from a 1-0 deficit to beat Honduras 4-1 in San Pedro Sula.
That was the US’s third game in Concacaf qualifying. They only drew the first two and Berhalter’s job security would have been the subject of intense scrutiny had they lost to the weakest team in the group. Instead, the US went on to beat Jamaica 2-0 in October and the Texan grabbed both goals in Austin to cement his status as an ascendent star.
As Pepi jogged towards the corner flag to take the adulation of the crowd and his teammates after steering a cross low into the net in the 62nd minute, no one would have imagined that he would not celebrate again for nearly a year.
Pepi’s goal for FC Groningen against Sparta Rotterdam last Saturday ended an astonishing 30-match, 345-day scoreless streak for the striker. He joined Augsburg in January for a reported $20m-plus…