When Ricardo Pepi got the fateful call that every U.S. men's national team player dreaded — when Gregg Berhalter rang in early November to break the news that he wouldn't be going to the World Cup — Pepi hung up.
He wasn't necessarily angry. "I was in shock," he'd later say. "It took me five minutes to get it in my mind. I just couldn't believe it. So he called his agent and then his dad. He never thought to ask Berhalter for an explanation, he said, because "I didn't want to give myself any excuses." He didn't want to know.
Instead, he said on a Dutch podcast in January, "My mentality was: 'I didn't make it. It's time to get to work.'"
Which is what he did, and that work led him back to the USMNT four months later, for two CONCACAF Nations League games this past week. And in both, Pepi reminded teammates and fans of the teenage talent that had carried them through World Cup qualifying. He started and scored twice in a 7-1 pounding of Grenada on Friday. Three days later, he came off the bench and unlocked El Salvador with his second touch:
His goal — the product of a sharp, explosive run and a clever, composed finish — was the only one of a 1-0 U.S. win over El Salvador. It clinched the Americans a place in June's Nations League finals, where they'll defend the inaugural title they won in 2021.
But that was all but assumed. (The U.S. needed only a draw.) The bigger news was that Pepi, El Tren, is back on track.
He was the USMNT's No. 9 for much of the qualifying cycle, shortly after choosing to play for the country of his birth over that of his parents, Mexico. He scored pivotal goals and earned a $20 million move to Augsburg in Germany. But then the goals dried up, for club and country. For almost a year, the then-19-year-old didn't once hit the back of a net.
Then he went on loan to Groningen in the Netherlands and rebounded.
Then he fell short of the World Cup roster he assumed he'd be on.
He's likened it all to being on a "roller-coaster," an emotionally draining one. But he never leapt off.
His temporary club, Groningen, is struggling mightily, but the national team provided a reprieve. And Pepi, in return, provided a lift after a sleepy first half. Two minutes after replacing Daryl Dike, he detected a channel and burst into it. He powered past a Salvadorian defender, then shrugged him off with a strong arm and a shoulder. With his angles evaporating, he dinked a delicate chip over the keeper and into the net.
And he smiled. So did his teammates, including Gio Reyna. He wheeled away in celebration, as if it were 2021 again, and as if the kid from El Paso, Texas, was on a high-speed Acela toward superstardom. Because, you know, he very well could still be.