Ricardo Pepi is focused on enjoying a breakout season with Augsburg in the Bundesliga in 2022/23. - © DFL
Ricardo Pepi is focused on enjoying a breakout season with Augsburg in the Bundesliga in 2022/23. - © DFL
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Will 2022/23 be USMNT forward Ricardo Pepi’s breakout season?

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Having had half a season to adapt to life in the Bundesliga, and with a new coach at the helm and the FIFA World Cup on the horizon, the stars appear to be aligning for Augsburg’s USMNT forward Ricardo Pepi to have a breakout campaign.

The 19-year-old made a name for himself with hometown club FC Dallas, plundering 13 goals and two assists in 31 MLS appearances in 2021.

That prompted Augsburg to pull off a major coup by winning the race for his signature in January this year, handing him a four-and-a-half-year contract, while – 15th in the table at the time - hoping he could help fire them to safety.

As a teenager on his own in a foreign country, however, Pepi has obviously needed time to adapt to a new language, culture and playing style. As such, the fact he was unable to register a goal or assist in 11 appearances (four starts), should be viewed against that backdrop; a period of finding his feet, laying the foundation for future success.

And there is every reason to believe that success is just around the corner for Pepi. The new 2022/23 season represents a fresh start for all players, but especially so at Augsburg with a new head coach on the touchline.

Enrico Maaßen is the man in the hotseat now, the 38-year-old taking over after Markus Weinzierl stepped down at the end of last season after securing the team’s survival with two games to spare. It may be Maaßen’s maiden position as a top-flight first-team head coach, but Augsburg deliberately gave him a three-year contract as a sign of the trust they have in him.

"We've been following the development of Enrico with real interest in recent years," said Augsburg sporting director Stefan Reuter. "He's a young coach, who is hungry for success and wants to improve. He gives young players a lot of attention and has proven he can support them […] We're convinced he'll develop the team with an exciting brand of football.”

That confidence appears well-placed as the tactician previously guided the Borussia Dortmund U23s to the Regionalliga West title in his first season in charge, before overseeing a ninth-placed finish in the third division in 2021/22.

Enrico Maaßen will be steering Augsburg's ship from the touchline this season. - IMAGO/Kirchner/Marco Steinbrenner/IMAGO/Kirchner-Media

Not only that, but the fact Maaßen was schooled in Dortmund’s coaching cradle means he is familiar with the benefits of giving talented youngsters like Pepi a chance. At BVB he worked directly with the likes of Steffen Tigges, who moved to Cologne over the summer; Ansgar Knauff, now on loan at Eintracht Frankfurt, having helped the Eagles win the UEFA Europa League; and Lennard Maloney, now at Bundesliga 2 side Heidenheim.

All of which bodes well for Pepi ahead of Qatar 2022 in November. Nothing sharpens a player’s focus like a singular determination to be included in a World Cup squad, and the Texas native goes into the campaign doubly motivated.

Pepi was not called up to Gregg Berhalter’s squad for the team’s friendlies and CONCACAF Nations League fixtures in June.

"He's asked to play slightly different for Augsburg,” said Berhalter when asked about Pepi earlier this year. “When he's on the field, they're creating chances by him running behind the backline, not so much from service.

Watch: US Stars: World Cup Bound

“And we hopefully will get some more service in the penalty box and that will help them out a little bit when he plays. So [his lack of club goals] is a concern of mine, but I've spoken to him at length.

“He's a goalscorer and that comes naturally to him. And that's something we need him to refocus on, clear his mind, focus on doing the small things, getting in good positions, because if he gets in good positions, we're comfortable he's going to score.”

With fellow forwards Andi Zeqiri and Alfred Finnbogason having left Augsburg this summer, the path is now clear for Pepi to make the position his own – something that would undoubtedly catch Berhalter’s eye.

And the coach will be paying particularly close attention to the Bundesliga following the arrival of Jordan ‘Pefok’ Siebatcheu at Union Berlin. The powerful forward is likewise looking to cement his spot on the US World Cup roster, setting up an intriguing head-to-head with Pepi as the USMNT’s two frontrunners bid to one up each other.

Pepi can take further heart from the path of his compatriots who moved to Germany’s top flight from MLS clubs. For example, Gio Reyna joined Dortmund in July 2019 and spent the latter part of that year settling in his new surroundings with the U19s, before making a splash with the seniors in early 2020. Yet even then it wasn’t until the 2020/21 season that he began producing goals and assists consistently in the starting line-up.

Borussia Mönchengladbach defender Joe Scally’s story is a similar one. The New York native arrived in Germany in January 2021 but spent the first six months with the reserves. It was this time last year when, taking advantage of injuries to players in his position, that Scally began to thrive in the first team and eventually establish himself in the side.

Pepi, then, is primed to follow a similar pattern, especially now with a full pre-season behind him to understand his new coach’s tactics. After all, as the famous sporting adage goes: ‘form is temporary, class is permanent’.

And Pepi has class in abundance. Still just 19, he’s too good not to come good eventually - and he finally got off the mark for Augsburg with his first goal in the team's 5-0 pre-season win over TSV Schwaben Augsburg. Three goals and three assists in 10 senior international caps tells its own story, while you don’t get voted as the 2021 MLS Young Player of the Year for nothing.

Write him off at your peril: the Pepi train is just getting started.