What can we expect from Ricardo Pepi at Augsburg?
Ricardo Pepi models his game on Robert Lewandowski and Erling Haaland, was the 2021 MLS' young player of the year, and the teenager is already a USMNT star, so what can the Bundesliga expect to see from Augsburg's new signing? Quite simply, goals.
"I see Augsburg and the Bundesliga as the perfect environment to be able to collect a lot of match practice at the highest level as a young player," said Pepi after putting pen to paper on a four-and-a-half-year deal to seal his "dream move" to Europe.
Given the talent and determination Pepi has shown on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, making him the MLS' most expensive homegrown player looks like being the best business Augsburg have done in some time.
bundesliga.com turns the spotlight on the next big thing out of the USA, who made his Bundesliga debut on Matchday 18.
"I'm gonna score. I'm gonna score. I'm gonna score," is what Pepi tells his family ahead of every game. He then meditates with kick-off approaching. "This all has a lot to do with the mind," he says. "If you're prepared for it, if you expect it, then it's going to come." You too would have laser-sharp focus, inner peace and supreme self-confidence if you had Pepi's stats.
FC Dallas did not have the best of 2021 seasons, but the Texas franchise did see Pepi enjoy his breakout campaign. He netted 13 times in 24 regular season starts as well as providing three assists, meaning the teenager - who only turned 19 on 9 January - was involved in 16 of his team's 47 goals, a very healthy 34 per cent.
Among all-time teenage MLS goalscorers, only Diego Fagundez and Eddie Gaven can boast better tallies, and both of those played many more games than Pepi, who struck every 174 minutes on the pitch for Dallas. That ratio was helped by three goals he claimed in Dallas' 4-0 win over the LA Galaxy in late July 2021 making Pepi the youngest scorer of an MLS hat-trick at 18 years and 196 days old.
"He's competitive. Forget about the goalscoring. He's competitive," said ex-USA international and Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich forward Landon Donovan. "He works hard. He really grinds when he plays. And then when he gets a chance in the box, he's absolutely lethal."
While his 6'1" frame means he is adept at holding the ball up and his football intelligence allows him to bring others into play easily, you see Pepi's potential most clearly, as Donovan noted, in front of goal where he bears the traits of his two idols, both of whom he now plays alongside in the Bundesliga.
"There are players like Robert [Lewandowski] and Erling Haaland I compare my game to," Pepi told CBS. "I like to watch their movements and do some video work on them. Lewandowski is one of the best strikers in the world, and I like to compare myself to him - a lot."
The established Bayern and Borussia Dortmund superstars would be proud of the 46 per cent ratio that Pepi boasted in getting shots on target in the last MLS season. He can also finish with either foot, giving him the deadly unpredictability that is the stuff of defenders' and goalkeepers' nightmares.
"We're all excited," said USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter. "He's an 18-year-old who, when he gets an opportunity, takes advantage. What you see and I think what I really like is that he has this instinct, and it's really hard to teach that to players. It's not easy to come back, and he knew eyes were on him and the word I'd use is 'professional'. I thought he had an excellent performance."
That performance was Pepi's sensational USMNT debut in the 4-1 win in Honduras in September's 2022 FIFA World Cup tie, the Americans' first maximum haul of the CONCACAF third round of qualifying that had begun with two underwhelming draws.
In the space of his first 90 minutes in the colours of his country, the El Paso native notched a goal - the USA's decisive second, 15 minutes from time - and teed up a further two strikes to kickstart hopes of reaching the final tournament in Qatar. "That game was special," said Pepi after becoming his country's second-youngest debutant after Christian Pulisic. If that was special, then how good was following it up with both goals in the 2-0 defeat of Jamaica in his native Texas in the very next qualifier?
A grateful nation could feel doubly thankful for Pepi against Honduras as he could easily have been playing in Panama City that same night wearing the colours of Mexico, the country where his parents, Daniel and Annette, come from.
"I talked to my parents about it," said Pepi, who as a child would spend weekends with his Mexican relatives south of the Rio Grande. "I asked my dad for his opinion, and he didn't really say much. He said wherever I wanted to play, he would support me."
That was a tough decision for Pepi, and if you're wondering whether he has the mentality to succeed in Europe, doubt not.
He joined FC Dallas' youth academy at 13, moving a 10-hour drive away from his family in the hope of making it. Desperately homesick, he begged his family to join him. His father told him they would not. "I love you all," was Ricardo's reply. "But this is my dream and I'm going to stay. I'll miss all of you." Yes, it may only be an exhibition game, but when the MLS All Stars and their Liga MX counterparts faced off last year in their very first encounter, want to take a guess at who scored the winning penalty in the shoot-out?
"Without overdoing it, that kid's hungry," said Pepi's Dallas coach Luchi Gonzalez, who was appointed one of Berhalter's assistants in December 2021. "He's telling me, 'Let's go'. He's telling me with urgency we need to win, so that tells me everything about him."
A year later, the Pepi family was reunited in Dallas with the parental influence that had been crucial in getting Ricardo that far pushing him to even greater heights.
"Yes, I was hard on him," dad Daniel admits, recounting the days when he told Ricardo in no uncertain terms he needed to belt up or bail out on his ambitions of being a professional footballer.
"I'd make him take his uniform and cleats off and put them in the trash. I'd tell him, 'Look, if you don't want to play, that's fine. Don't play. But you're not going to be wasting my time and much less, my money.'"
Pepi has certainly wasted very little time since, and is already aware of the demands the European game will place on him after spending a three-week trial at Bayern in February 2021 along with the likes of Chris Richards as part of the record German champions' partnership with FC Dallas.
"Training over there is intense," said Pepi. "There's a lot of technical aspects to the game with ball movement and ball recovery. I'd say there was a lot of running because that's something that they look for there. I want to get my level to where they're at and I know there's work to be done, but also I'm happy to know where I am compared to them."
Playing against them every single week should give him an even clearer idea.
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