Pulisic Who? Ricardo Pepi Steps Up When USMNT Really F*cking Needed It

Panic meters were reaching Cuova levels on Wednesday night in San Pedro Sula. The U.S. trailed Honduras at halftime and it looked like the Americans were headed toward a dismal two points from their first three World Cup qualifiers. Gregg Berhalter made three halftime changes, somewhat surprisingly leaving on qualifying novices Ricardo Pepi and James Sands.

Ricardo Pepi repaid the faith.

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The second youngest USMNT player to ever appear in a World Cup qualifier — behind only Christian Pulisic — the 18-year-old Pepi played a pivotal role in all four goals to lead the U.S. to a much-needed 4-1 win over Honduras on Wednesday. The win gave Gregg Berhalter’s side five points from its first three matches — not a great start, but certainly not the disaster the Americans were facing down 1-0 at halftime. 

Pepi, playing in his first-ever USMNT game, will be credited with a goal and an assist, but he was key in starting the play for the equalizer and his saved shot set up Sebastian Lletget’s stoppage-time cherry on top. The final three goals came after Pulisic hobbled off the pitch with an apparent ankle injury, a worry for Chelsea but right now secondary to the USMNT’s massive win.

Heading into a near must-win match on the road in a hostile environment, Berhalter chose an extremely young lineup featuring four World Cup qualifying newcomers, with Pepi leading the line. 

Pepi has been a breakout star in MLS for FC Dallas and recently chose to represent the U.S. over Mexico. You can read here about why USMNT fans are excited about this youngster, or you can just read on to see how he turned Wednesday’s match around. 

At halftime of Wednesday’s match, USMNT’s World Cup hopes were dismal. Brayan Moya scored in the 27th minute for Honduras, which racked up a worrisome 11 first-half shots. 

The Gooch, the Deuce and Davies were despondent at halftime of Paramount+’s halftime show. The USMNT traditionally struggles on the road in World Cup qualifying, especially when going behind a goal. 

Berhalter, who has received a metric shit ton of criticism for earning draws in the first two qualifiers against El Salvador and Canada, made three changes at the half, adding Antonee Robinson, Lletget and Brenden Aaronson to the mix. The changes paid near immediate dividends, but Pepi was in the middle of it all.

Ricardo Pepi vs Honduras (Sept. 8, 2021)

The U.S. equalized when Pepi’s hold-up play sparked an attack that ended in Robinson placing the ball into the side netting. Pepi not only started the play, he pulled defenders away from Robinson, giving him the time and space needed to score the all-important first goal. 

A-plus on the celebration from Robinson, who was huge in the second half.

After Pulisic left injured in the 62nd minute, it looked like either side could come away with all three points. Somewhat surprisingly given the fact he waited so long to use substitutes against Canada, Berhalter used his fifth and final sub to replace Sands with DeAndre Yedlin in the 73rd minute. Almost immediately, Yedlin supplied the cross for Pepi to head home what proved to be the winner. 

A first USMNT goal in his first USMNT appearance, and what a time to do it.

But Pepi wasn’t done. 

In the waning minutes of the 90, the pressing of Cristian Roldan forced a turnover that fell to Pepi. The Texan raced forward before laying off to Aaronson to put the game away.

And if that wasn’t enough, Pepi had one last opportunity on goal. Though his shot was saved, Lletget was there to pounce on the rebound and add a little to the goal difference.

That’s four goals, four contributions from Ricardo Pepi. 

After the match, Pepi gave the perfect post-game interview.

Let’s. Go. USMNT fans can exhale after a nervy night.

The USMNT now has jumped up to a three-way tie for second place in the Concacaf qualifying octagon, behind Mexico, which battled back for a 1-1 draw with Panama earlier Wednesday. Canada, which trounced El Salvador 3-0, and Panama also have five points. The top three teams automatically qualify for Qatar 2022, while the fourth-place team goes to an intercontinental playoff.

Next up for the U.S. will be the October qualifiers against Jamaica in Austin, Texas, Panama in Panama City and Costa Rica in Columbus, Ohio, from Oct. 7-13.

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