On September 8, inside Estadio Olímpico Metropolitano in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, the U.S. men’s national soccer team appeared headed for yet another meltdown.

The World Cup qualifying match felt like a must-win, and the Americans were trailing 0–1 to Honduras at the half. A loss would see the U.S. men’s national team fall far behind in its just-beginning six-month quest to make the 2022 World Cup and, perhaps just as importantly, in its quest to avoid repeating the disaster of failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

The team had only been able to earn draws in its previous two games, the first of this year’s World Cup qualifying cycle. Another draw, or worse, a loss, would leave the United States needing to make up more points in future matches, with no guarantee of success. Inside a spartan visitor’s locker room during halftime, U.S. head coach Gregg Berhalter kept his speech pointedly short. Aside from announcing player substitutions and an on-field formation change, he simply asked the team, “Who’s gonna step up?”

Sitting and listening to the coach, eighteen-year-old FC Dallas striker Ricardo Pepi, appearing for the first time with the U.S. men’s national team after staying on the bench in the previous two matches, also knew something needed to happen. Although Pepi was the second-youngest U.S. player ever to debut for the national team’s senior squad in a World Cup qualifying match, he felt confident in his play during the first half.

“We struggled for a bit and were losing,” the El Paso native, nicknamed El Tren (“the Train”), says. “Coach Berhalter moved some pieces around during halftime, but I didn’t think of it as a time where I had to step up as much as a point where I really had to keep playing my game the way I know I can.”

The schematic adjustments and Pepi’s assertiveness paid off early in the second half. The U.S. evened the score in the forty-eighth minute on a goal assisted by Pepi. Then, in the seventy-fifth minute, the El Paso teenager soared above his defenders to send a header into the net for his first goal in international play, cementing the U.S. lead for good in a dominating 4–1 victory. That goal made Pepi the fourth-youngest player to score in his U.S. men’s national team debut.

One particularly impressive aspect of Pepi’s star-making half was that it came while many of the United States’ biggest names were off the field. Christian Pulisic, a midfielder for the English Premier League’s Chelsea FC, hurt his knee and was forced to leave the pitch minutes before Pepi’s goal (Pulisic returned later in the match). Sergiño Dest, a fullback for storied Spanish club FC Barcelona, along with Borussia Dortmund midfielder Gio Reyna, didn’t suit up thanks to injuries. Fellow Texan-bred talent and Juventus star Weston McKennie had been sent home from the team due to violating team rules prior to the match.

To put it simply, a hero was needed and Pepi was that hero.

Pepi’s speed, tenacity, vision, and creativity were key factors in his performance against Honduras. Instantly, the recent high-school graduate was the talk of the soccer world. Never before in FC Dallas’s 26-year history had a player on its active roster made a splash this big on such a grand stage. Headlines at national sports-media outlets announced what felt like destiny—El Tren had arrived, and just in time.

Pepi sparks huge USMNT comeback,” stated Sports Illustrated. ESPN proclaimed: “Pepi’s stunning USMNT debut in crucial World Cup qualification win vs. Honduras eases pressure on Coach Gregg Berhalter.” Roger Bennett, cohost of the soccer podcast Men in Blazers, gushed, calling Pepi’s success “all that’s good about this nation.”

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Because Major League Soccer and FC Dallas aren’t the sports world’s glitziest brands, several fans wondered how Pepi had emerged so suddenly. To the FC Dallas faithful, though, Pepi’s play was no surprise. Not only had Pepi clinched the MLS All-Star Game with a penalty kick weeks before the Honduras match, but he had also been among the league’s most prolific and electrifying goal-scorers throughout the season. 

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Pepi didn’t simply appear out of nowhere. At the tender age of eighteen, he’s already a veteran product of the U.S. soccer system. He moved from El Paso to the Dallas area when he was thirteen to join FC Dallas’s youth academy. There, he lived with a host family in north Texas for a year before his family moved east to join him full-time. In 2019, Pepi scored a hat trick in his first match for FC Dallas’s developmental affiliate club, North Texas SC. This year, Pepi has dazzled MLS from day one, hammering goals with regularity and establishing himself as a star for a team brimming with homegrown talent.

Before Pepi stepped up to the top level of international soccer, however, he had to make a dramatic, line-in-the-sand choice. Pepi’s parents, Daniel and Annette Pepi, both hail from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. That meant Pepi would be eligible to compete for either the United States or Mexico, but neither country’s senior national team had invited him to play just yet. Speculation over which country he would choose buzzed within soccer circles, and on August 26, his decision became official when the U.S. team announced its roster for last month’s trio of World Cup qualifying matches.

Pepi tweeted a personal note about his decision. After paying tribute to his Mexican heritage, he wrote: “I was born and raised in the USA. This country has given me and my family a home, and endless possibilities to achieve my dreams. It has supported me, it has lifted me up, and it has showed me that when you work hard you will be rewarded. I am very proud to be called in to help the @USMNT qualify for the 2022 World Cup. This means the world to me.”

When interviewed, Pepi is exceedingly polite. Almost too polite. Ask him about rumors that prominent clubs from England, Germany, and the Netherlands hope to soon lure him overseas, and he’s unfailingly diplomatic. Sure, he welcomes the chance to maybe one day play in Europe, but his focus is on FC Dallas’s next opponent, thank you.

As someone who has often been the youngest player on his teams, he lets his game and skill do the talking, though he doesn’t directly aim to prove himself to his older, more accomplished teammates. He says he reminds himself that he’s earned his place on the squad, whether it be in MLS or the national team, and that his game is worthy regardless of his age.

Following the victory in Honduras, Pepi was named Man of the Match and Berhalter presented him with the game ball. In what might be the coach’s biggest no-brainer choice heading into this month’s slate of World Cup qualifiers, Berhalter penciled in Pepi’s name for the roster that will play three matches over the next week, beginning Thursday against Jamaica at Austin’s Q2 Stadium.

Two weeks after Pepi’s star-making performance, Berhalter was still marveling at his young star’s play. “Think about eighteen years old,” he said on the U.S. Soccer podcast. “He makes his debut in Honduras, a notoriously difficult place to play; ends up having a goal and assist and playing ninety minutes. That’s incredible.”

When asked to reflect on how his life and career have changed since watching the U.S. men’s national team fall short of the Word Cup four years ago, Pepi lets a little wide-eyed emotion seep into his answer, but not much. He’s got more work to do, he says. More games to play, more goals to score.

“Four years ago, I wasn’t expecting to be in this moment I am in now. It’s crazy, really, but I’m here now.”