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CONCACAF World Cup Qualifiers

Twellman says Ricardo Pepi is answer to its most glaring problem

Taylor Twellman understands goal-scoring for the United States Men’s National Team (USMNT). In 30 appearances for Team USA, the striker bagged six goals. Not an amazing tally, but it shows success. Moreover, the American thrived in Major League Soccer where he won two Golden Boots, amassing 109 goals in 190 appearances for the New England Revolution.

Now, as a soccer analyst for ESPN, he regularly provides insight into the USMNT.

Taylor Twellman

In a conversation with World Soccer Talk, Twellman discussed the U.S.’s recent victory in Honduras, and where the team goes from here.

With the USMNT beginning their 2022 World Cup Qualifiers, it’s time to start deliberating what works for the team.

One of the glaring issues has to be the striker position. Currently, the United States holds perhaps their most talented roster ever. Furthermore, Christian Pulisic, Gio Reyna, Weston McKennie, Sergino Dest and Zack Steffen all compete at top European clubs in varying positions. There is obvious room for optimism in the United States Men’s National Team with this depth.

However, there is not a top player that occupies the striker position, at least not yet. A true No. 9 and an outlet to score goals holds back the offensive prowess of the talents on the roster.

Now, as seen in the U.S.’s recent victory over Honduras in the World Cup Qualifiers, the nation may have found their man.

Taylor Twellman on Ricardo Pepi

Ricardo Pepi is just 18. He is the second-youngest player for the USMNT to make his World Cup Qualifier debut.

His performance against Honduras showed a glimpse of his potential. The game-winning goal coupled with a pair of assists in his senior debut propelled the Americans to a 4-1 win on the road.

“This is a player we’ve heard about, in the circles of Major League Soccer, for about two-and-a-half years,” Taylor Twellman said.

“I love everything about how active he is, how mobile he is. But, most importantly, everything is about scoring goals.”

In his third season at FC Dallas, Ricardo Pepi has over a third of the club’s total goals. (Photo by Rick Yeatts)

For Pepi, goals are obviously his top priority. One goal in one game is not a bad ratio. Albeit, that’s a small sample size. Furthermore, he has 11 goals in 21 appearances for FC Dallas in the 2021 MLS regular season.

His now-14 goals for FC Dallas rank him fourth-all-time in MLS goals scored by a teenager. Also, let’s remember that he is still 18. There will still be time for him to score a few more in his teenage years.

In his one appearance, his ability transferred seamlessly to the international game. Moreover, that is no easy task when playing on the road in CONCACAF.

A true No. 9

Taylor Twellman played the No. 9 position. He knows when someone has what it takes to play the role.

“The No. 9 position has never been a question for the United States over the last 24 or 25 years.” Twellman said.

“It is now.”

With the likes of Clint Dempsey leading the line for a decade, the U.S. had a reliable presence in front of goal. His retirement left a void that no player has truly stepped into. Ricardo Pepi may be that name to fill the gap.

“If Ricardo Pepi is playing at this level, and he is by no means a finished product,… what does that do to all the other players?”

“It completes the system.”

Christian Pulisic likes to play wide, get creative and come inside. He bounces off the likes of Timo Werner or Romelu Lukaku at Chelsea. Gio Reyna’s link-up play with Erling Haaland at Borussia Dortmund allows him to flourish. Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams can take on more of a playmaker role when they have a reliable presence up top. Internationally, these players do not have that same talent.

Now, let’s not compare an 18-year-old that plays for FC Dallas to the world’s top strikers. Just for the international team, these players need an outlet than can steadily and consistently provide goals.

One game in, and Ricardo Pepi is doing just that.

Building on a win

Looking at the USMNT’s win over Honduras holistically, there is legitimate reason for optimism in the American camp.

When manager Gregg Berhalter released his starting XI against Honduras, everyone raised an eyebrow or two. Four players made their World Cup Qualifiers debut in a seemingly must-win game. Now, with a 4-1 win and a crucial three points, these young players have confidence and experience with a come-from-behind victory on the road.

“You can say you know what it is going to feel like,” Taylor Twellman said, “it is not until you do it.”

Taylor Twellman added that even the most experienced players looked shaky during this three-game stretch. Notably, John Brooks came off at halftime against Honduras due to his performance and a trailing scoreline.

Photo credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Whatever people made of Gregg Berhalter’s decision leading up to the game, he nailed his substitutions. Ironically, that comes off the back of some criticism for waiting too long to make changes in their 1-1 draw with Canada.

“This could be a pivotal moment for the United States under Berhalter,” Twellman noted.

“However, I think we’re going to get a real good idea of that come October.”

In October, the USMNT plays another set of three games. The team welcomes Jamaica and Costa Rica for home games, separated by a trip to Panama.

With five points from three games, Twellman says the team is slightly behind pace. The draw against Canada felt like a massive disappointment. But, the thumping victory over Honduras made amends.

Expect Ricardo Pepi to continue to appear on the scoresheet for the Americans.

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  1. dave

    September 10, 2021 at 3:47 pm

    @Kyle, good article, Gregg finally got out of the way, but will he revert to old habits in October? CONCACAF defenders make bad errors under pressure, and the lineup and game plan should account for that. Yes, please, to a striker. I had never seen Pepi play (I do not follow FC Dallas), and hope to see more of him
    @jason, your comment “That is how USA lost in 2017, they never gapped themselves to Panama and Honduras” is insightful. USMNT close with @Canada, Honduras, @Mexico, Panama, @Ticos. Better to be de facto qualified before that stretch
    @locofooty, I suspect even the most red-white-blue-tinted glasses agree USMNT is not really top-10. USMNT got 5 points off 3 teams that are around #60 in the world. Brazil or Italy or any bona fide top-10 could slumber through CONCACAF qualifying

  2. locofooty

    September 10, 2021 at 1:33 pm

    Shows you FIFA rankings are ridiculous.

  3. jason

    September 10, 2021 at 1:23 pm

    @Turfit Got that right. Only 9 points on October can make amends. We got lucky in that many of the other games ended up being draws as well. Goal in terms of standings for now is to gap the USA to the other Central American teams specifically. That is how USA lost in 2017, they never gapped themselves to Panama and Honduras, the entire 2017 Hex campaign they stumbled enough to only remain 1-3 points ahead of them throughout. And then Couva happened.

  4. Turfit

    September 10, 2021 at 12:31 pm

    I’m sorry, but 5 points in those 3 matches is unacceptable!!! 5 points from the 59th, 63rd, 64th ranked teams when the USA is ranked 10th. Unacceptable!!!!

  5. jason

    September 10, 2021 at 12:06 pm

    9 points in the October window can change this. It no doubt can be done. Lets hope Gregg gets some sense knocked into him. USMNT did get unlucky with player attrition too but the depth showed thanfully.

    Crazy enough if USMNT does well you might also want to see Mexico (ugh hate to say this) and Canada (no problem here I love Can), doing well in next few games as well. That way the USMNT can put some distance in the standings between them and the Central American teams.

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