usatoday– There is still more than a year until the World Cup in Qatar. You would do well to get to know Ricardo Pepi’s name.
The 18-year-old, the second-youngest American to play in a World Cup qualifier, bailed the U.S. men out with a go-ahead goal in the 75th minute against Honduras on Thursday night, then had assists on two more before the final whistle. Instead of ending the first qualifying window deep in a hole like they were four years ago – and we all know how that went – the Americans are tied with Panama and Canada with five points, two behind Mexico.
The last goal in the 4-1 win over Honduras, by Sebastian Lletget in stoppage time, moved the Americans ahead of Panama in goal differential. That’s no small thing, because only the top three teams when Concacaf qualifying ends in March earn spots in Qatar while the fourth-place team goes to a playoff.
Qualifying resumes next month.
This was a must-win game for the much-hyped U.S. men, who had just two points after their first two games – one of which was at home. Yet the Americans looked as bad as they have at any point in these first three games in the first half. Lackluster, disorganized, downright inept at times. If the Americans turned the ball over once, they did it 20 times – and then never had an answer for Honduras’ counter attack.
Honduras had three shots in a seven-minute span, and anyone watching had the sickening feeling that it was a matter of when it scored rather than if. Sure enough, in the 27th, the USMNT turned the ball over – again – and with John Brooks still up field, an unmarked Brayan Moya scored on a diving header.
More questionable personnel moves by coach Gregg Berhalter didn’t help. Sure, the Americans were without regular starters Gio Reyna (hamstring), Sergino Dest (ankle) and Zack Steffen (COVID-19), while Weston McKennie was sent back to Italy early after violating the team’s COVID protocols.
But Tyler Adams on the right side rather than his natural spot in central defense? A 3-4-1-2, kind of, formation? No Brenden Aaronson to start?
Berhalter did make one good move, however: Starting Pepi.
The teenager was eligible to play for both the USMNT and Mexico, and only announced his choice two weeks ago. Berhalter had said repeatedly that he would have no qualms about playing Pepi, and everyone now knows why.
Only Christian Pulisic was younger when he made his first appearance in a World Cup qualifier, 17 when he came on as a substitute in March 2016.
Pepi was solid in the first half – one of the few Americans who could say that. But he really came alive in the second half.
It was his disruption in front of the goal that cleared the way for Antonee Robinson’s right-footed shot in the 48th. Pepi pulled a defender off, giving Robinson a wide-open shot.
But it was Pepi’s goal in the 75th that prompted not just an exhale but euphoria from the USMNT and its fans.
Fed from the right side by DeAndre Yedlin, who had just come into the game, Pepi buried the ball with a header. The U.S. bench erupted; Pulisic, who had left the game minutes earlier with a bad ankle, was grinning broadly as he limped away from the celebration.
And Pepi wasn’t done.
He fed Aaronson for a goal in the 86th before setting up Lletget in stoppage time.
Instead of slinking home in shame, Pepi gave the Americans reason to hold their heads high. And a reason for everyone to know the