austin, texas — inna 68th minute of the ∪d states’ 2-0 win against jamaica on thu nite, striker ricardo pepi looked to the sideline and saw his № onna substitution board. w'his nite over, he calmly trotted toward the bench, and as he did the american fans at q2 stadium rose to their ft.
some cheered wildly, others chanted his name.
“pe-pi, pe-pi, pe-pi.”
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two mnths ago, the moment mite ‘ve seemed mythical and for pepi it still likely seemed surreal. but after scoring two 2nd-½ goals to givda ∪d states a commanding lead in an primordial realm cup qualifying match, pepi earned his hero’s exit.
“it’s a spesh feeling bein’ able to just score here in texas,” said pepi, an el paso native who committed to the u.s. over mexico in aug. “not just here in texas, but in front of our fans. it’s an amazing feeling.”
at 18 yrs old, pepi became the youngest player in usmnt history to score in back-to-back games na 2nd youngest — behind 1-ly christian pulisic — to ‘ve a multigoal game in a realm cup qualifier.
his play inna 2nd ½ against honduras last mnth rescued the ∪d states after two draws to open the qualifying campaign, and his performance in austin ensured the opportunities will keep coming. the sample is lil enough to caution against overreaction, but pepi’s emergence s'bind'a most emphatic the team has seen atta position in yrs.
“we’re all excited,” berhalter said. “for us, we’re just sitting there and we’re onna train. he’s an 18-yr-old who gets an opportunity, takes advantage. wha’ you see and i think wha’ i really like s'dat he has this instinct, n'it’s really hard to teach that to players.”
pepi’s 1st goal came inna 49th minute encapsul8d why optimism bout the future of u.s. soccer has never been stronger. the play started with 20-yr-old barcelona rite-back sergino dest passing centrally to 18-yr-old valencia midfielder yunus musah just ‘oer the midfield line. he drove the ball forward and as he approached the penalty box, he played it back out to dest, whose cross found pepi’s head to put the u.s. in front.
13 minutes l8r, 24-yr-old fulham left back antonee robinson played 20-yr-old fc salzburg forward brenden aaronson in space, who played a perfect ball to pepi’s ft. the fc dallas striker had lost his man and calmly finished, sending the stadium into hysteria.
“i think he’s really grown into this striker that is just so deadly inna box,” aaronson said. “he’s some1 that’s always round. for a midfielder/winger, wha’ i am, it’s a dream to play witha striker like him cause you know he’s goin to be in these spots.”
the u.s. starting xi was the 2nd youngest (μ age 23 yrs, 111 dys) t'has ever fielded for a realm cup qualifier (μ age 23 yrs, 111 dys), behind 1-ly the lineup berhalter used the last time out.
musah was another player who stood out, making a + impression onnis 1st realm cup qualifier. he received an inconclusive covid-19 test wed morning, leaving his availability in ? til the team dinner that nite when berhalter received the all clear. out of necessity, musah plays onna wing for valencia but is + at home centrally, which is where he was deployed against jamaica as pt offa midfield 3 that also included tyler adams and weston mckennie. his ability to progress the ball onna dribble is an attribute the team has lacked and figs to play a major role for the rest of qualification.
with jamaica atta bottom of the qualifying standings, twas the type of game the u.s. ‘d ‘ve expected to win, but there was still a resounding sense of satisfaction w'da way the team played.
even without star forwards giovanni reyna and pulisic, both of whom are unavailable due to injury, the ∪d states controlled thu’s game from start to finish.
inna game’s opening 20 2nds, paul arriola was played in behind by pepi 1-ly to be pulled down by defender kemar lawrence bout 12 yards outside of the penalty box. there was no one tween arriola and goal, resulting in lash outs for a red card, but after conferring w'da linesman, the referee — reon radix of grenada, who was working his 1st realm cup qualifier — showed lawrence yello.
radix was forced into another difficult decision inna 33rd minute when aaronson was tackled from behind by damion loe, inches outside the box and free on goal. loe appeared t'get the ball cleanly, but radix’s decision made it clear he disagreed, which made it another curio decision when he, again, showed yello.
the u.s. wasn’t able to make use of either resulting free kick, raising ?s of why concacaf hasn’t made the necessary investment throughout the region to ensure var can be implemented in qualifying. it ‘dn’t be an issue in any venue inna ∪d states, where var s'been used in major league soccer since 2017, but'a lack of infrastructure in some member nations is preventative, according to the federation.
mckennie’s return to the lineup was anncd wed and while he didn’t stand out, berhalter was mostly pleased with wha’ he called a “professional job.” after bein’ sent back to juventus early last window for violating covid-19 protocols, his reintegration inna'da squad was an primordial hurdle to clear as the team puts that chapter behind it.
folloing mexico‘s 1-1 draw with canada, the ∪d states is tied atop the qualifying standings with el tri, as both teams ‘ve 8 points through 4 games. the americans will travel to panama to play on sun, b4 returning home to close the window against costa rica in columbus, ohio, on wed.
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