“Can he live up to the hype? Can he keep scoring goals? Can he keep assisting and setting up guys? What’s his impact on the game?”
These are the exact of questions North Texas SC head coach Eric Quill asks when evaluating the young players that make the jump from the FC Dallas Academy to the professional level. For Ricardo Pepi, these questions comprise the foundation for the expectations Coach Quill has for the El Paso-born forward this year. Now strictly training with either North Texas or FC Dallas, there is a constant battle between Pepi and his teammates for a spot on the match day roster.
“The training is a lot more intense working with players that are faster and stronger” Pepi admitted. “There’s more thinking involved, so everything’s a little bit harder to keep up with.” Still eight months shy of his 17th birthday, it comes as no surprise that the mental strength soccer demands from its players is the most unrefined aspect of an inexperienced teenager’s game.
“Thinking has been the biggest challenge” Pepi added, addressing the weak points he noticed within his game since he started training with North Texas. “I have to be a little quicker, otherwise I won’t succeed at the professional level. Also, body wise, they’re a little bit stronger so I have to adapt to that too.”
With five goals in his first three professional appearances, though, one would think that the 16-year-old is having no trouble adjusting to the demands of the professional level. Forwards with this natural goal-scoring instinct are hard to come by, especially at such a tender age, but Pepi’s efficiency with the academy has translated to his professional game seamlessly. The question is: how long can Pepi maintain his free-scoring form for North Texas and, potentially, FC Dallas?
“It can’t be sometimes, so consistency is what I’m trying to produce in him” Quill affirmed considering his prodigy’s early success. “You need to be first in every race, first in every small-sided game. You need to be a competitor, and you need to want to win at everything you do. Developing that killer mentality is what’s going to take him to the next level.”
The desire to be the best at everything he does resonates in the way Pepi sets lofty but attainable goals for himself for every competition. Prior to the U-17 Concacaf Championship, the forward stated he wanted to score no less than eight goals at the tournament and ultimately receive the Golden Ball after helping the U.S. lift the trophy.
Unfortunately, Pepi and his team missed the mark on all three of those goals. He was far from the best player throughout the competition and produced just three goals in six appearances for Raphaël Wicky’s side. He watched on from the field as Costa Rica’s Geancarlo Castro received the Golden Boot and Mexico’s Israel Luna grabbed the Golden Ball before lifting the tournament trophy with his team.
It was a tournament many anticipated Pepi to excel in given he would be surrounded by other highly touted young Americans and a good coach in Wicky, but it was a rather average overall tournament from him. Most would be happy to receive a call-up or to have even scored once at the tournament, but Pepi knows he needs to exceed these seemingly minuscule achievements if he is to be the best forward within the U.S. player pool one day.
However, a winning mentality goes beyond reflection on previous mistakes or successes and producing your best efforts in current endeavors. It involves bouncing back from failures such as this with grace and confidence, and that is precisely what Pepi did on his return to North Texas.
Down by two goals to Lansing Ignite FC, Quill threw Pepi on at the start of the second half to spark a potential comeback. In the 83rd minute, North Texas’ prodigal son placed an inch-perfect bending free kick into the upper far right-hand corner of the net to half the deficit. An equalizer would follow in the 87th minute, and Coach Quill’s side would walk away with a valuable point.
There is no time to sulk in the thoughts of what could have been for professional athletes, especially for a teenager whose best years are yet to come. The North Texas starlet rebounded from an emotionally and physically taxing loss with a spectacular goal that sparked his team’s comeback from two goals down. That is precisely the mentality Quill is looking to develop within Pepi, and the pace at which he is grasping the concepts of it is scarily impressive.
While both Pepi and fans of the U.S. were hit with a dose of reality following the U-17 Concacaf Championship, work does not stop for the youngster. Quill has noted that Pepi is nearly unstoppable when given room to run in behind defenses, but he must become versatile in the ways he is able to hurt teams in order to be more productive in front of goal.
“It’s difficult to hold off a 6’3” or 6’4” center back and hold onto the ball or connect other players into the game,” Quill said. “Finding that balance of being a hold-up player and a slasher is what will bring him to the next level.” The potential to mold the Stars and Stripes’ next great striker is there, it is just a matter of providing him with the guidance and structure needed to get him to that level of excellence.
Looking forward, Pepi’s goals are to score at least 25 goals throughout the entirety of his first year playing in USL League One. In addition, he hopes his goalscoring heroics will be enough to earn him a spot on the U-17 U.S. roster that travels to Brazil in October for the U-17 World Cup. If his response against Lansing is anything to go by in terms of what he might contribute for the team come October, defenders beware of the motivated monster that is Ricardo Pepi.