Major League Soccer

Ricardo Pepi 'hype train' goes full steam ahead as teenager scores again for FC Dallas

Chris Smith
With 12 goals, Pepi is just two short of MLS Golden Boot leader Raul Ruidiaz.
With 12 goals, Pepi is just two short of MLS Golden Boot leader Raul Ruidiaz. / Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Few would have believed it possible, but the Ricardo Pepi 'hype train' picked up yet more momentum during FC Dallas' 1-1 draw with San Jose Earthquakes on Saturday.

Just a few days earlier, the teenager notched a goal and two assists on his senior international debut with the United States. And at the weekend, Luchi Gonzalez thrust him straight back into the starting XI at club level.

"I knew that I was going to come back and play, I didn't know I was going to start or play as a sub. I had to be prepared for this opportunity," Pepi told reporters after Saturday's match.

Pepi certainly vindicated his manager's decision by finding the net again. The youngster managed to get in front of his defender to head home a cross from fellow academy graduate Justin Che in the 50th minute to earn his side a comeback point. One that could be vital with Dallas still four points below the playoff places.

Was his inclusion in the starting XI ever really in doubt?

"Without overdoing it, that kid's hungry," Gonzalez said in his post-match press conference when asked about his decision to start Pepi. "He's telling me, 'let's go'. He's telling me with urgency [that] we need to win, so that tells me everything about him."

As well as being the second-youngest debutant to score a goal for the United States in World Cup qualifying (behind Christian Pulisic), Pepi can count being MLS' youngest hat-trick-scorer and notching the winning penalty in the MLS vs Liga MX All-Star game among the achievements of his short career so far.

His latest strike moves Pepi to 12 goals for the season, just two adrift of MLS Golden Boot leader Raul Ruidiaz. He's also just one behind Diego Fagundez's 13-goal haul for the New England Revolution - the most goals scored by a teenager in a single MLS campaign. Pepi has another 10 regular-season games remaining to break that particular record.

There are those who believe Pepi is already the USMNT's best option at the No.9 position, ahead of the likes of Josh Sargent and Jordan Pefok who ply their trade in Europe.

Many would wilt under this sort of pressure, especially at such a young age. But not Pepi - he's far too confident in his own hard work and ability for that.

"I'm confident, you know," Pepi responded when asked how he's feeling about his current hot streak. "It's just hard work, on and off the field. I feel like I've got to give my club [and] my nation the best I can. It's really just that, working hard and giving my all to my club."

Just after his international call-up Gonzalez said he'd seen little change in Pepi's behaviour, in fact pointing out that he seemed to be working even harder to make sure Berhalter had no chance of making this a one-off.

"I just hung out with him right now after training and it's the same Pepi," Gonzalez said (via MLSsoccer.com). "I don't see this kid changing much at all. In fact, I actually see him really channelling all this attention into just wanting to work even harder and make his club and his family more proud and his fans more proud of him. I see a clear focus.”

Even so, it's important to remember Pepi is still only 18. He's going very strong right now, but young players are prone to dips in form.

Pepi is sure to suffer a few more of those in the coming years. But whether it's ending a goalless streak, breaking records or managing a return trip from Central America before quickly taking to the pitch and earning a point for his side, he's already proven he can overcome adversity at a staggering rate.

With the 'hype train' out of the station and firmly on the tracks, the best thing to do right now is sit back and enjoy the emergence of yet another talented American from the FC Dallas academy. Who knows where the next destination may be.