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Ricardo Pepi: Could MLS record-breaker become USMNT's Haaland?

Over the last few years, FC Dallas have established themselves as North America's top exporter of young talent.

Weston McKennie, Bryan Reynolds, Reggie Cannon, Chris Richards, Tanner Tessman: all have emerged from the FC Dallas Academy and moved into top European leagues, while Justin Che is expected to follow after impressing on loan at Bayern Munich in the first half of 2021.

FC Dallas, in some ways, is becoming 'the Ajax of America', a team that develops young talent, sells them off and somehow finds another young star to become their next big thing.

The club's current big thing is Ricardo Pepi, an 18-year-old forward that is already smashing MLS goalscoring records.

Even the club itself is embracing Pepi's meteoric rise, with the team's social media handles branding themselves as the official conductors of the 'Ricardo Pepi Hype Train'.

Like those that have already traded life in Dallas for Europe, Pepi's rise has been carefully cultivated, producing a teenage striker that has both the size and skill needed to take on the best MLS has to offer.

Most importantly, though, he possesses the one quality that all strikers truly need: the ability to score goals. Lots of them.

Pepi has scored eight goals in just 782 minutes this season, leaving him just three goals behind MLS Golden Boot leader Raul Ruidiaz, who has played nearly twice the number of minutes.

Pepi FC Dallas 2021FC Dallas

Only Ruidiaz, Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez, Gustavo Bou and Daniel Salloi have outscored Pepi this season, with the FC Dallas star's recent goal explosion capped by him becoming the youngest player to score an MLS hat-trick when netting a treble versus LA Galaxy on July 24.

Not bad for a kid still adjusting to the professional game, but do not tell that to Pepi. In his eyes, he is just getting warmed up.

"One of the goals that I had before the season was scoring 25 goals this season," Pepi tells Goal, "and that's still my goal. It's still going to be my goal for the rest of the season."

Born in El Paso, Pepi took to the game at an early age, inspired by his father and grandfather. The latter, Pepi says, was a huge influence on him growing up and, perhaps fittingly, Pepi's record-breaking hat-trick came on the anniversary of his grandfather's passing.

But by the time he was 13, Pepi was faced with a decision. He could remain with his family and continue developing at his own pace, or he could join up with FC Dallas, leaving his home to live with a host family and chase his dream.

He chose the latter, putting himself into a situation that he admits tested him both mentally and physically. 

"I was forced to be very mature at a young age," Pepi says. "People tell me all the time, 'you're very much mature for a 17-18 year old, you know,' and it's because I had to learn that when I was 13.

"It was a big risk. You're not guaranteed anything in the academy or that you'll go on to become a professional soccer player, but I knew I wanted something. I knew I wanted to be a professional soccer player one day.

"I just grind at it every day,  just push myself every day and, knowing that sacrifice, I had to make it pay off. I had to give my parents a reason to be proud and to show them that the sacrifice would pay off."

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Pay off it did, and rather quickly.

Aged 15 in 2018, Pepi signed his first professional contract as he joined up with the club's reserves, North Texas SC, in the USL. In his first-ever professional game, Pepi did the unthinkable and scored a hat-trick.

In total, he netted seven goals in his first six appearances in the USL, establishing himself as FC Dallas' next young star to keep an eye on.

In 2019, he made his MLS debut, officially making the leap to the first team, before a year later he became a consistent player, scoring his first two MLS goals in the process.

But 2021 has been something different altogether, as Pepi has rapidly become one of the best forwards in MLS.

He has done so because of his combination of size, speed and, of course, finishing. He is not the fastest player in the world, but he does not really need to be. Despite his age, Pepi already has a fantastic first touch and a fantastic soccer IQ, allowing him to score goals in a variety of ways.

What he is still working on, he says, is his physicality. Standing at 6'1" (185cm), Pepi has the size to truly become a complete forward, and growing up, Pepi was always bigger and stronger than almost everyone he faced off with. But, now that he is at senior level, he is finding out that defenders can fight back.

Pepi is admittedly working on his hold-up play and his reading of the game, which are obviously his next steps. He has already proven he can finish, but he will truly reach another level if he can find a way to get team-mates involved by either getting them the ball or creating space with his own runs.

And, for inspiration, he looks to the likes of Erling Haaland and Robert Lewandowski. His own coach, Luchi Gonzalez, compared him to the latter after his MLS debut, and he says there's a lot he can learn from watching the two Bundesliga stars.

"I've talked to people, I've talked to Luchi, and they always say that I play a similar style to Lewandowski or even Erling Haaland," Pepi says, "and I feel like those are two of the players that I look at as my game being similar to.

"I'm always trying to be close to them and always learning things from them, watching film and just trying to play like them.

"One of the main things I look at when I'm watching film on [Haaland] is the runs he makes, his passes, his movement in the box. Those are his strengths, so I just try to look at the movement and how they find a way to get away from defenders."

Like his two inspirations did at a young age, Pepi will face some major decisions in the coming years. One will be about his international future, with the youngster still eligible for both the U.S. and Mexico.

He has represented both at youth level but, as a result of the coronavirus, international youth soccer has largely been put on hold over the past 18 months.

Pepi was up for consideration to make the U.S. Gold Cup squad, with head coach Gregg Berhalter naming him as one player that nearly made the cut. And though he missed out, he has responded by scoring six goals in as many games.

For his part, Pepi says he still has not fully committed either way and, when the day comes, he will have a good talk with those closest to him to make that decision.

On the club level, Pepi recently committed his future to FC Dallas, signing a new five-year deal with the club, but that will not stop European teams from sniffing around.

Having seen former team-mates Reynolds and Tessman head to Serie A with Roma and Venezia, respectively, Pepi has reportedly earned interest from Italy as well.

Bologna are among the teams linked with the young striker, while he has already trained with Bayern Munich as part of the club's partnership with FC Dallas.

No matter where he ends up, Pepi is expected to command a fee that will be among the highest in MLS history.

"There's always gonna be teams looking at FC Dallas, as one of the teams that really develops young players," he says. "Personally, I just try to focus on every day, doing the best I can, just giving my best performance every game and whenever that moment calls, whenever I have the talk with another team, that's really when the pressure gets here.

"Other than that. I feel no pressure. I'm just enjoying playing with my team and being able to do the best I can for FC Dallas."

For all the homegrown players that have left FC Dallas in recent years, this one may be the hardest yet to replace, though, as Pepi looks to be a striker who is ready to take his game to an even higher level. 

The Ricardo Pepi Hype Train is getting set to leave the station. Get on while you can.