Pepi to Augsburg: What USMNT star's move means for 2022 and beyond

Ricardo Pepi USA 12112021Getty

The months-long saga over Ricardo Pepi's future came down to one late twist, and it will no doubt have lasting ramifications for the U.S. men's national team (USMNT) in the months and years to come.

Linked to Bayern Munich, Liverpool, Real Madrid and just about every other major club, Pepi's next step will instead come at Augsburg, who broke the bank to sign the highly-rated American prospect.

Augsburg have forked over a club-record fee for the now-former FC Dallas star, reportedly $20 million (£15m/€18m) plus add ons, putting Pepi right into the Miguel Almiron and Alphonso Davies stratosphere of MLS sales.

It's one of the biggest moves in American soccer history, both financially and in importance. The price tag is significant for a player who, less than 12 months ago, was a totally unproven youngster that looked years away from his big move.

That big move is here, and it's one with many layers that impact the 18-year-old star's immediate and long-term future.

Over the last few months, since emerging as American soccer's brightest young star and the USMNT's No 9 of the present and future, Pepi has made no secret of his long-term goals. He's spoken openly about his desire to some day play for Madrid, to reach the highest levels of the game, to prove himself one of the best of the best.

So, in that sense, his move to Augsburg is somewhat of a surprise.

Until just days ago, Augsburg weren't even on the radar. Wolfsburg appeared to be the team in pole position and Pepi seemingly had a big, but manageable, jump lined up.

Wolfsburg are a Champions League team, but not a Champions League contender. He wouldn't be competing against Robert Lewandowski or Karim Benzema for minutes, but he would be playing against them on Europe's biggest stage.

Yet in swooped Augsburg at seemingly the last minute, offering FC Dallas a much larger financial package and Pepi a much different challenge. At Wolfsburg, Pepi could have quickly become a key piece if he proved himself. At Augsburg, he will have to be.

Augsburg currently sit just one point above the relegation playoff spot, having scored just 17 goals in as many games. They're far from a Bundesliga power or a Champions League contender.

They just spent a record fee to bring in Pepi. They didn't just do that for Pepi's future, which obviously remains bright. They also did that for Pepi's present, as they believe that he is the player that will fire them to safety and beyond. When you're a club like Augsburg, you don't spend that much money on a striker that won't save you this season.

That's just one aspect. The second is what this means for Pepi and the USMNT in general.

At Augsburg, Pepi will be given every chance to succeed. He will not be benched after a few bad games or cast aside for a shiny new signing in six months. The club is committing to him in a big way, and that's a good sign - but there is still reason for concern, and one only needs to look at another USMNT striker to understand that.

Josh Sargent found himself at a similar level at Werder Bremen, but struggled to truly emerge as a goalscorer for what was a truly bad team. He then moved to Norwich and, so far, has learned that the grass isn't always greener, even if the bad team you now play for is in the Premier League.

The good news for Pepi is that the underlying numbers with Augsburg offer reason for hope. They have the eighth-best possession percentage in the league and generate the sixth-most shots per game. From those numbers, it's quite clear that they just need a goalscorer, and Pepi is that in the purest form.

Pepi isn't overly fast, strong or tricky, but he is a real scorer. He puts himself in positions to do damage, and he's complete enough in every aspect of the game to threaten most defenders. In that sense, it's very possible that Pepi is that missing piece, the one that turns that possession and those chances into the goals that save their season.

As always, there's risk. This is a World Cup year, after all and, for the USMNT to be the team they want to be at the World Cup, they'll need a No 9.

Pepi so far has been that No 9, scoring three times in his seven appearances, but he's still young, still growing, still learning, and the USMNT will need Pepi to keep doing those things if he's to be who they need him to be in Qatar.

The U.S. do have a backup plan, in the form of another player who recently made a big move of his own. His stock has fallen a bit in the last six months, as fatigue seemingly caught up to him, but Daryl Dike certainly still has a part to play in this race.

His move to West Brom gives him a chance to regain ground in this race, which also includes Sargent, Jordan Pefok and Matthew Hoppe, just to name a few.

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There's no perfect science when it comes to making the leap from MLS to Europe, no true roadmap that can pinpoint what's right and wrong. That line, the one that determines success or failure, is often so fine, especially at the top levels of European soccer where competition is fierce and the level is very high.

Over the next 12 months, we'll learn a lot about Pepi's decision, and perhaps even more about the young striker himself. We'll learn just how good he can be, how many goals he can score, how well he can handle the pressures that come with a big-money move.

His first big-money move is now behind him, but there's a long road ahead for a player who is, and will remain, the talk of American soccer.