Rising star Pepi joins regulars Pulisic, McKennie and Dest to headline USMNT World Cup qualifying squad

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Ricardo Pepi has been called up for the U.S. men's national team in upcoming World Cup qualifiers next month, signalling he would commit full-time to the Stars and Stripes despite overtures from Mexico.

The 18-year-old FC Dallas forward converted the winning shootout kick in the MLS All-Star Game on Wednesday as his rise to stardom continues, and his finishing ability could prove to be a huge long-term boost for the USMNT.

Pepi is a dual-national with youth experience in both USMNT and El Tri camps, and according to FIFA regulations, players can change allegiances before the age of 21 if they have played three or fewer competitive matches at the senior level. But this decision - and his comments - make it seem likely he is with the USMNT to stay.

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The USMNT squad in full

GOALKEEPERS: Ethan Horvath (Nottingham Forest), Zack Steffen (Manchester City), Matt Turner (New England Revolution)

DEFENDERS: George Bello (Atlanta United), John Brooks (Wolfsburg), Sergiño Dest (Barcelona), Mark McKenzie (Genk), Tim Ream (Fulham), Antonee Robinson (Fulham), Miles Robinson (Atlanta United), James Sands (New York City FC), DeAndre Yedlin (Galatasaray), Walker Zimmerman (Nashville SC)

MIDFIELDERS: Kellyn Acosta (Colorado Rapids), Tyler Adams (RB Leipzig), Sebastian Lletget (LA Galaxy), Weston McKennie (Juventus), Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders)

FORWARDS:: Brenden Aaronson (RB Salzburg), Konrad de la Fuente (Olympique Marseille), Jordan Pefok (BSC Young Boys), Ricardo Pepi (FC Dallas), Christian Pulisic (Chelsea), Gio Reyna (Borussia Dortmund), Josh Sargent (Norwich City), Tim Weah (Lille)

A closer look at the squad

The USMNT squad features the likes of Pulisic, who was previously a doubt after testing positive for the coronavirus. 

It also includes Gold Cup winners in Matt Turner, George Bello, Miles Robinson, James Sands, Walker Zimmerman, Sebastian Lletget, Kellyn Acosta and Cristian Roldan, who will join up with many of the USMNT's regulars that triumphed in the Nations League earlier this summer.

Among the absentees are Yunus Musah, who is still battling an injury at Valencia, and Daryl Dike, who slowed down a bit at the Gold Cup as he continued a marathon year for club and country.

What did Pepi say about his decision?

“I want to start by saying that I am a Mexican-American and that I am super proud of my heritage,” Pepi told FCDallas.com. “It’s something that will never be taken away from me, no matter what national team I play for.

"I made this decision because I felt the USA trusts me and I think that’s due to [USMNT head coach] Gregg Berhalter and how he emphasized this to me. I had good talks with Gregg and I feel I can make an impact with the USA and help this national team really do something special now and in the future.”

He continued: “I said that when I made this decision it would be with the heart. It’s been made with the heart. If I put that jersey on, I am fighting for it until I can’t fight anymore. So yes, I am ready to play.

Pepi's NXGN rise

The attacker, who has received stylistic comparisons to Erling Haaland, has broken out this season with nine MLS goals in just 20 appearances.

His All-Star Game penalty contribution ensured his presence would be recognized by a nationwide audience.

The decision about his national team allegiance, however, will be difficult, especially as his on-field exploits have led the USMNT and Mexico to push harder for his talent.

Just days before being named to thee qualifying roster, he expressed uncertainty.

“Yes, I am still thinking about who I'm going to represent,” Pepi said to MLS.com this week. “It’s so hard – it's actually very hard. I don't know, I've spent about three, four months thinking about this decision. And I feel like I'm in the same place every day. I can't lean one way or I can't lean the other way. I'm just stuck in the middle.”

USMNT World Cup qualifying opponents

The U.S. will play El Salvador, Canada and Honduras as it begins its qualifying campaign next month, with the first of those matches taking place on September 2.

So, if Pepi plays in all three of those games, he would reach the limit of USMNT matches before being permanently tied to the squad. One more appearance after that with the Stars and Stripes at the senior level would mean he could never appear for Mexico again.

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