Ricardo Pepi sparks United States men's national soccer team's win over Honduras in World Cup qualifier

Nancy Armour
USA TODAY

More than once, U.S. men's coach Gregg Berhalter was asked if he'd have any hesitation in putting 18-year-old Ricardo Pepi on the field when there was so much at stake. 

Not at all, Berhalter said, never adding a qualifier or caveat of any sort.

Now we all know why. 

Pepi bailed Berhalter and the U.S. men out with a go-ahead goal in the 75th minute against Honduras on Wednesday night, then had assists on two more before the final whistle. Instead of ending the first qualifying window deep in a hole like they were four years ago – and we all know how that went – the Americans are now tied with Panama and Canada with five points, two behind Mexico.

"He did a great job," Berhalter said of Pepi, who is the second-youngest U.S. man to play in a World Cup qualifier after Christian Pulisic. "He worked tirelessly, competed against physical centerbacks and scored a really good goal. Overall, I think a strong performance for an 18 year old.

"It's really impressive what he did." 

Especially given the stakes. 

The last goal in the 4-1 win over Honduras, by Sebastian Lletget in stoppage time, moved the Americans ahead of Panama in goal differential. That's no small thing, because only the top three Concacaf teams earn spots at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, while the fourth-place team goes to a playoff.

Qualifying resumes next month.

Ricardo Pepi (14) celebrates his go-ahead goal against Honduras.

Berhalter can downplay the USMNT's struggles all he wants and give everyone a calendar listing the remaining 11 qualifiers. But it's naïve to say the Americans wouldn't have been out of qualifying had they lost to Honduras.

Maybe not mathematically. But the U.S. saw four years ago just how quickly things can snowball. And that when you put yourself in a hole, it's not simply about digging yourself out. You're also at the mercy of everyone else.

After collecting just two points from their first two games -- one of which was at home -- the much-hyped "golden generation" was reeling. This was a must-win game for confidence and cohesion, if nothing else.

Yet the Americans looked as bad as they have at any point in these first three games in the first half. Lackluster, disorganized, downright inept at times. If the Americans turned the ball over once, they did it 20 times - and then never had an answer for Honduras’ counter attack.

Honduras had three shots in a seven-minute span, and anyone watching had the sickening feeling that it was a matter of when Honduras scored rather than if. Sure enough, in the 27th minute, the USMNT turned the ball over – again – and with John Brooks still up field, an unmarked Brayan Moya scored on a diving header.

More questionable personnel moves by coach Berhalter didn’t help. Sure, the Americans were without regular starters Gio Reyna (hamstring), Sergino Dest (ankle) and Zack Steffen (COVID-19), while Weston McKennie was sent back to Italy early after violating the team’s COVID protocols.

But Tyler Adams on the right side rather than his natural spot in central midfield? A 3-4-1-2, kind of, formation? No Brenden Aaronson to start? 

Berhalter did make one brilliant move, however: Starting Pepi.

"I was prepared for this moment," Pepi said. "I've been training, just preparing with the team. I feel like I was out there with the guys getting ready for the game so I was ready."

Pepi has been a revelation this summer for FC Dallas, where he has a team-high 11 goals. He also scored the winner in the MLS All-Star game

Pepi was eligible to play for both the USMNT and Mexico, and only announced his choice two weeks ago. But he played with the poise and confidence of someone who has been with the team for years. 

"(Berhalter) told me to go out there and do my thing," Pepi said. "I feel like he gave me a lot of confidence to just go out there. He had the confidence in me, so I just went out there and did my thing."

Pepi was solid in the first half – one of the few Americans who could say that. But he really came alive in the second.

It was his disruption in front of the goal that cleared the way for Antonee Robinson’s right-footed shot in the 48th. Pepi pulled a defender off, giving Robinson a wide-open shot.

But it was Pepi's goal in the 75th that prompted not just an exhale but euphoria from the USMNT and its fans.

Fed from the right side by DeAndre Yedlin, who had just come into the game, Pepi buried the ball with a header.

"I saw DeAndre Yedlin ready to cross the ball. I feel like I was in a good spot, and the ball came straight to me," Pepi said. "So I got up in the air and I hit the ball."

The U.S. bench erupted in celebration, confident a victory -- and three points -- was now close at hand.  

And Pepi wasn’t done. He fed Aaronson for a goal in the 86th before setting up Lletget in stoppage time.

"It was a challenging cycle for us," Berhalter said. "It's five points. Although we're disappointed with a point here and there, I think we will live with it."