Young talent propels US national team to second in World Cup qualifying

Mark Keplinger, Sports Editor

Matthew Tate

The United States men’s national soccer team won two of three matches in the October international window. The team now sits in second in the region behind Mexico for World Cup qualifying. 

The U.S. defeated Jamaica and Costa Rica at home, while losing to Panama in Panama City. Young talent excited American supporters, while questionable managerial decisions left many wondering if U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter is still the right man to lead the national team.

The Americans entered the October camp hoping to bounce back from a mixed opening to the qualifying campaign. Berhalter called up a young squad this cycle, with the average age of the squad being just 24 years old. 

Chelsea FC star Christian Pulisic missed out due to an ankle injury he suffered during the last international break. However, other European-based stars such as Juventus midfielder Weston McKennie, Red Bull Salzburg winger Brenden Aaronson and FC Barcelona right back Sergiño Dest returned to the side.

The most intriguing player called up to the roster was the 18-year-old prodigy Ricardo Pepi. The El Paso, Texas native grew up along the U.S.-Mexico border to Mexican parents, and he frequently visited family on the other side of the border in Ciudad Juarez as a boy. 

As a 13-year-old, Pepi agreed to join the FC Dallas academy, quickly developing into one of the deadliest strikers in their youth system. Both the U.S. and Mexican national teams pursued Pepi’s allegiance, with the young forward shocking many by committing to the United States in early August.

Pepi showed his attacking prowess on Oct. 7 as he powered the U.S. past Jamaica with two second-half goals. In a packed Q2 Stadium in Austin, Texas, the Americans went into halftime feeling frustrated as they believed the Jamaican players got away with several fouls. 

In the second half, Pepi met Dest’s cross with his head to steer the ball into the back of the net to give the Americans the lead. The forward wheeled away in ecstatic celebration, kissing the U.S. badge as he ran to join his teammates. Ten minutes later, Aaronson’s low cross found Pepi for his second of the day, giving the Americans a deserved 2-0 win over the Reggae Boyz.

Three days later, the national team traveled to Panama City to play Panama. In a lackluster display by a much changed American lineup, the Panamanians won 1-0 thanks to a 54th minute goal off a corner kick by Anibal Godoy. 

La Marea Roja always looked the more dangerous side, with the Americans rarely testing the Panamanian defense. The U.S. made seven changes to the starting lineup that defeated Jamaica, a questionable decision by Berhalter.

On Oct. 13, the United States hosted Costa Rica in Columbus, Ohio, for the final game of this qualifying window. Berhalter once again made substantial changes to the starting lineup, but this time the manager decided to field a much stronger team than the one he fielded in Panama. 

Despite the changes, Los Ticos scored within the first minute of the game, when Keysher Fuller was left unmarked on the back post. The Americans recovered well from this set back, as they dominated play for much of the first half.

The U.S. equalized in the 25th minute, thanks to a wonder goal by Dest. The right back decisively cut inside and struck the ball cleanly with his left foot, rifling the ball into the top left corner from 20 yards out.

In the second half, the Americans took the lead when Timothy Weah finished off his marauding run with a vicious shot, beating the Costa Rican goalkeeper Leonel Moreira on the near post. The ball ricocheted off the post and off the goalkeeper’s back before going in, leading the goal to be scored as an own goal for Moreira. The game ended as a 2-1 American victory.

The USMNT leave this international window standing in second place in qualifying. The U.S. will continue their World Cup qualifying campaign in November with two games. First, the Americans will host archrivals Mexico on Nov. 12 in Cincinnati. Four days later, the team will travel to Kingston to play Jamaica.