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If you don’t know about U.S. men’s soccer rising star Ricardo Pepi yet, it’s time to pay attention

The 18-year-old Mexican-American from El Paso, Texas is expected to be the starting striker when the U.S. men play arch-rival Mexico in World Cup qualifying on Friday night.

Ricardo Pepi scored three goals in his first two games with the senior U.S. men's national team.
Ricardo Pepi scored three goals in his first two games with the senior U.S. men's national team.Read moreEric Gay / AP

CINCINNATI — There was quite a stir in American soccer a few weeks ago when Ricardo Pepi exploded onto the U.S. national team scene with three goals and two assists in his first two games for his country.

American soccer fans who’ve craved a big-time striker for years had rarely seen an arrival quite like that, and they sent the hype train steaming off from the station. Big-time European teams have gone racing down the tracks after it, including Germany’s Bayern Munich and Wolfsburg and the Netherlands’ Ajax.

But the U.S.’ World Cup qualifying campaign only started in September, and Pepi has only been part of the team for six games so far. Is he really going to be The One, or is that hype train going to end up short of its destination, like so many before it?

It’s still too early to know for sure. But there are a lot of signs that the 6-foot-1, 18-year-old from El Paso, Texas and FC Dallas might answer the question, and this week the signs will be flashing as the hype train rolls by.

The biggest sign will be the one that bears the U.S. starting lineup for Friday night’s World Cup qualifier against archrival Mexico at FC Cincinnati’s 26,000-seat TQL Stadium (9 p.m., ESPN2, ESPN+, Univision 65 and TUDN). Pepi is expected to lead the American front line as the starting striker.

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It’s not just the biggest game of the 14 the Americans play in trying to qualify for next year’s showcase in Qatar. It’s not just the biggest rivalry in the Concacaf region. It’s undoubtedly the biggest game to date of Pepi’s life, as he faces the country of his parents’ ancestry — and the country whose national team he turned down when he chose in late August to commit to the U.S. program.

‘Goosebumps for sure’

“When I was 10, 11 years old, I always remember just watching Mexico vs. the U.S. every time they played,” Pepi said at a news conference Tuesday that drew a large and bilingual audience.

“It’s going to be a special feeling having my family in the stands, having me put the U.S. jersey on,” he said. “I feel like I’m going to get some goosebumps for sure. … I’m going to be very motivated for the game, and I’m going to be prepared for it.”

The family contingent won’t be quite as big as the horde that traveled across Texas to Austin to watch Pepi lead the U.S.’ 2-0 win over Jamaica on Oct. 8, one of whom carried a banner reading “WE CAUGHT THE TRAIN” with Pepi’s face on the front of a locomotive. But it will still be sizable, Pepi said, “at least 10 people.”

Pepi is one of many Mexican-American players who’ve been recruited by both national teams in recent years.

Midfielders Efraín Alvarez and Jonathan González, right back Julian Araujo and goalkeeper David Ochoa, all California-born, picked Mexico as their team to represent internationally. Pepi picked the United States, as did 2010 World Cup team midfielder, Texas-born José Francisco Torres and another California-born player, forward Hérculez Gómez.

Another El Paso native, 19-year-old forward Santiago Muñoz — who recently joined Newcastle United of the English Premier League — has played for Mexico’s youth teams, but told ESPN in September he’s open to a senior-level switch to the U.S.

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This will likely happen more often as the U.S. program embraces the nation’s vast and diverse immigrant communities and Mexico’s program looks to draw in players who often feel the pull of familial ties and cultural loyalties. Some players will choose the countries of their ancestry, as the Seattle Sounders’ Alex Roldán did with El Salvador; and some will choose the United States, as his older brother Cristian did.

They are, as the saying goes in Spanish, ni de aquí, ni de allá — neither from here nor from there. But they are also from both. And when the time comes to pick one, the decision can be hard.

‘Follow your heart’

What advice would Pepi give to players who face a dual-national choice?

“I would say, you know, just follow your own path, and also just make your decision with your heart,” he said. “I feel like it’s very important to just be able to have a feeling, a connection between you and the national team that you’re playing for. So just follow your heart.”

Of course, it helps if you think you’re going to play for the team you commit to. Pepi has made the most of his opportunities with the United States and in just two months with the program appears to have claimed the No. 1 spot on the striker depth chart. In fact, he’s the only true striker on U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter’s 25-player roster.

That’s in part because the Americans only play two games in a week this month, instead of the three in a week they played in September and October. After Friday’s game, they will head to Kingston, Jamaica to face a Reggae Boyz squad on Tuesday (5 p.m. Universo and Paramount+) that includes the Union’s Andre Blake, Alvas Powell and Cory Burke.

But it’s also because Pepi has earned the right to get all the minutes in these games. And he’s ready for his moment.

“There was a talk that I had with my dad, you know, that I had with my family in general,” he said. “I was just bringing everything to the table to them: I was talking about what it would be like walking out [on to the field] playing the game vs. Mexico. We talked about how special it would be, and how motivating that would be for me, just to be able get called up to the national team, be able to play in that game.”

Now he will get to live the dream.

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