Nearly nine months after he was excluded from the United States’ Olympic qualifying list, USMNT and FC Dallas forward Ricardo Pepe called the disdain as a turning point in his season.
“It made me hungry,” Bibi said on Friday. “It made me hungry to keep going this year. To do good for my team, do good for the national team and that was definitely a turning point in my career.”
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Pepe was included in the initial 31-man training camp ahead of the CONCACAF Men’s Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Guadalajara, Mexico, in early March, but was unsuccessful when the roster was reduced to 20 players. The team failed to qualify for the postponed matches in Tokyo and three of the four strikers on that list – Jonathan Lewis, Benji Michel and Sebastian Soto – did not make the first-team squad.
Since he was left out of the team, though, Pepi has seen a rapid rise that saw him establish himself as the number 9 start for the United States during the World Cup qualifiers. Pepe is one of a handful of players expected to start Saturday’s international friendly against Bosnia and Herzegovina in Carson, California, which is used to keep players ahead of next month’s three-game qualifying window.
After scoring 13 goals for FC Dallas in 2021, Pepe has been the subject of speculation about a European transfer, but has remained timid about his club’s plans, turning the focus toward the North American Football Confederation.
“That moment has not yet been decided,” Bibi said. “I feel like I have a game in front of me here and that’s my main focus at the moment. I feel we have to focus on the match and whatever happens is going to happen, but we have to be patient.”
Pepe, 18, chose to play for the United States at the expense of Mexico in August and has since appeared in six qualifying matches and scored three goals.
The US roster also includes Jonathan Gomez, a former Pepi teammate at FC Dallas Academy and with North Texas in the USL One League. Like Pepi, Gomez has the option to play for Mexico or the United States, and train with him tripartite during summer. He heads to Real Sociedad in Spain when the January transfer window opens after spending the last two seasons with Louisville City in the USL Championship.
Pepi has described Gomez’s decision about his international future as one person and willing to serve as a sounding board for him or anyone facing a similar decision.
“I’m always open to talking to them,” he said. “I always try to just tell him, ‘Do what you think is best. Go with your heart. “
And while Atlanta United left-back George Bello will start against Bosnia and Herzegovina, United States coach Greg Berhalter has not ruled out the possibility of Gomez taking him off the bench.
“It was amazing [Gomez] Berhalter said: “He is another player who is still maturing physically, still growing, but he is a really good competitor, a good technical player. Very competitive. It has been great working with him.”
Berhalter added that Belo’s Atlanta teammate Brooks Lennon would start at right-back and earn his first cap for the USMNT. Nashville midfielder Walker Zimmerman, who has become an important part of the American defense line, is expected to play the full 90 minutes.
Seattle Sounders striker Jordan Morris, who has been sidelined for most of 2021 due to a tear in the AFC Champions League, is expected to return to the starting line-up. He has not appeared with the US national team since 2019, when he scored five goals in his last five matches.
“It all looked sharp [camp]Berhalter said. “We knew he was laid off for a long time. He’s back at it with Seattle and they’ve done a great job getting him back to a good point. He looks decent. He looks sharp. I’m really looking forward to his performance tomorrow.”
New York Red Bulls defender Aaron Long is also back in the fold after a lengthy injury absence during this camp, and while he’s been on the team’s full sessions, he’s unlikely to be involved.
After the game, the United States takes a breather before meeting again on January 6 before the next playoff window. USMNT hosts El Salvador in Columbus, Ohio, on January 27, visits Canada on January 30, and then hosts Honduras in Minneapolis on February 2.
After eight of the 14-game qualifying table, USMNT is second with 15 points behind first-placed Canada (16 points), ahead of Mexico (14), Panama (14) and Costa Rica (9). The top three will automatically qualify for the 2022 World Cup, while the fourth-placed will play the winner from the Oceania Football Confederation in a one-match qualifying match in Zurich, Switzerland, in June.