‘It’s going to make me better’: Pepi welcoming competition with Balogun

Nobody could blame Ricardo Pepi if he was less enthused about the arrival of fellow striker Folarin Balogun than just about anyone else connected to the United States men’s national team.

Less than two years ago, Pepi was the coveted dual citizen U.S. supporters were breathlessly following, the prolific young forward U.S. fans were hoping would choose the stars and stripes — which Pepi did over Mexico in August 2021. The teenager then almost immediately exploded onto the international scene, with his scoring heroics in qualifying matches for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar helping the Americans qualify for the biggest event in sports for the first time in eight years.

However, Pepi would watch the main event from his couch. After struggling to settle with Augsburg of the German Bundesliga following a $20 million transfer from FC Dallas, then U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter left Pepi off his final 26-man World Cup roster, despite the youngster’s impressive rebound while on loan with Dutch club Groningen. Pepi eventually shook off the heartbreak, finishing his first full campaign in Europe with 12 goals in 29 Eredivisie appearances. 

“It was a hard season, a rollercoaster,” Pepi, now 20, said this week. “I grew as a person on and off the pitch.”

Pepi’s reemergence earned a recall to the USMNT for two CONCACAF Nations League games in March. He promptly scored in each, including the only goal in a 1-0 victory against El Salvador that set up next week’s semifinal against rival Mexico in Las Vegas.

And Pepi would be a lineup shoo-in against El Tri if not for Balogun, the 21-year-old Arsenal prospect who scored 21 goals last season on loan to French club Reims — and who, with great fanfare, last month switched his international allegiance from England to the U.S.

[USMNT might finally have answer to striker problem in Folarin Balogun]

Either way, with World Cup strikers Jesus Ferreira, Josh Sargent and Haji Wright all either hurt or overlooked this month, the role will be filled by Pepi or Balogun.

“It’s going to make me better, I’m going to make him better,” Pepi said of his battle with Balogun. “He’s a good guy and on the pitch, we’re a team. We’re always trying to compete against each other. A lot of players here have competition in their own spots.”

That the U.S.’s next game is against Mexico adds even more motivation. Pepi’s strong ties to his parents’ birth nation only makes him extra desperate to start, as he did in both meetings with El Tri during the last World Cup qualifying cycle. 

For him, this isn’t just any match.

“My family is Mexican, of course, so being in that game is going to be really special for me,” Pepi said. “Even my family in Mexico, they’re always supporting me. … Obviously for this game they’re going for the U.S.”

While friendly matches between these foes often resemble street fights, the stakes of this U.S.-Mexico contest are enormous. If the Americans are to defend the Nations League title they won in 2021, they must win. The intensity will be insane. Interim coach B.J. Callaghan could opt for the incumbent goalscorer who already boasts familiarity with his teammates. Or will he immediately throw Balogun, who was among the top scorers in Europe’s Big Five leagues last year, straight into the fray?

It’s possible, of course, that both Pepi and Balogun could start, though not overly likely. Even in different formations, the U.S. has used a one-striker setup almost exclusively over the last four-plus years. Callaghan — an assistant coach under Berhalter and Anthony Hudson, his predecessor in the interim role — has vowed not to make drastic changes to the Americans’ system. 

“Whether we play with one striker or two, it’s all up to the coach,” Pepi said. 

If it’s the former, whoever begins the game on the bench could be needed as a game-changing substitute if the hosts are chasing late. Having two red-hot strikers vying to prove their worth is a welcome change for a program that has lacked adequate scoring depth up top for decades.

“When you have competition like that,” U.S. goalkeeper Matt Turner said, “it just elevates everyone’s game.”

“He’s a player who’s had a good season, I’m a player who’s had a good season,” Pepi said of Balogun. “We both want the starting spot. And we’re always going to be competing in a healthy way.”

Doug McIntyre is a soccer writer for FOX Sports. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer with ESPN and Yahoo Sports and he has covered United States men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.

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Ricardo Pepi

Folarin Balogun

United States

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