FRISCO, Texas — After a strong start to his first professional season in soccer, FC Dallas homegrown Ricardo Pepi was called up to the first team, where he has trained for the last few weeks.
Earning minutes off the bench against Toronto FC and the Portland Timbers, and then starting in two Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup matches, Pepi was moved back to the North Texas SC for matches, a scenario coach Luchi Gonzalez had previously said was likely to happen as the 16-year-old continues his development. However, after scoring seven goals in six matches, Pepi has failed to find the net in three USL League One games.
That’s normal for a player in their first season as a pro as the season progresses on, but it’s different for Pepi, whose quick progression up the professional ranks has hit a plateau.
“Obviously, it’s a little frustrating,” Pepi said. “I’m used to scoring goals and that’s how I rate myself. If I score a goal, I’m happy with it. It’s a little frustrating but I know it’s a growing moment so I know I have to be patient with it and do my best to get out of this.”
The transition from training with the first team to playing with the second team has been difficult. Pepi is youngest to train with the first team day-in and day-out, getting better against older and grizzled veterans.
“I train with the first team every day and I play with North Texas so obviously, that transition is a little bit hard because I was doing good in USL League One, but then I came to the first team and I got 10-20 minutes with them,” Pepi said. “I think that transition is just a little hard right now. I’m in a learning process so that’s what I’m doing right now, just trying to get out of this moment and start to get my rhythm back and start to score more goals.”
Working with coaches every day, Pepi knows he is growing with each opportunity, even if he means he is not getting on the score sheet.
“Coach Mikey [Varas] talks to me about it,” Pepi said. “Every week we talk about it and sit and do video. He helps me, my dad helps me, they all say that I need to get past this moment because it’s obviously a learning moment for me. If I get through this, I’ll be good.”
Teammates are also encouraging Pepi through this time. Fullback Reggie Cannon played one minute in his first professional season, a substitution appearance in 2017. Cannon often looks back at that season as one that was frustrating but contributed to his growth, as an 18-year-old.
“He’s freaking 16; that’s the advice I have for him,” Cannon said. “He’s going to get the playing time he needs. In this stage, we can’t just throw anyone on the field. He’s not just anyone. He’s a very special player in training but he’s 16. He has so much to learn. I had the same thing and he’s ahead of me. At 18, I had so much to learn. I think that experience is going to be invaluable for him on the second team and training with the first team and getting those second team minutes will be a colossal change for him.
“He’s developing at a very great rate. Regardless if he’s not getting on the field, he’s made a couple of rosters, at 16. The kid is doing great. Don’t let people fool you because he’s not playing. He’s doing great. Luchi has the exact plan for him and he’s executing well. Pepi is going to get his time and I have no doubt when he gets his time, he’s going to kill it.”
Gonzalez echoes Cannon’s sentiments. The first-year head coach has earned plaudits for being unafraid to play the youth, with players like Pepi, Brandon Servania, Thomas Roberts, John Nelson, Bryan Reynolds, and Edwin Cerrillo all making their debuts for the team under Gonzalez. Along with those debuts, Gonzalez has given more playing time to Paxton Pomykal and Jesus Ferreira.
“He’s got the whole world in front of him. He’s going to be fine,” Gonzalez said of Papi. “He’s working hard and this is a great learning process for him and he’s got a lot of support. He’s a human and he’s apart of a fantastic locker room with teammates that support him no matter his youth. I know he’s going to push through it and find his form but that’s by giving. That’s for everyone. It’s about the we. It’s about giving and not expecting to receive and if you give, life has a way of helping you learn. I know he’s focused on that.”
While Pepi is focused on getting back on track with FC Dallas, another competition is coming up soon, as the FIFA U17 World Cup will begin October in Brazil. Pepi, who had three goals for the United States in the 2019 U17 Concacaf Championships, will likely be called up to the World Cup roster.
As this difficult time passes Pepi, he looks to carry momentum and to be back on track to be ready for Brazil.
“I want to be at the best I can so I’m working hard over here and get past this moment. Just looking forward to that and preparing for it,” Pepi said. “It takes a lot to represent a country. Obviously, there’s people out there who watch and are always waiting for the names to come out. It’s a lot of responsibility and I’m just trying to prepare well for it and we’ll see where that goes.”