ORLANDO, Fla. -- United States men's national team striker Ricardo Pepi says his career over the past eight months has been "a roller-coaster ride," but after a week in which he scored three goals for the national team, including the game winner in a 1-0 victory over El Salvador, he has made a "big statement" with his play.
Pepi entered the U.S. camp for the first time since he was left off the World Cup roster last November. He also has been in a relegation battle while on loan at Groningen from Bundesliga side Augsburg, even as he has scored 10 goals in all competitions.
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The former FC Dallas forward entered as a substitute in the second half, and just minutes after, he latched onto Weston McKennie's inch-perfect through ball, shook off the attentions of defender Roberto Dominguez, and then delivered a delicate chip over keeper Mario Gonzalez to give the U.S. the win.
"It is been a roller coaster to be honest," Pepi said. "Happy to be just in the squad, scoring goals again after missing the World Cup. I think I made a big statement tonight and I'm just happy to be fighting with my teammates again and helping them out."
Pepi scored twice in last Friday's 7-1 hammering of Grenada, but his final tally of the week was arguably the most important. While the U.S. needed only a draw against El Salvador to advance to the final four of the CONCACAF Nations League, the Cuscatlecos were proving to be a tough nut to crack on the night. But some understanding with McKennie helped set the table for the goal.
It was the kind of substitution that makes a coach look like a genius, in this case, interim manager Anthony Hudson. But Hudson said he's just pleased to see a player who has gone through some struggles come out stronger for it.
"Sometimes it can be tough when you're down there, you're sort of that end of the table," said Hudson about Pepi's tenure with Groningen. "And I think when you come out of that environment, you come back to your national team environment, it sort of gives you a little bit of a break, which I think that in itself helped him. And then I think coming in, I think that we as a staff, we really value him. We really love him as a person, as a character. We believe in him."
"It was a big eye-contact thing," Pepi said. "As soon as [McKennie] picked up his head, I knew he saw me and he saw the run I made. I made the run and I was one-on-one with the goalkeeper."
Pepi had some work to do, fending off Dominguez, but still managed to finish with aplomb. Pepi chalked up the play to pure instinct.
"In training, you don't see me holding off the center-back and finishing it like that," he said. "I think it's just something that, it's just instincts that kick in. And then, as a striker, that's what you should do."
Where Pepi goes after the current club season ends is an open question. With his loan due to expire, he's set to return to Augsburg. But Pepi said he hasn't been in contact with Augsburg of late. While that would appear to leave his future muddled, Pepi said he's focused on the present.
"I'm just trying to score as many goals as I can in the eight games that we have left," he said about the remainder of the club season. "We'll see what happens in summer."