FRISCO, Texas - To the surprise of very few, FC Dallas forward Ricardo Pepi was awarded MLS Young Player of the Year after a breakout 2021 season. The El Paso native tied the MLS record for goals by a teenager over a single season with 13 and added three assists along the way. But it wasn't just the number of goals that made his season so special. Time and again, the 18-year-old stepped up in the biggest moments and transformed from a local talent to a national up-and-coming star.
Let's go through some of those memorable moments that helped Pepi win Young Player of the Year.
Brace against New England Revolution
Pepi's first eye-catching display came back in June when eventual Supporters' Shield winners New England Revolution came to Toyota Stadium. It was just his eighth-career start but Pepi wasted no time and opened the scoring with a clinical finish into the bottom corner of Matt Turner's goal in the 11th minute. But it was his second goal that made the night special. Nine minutes after the break, Pepi latched onto a pass from Ryan Hollingshead near midfield and nutmegged the on-rushing defender before racing towards goal, side-stepping another defender before blasting it passed Tuner once again. It was the type of goal we hadn't seem from Pepi before and proved he's more than a penalty-box poacher.
Youngest MLS Hat Trick
While the brace was impressive, it was Pepi's performance against LA Galaxy a month later that made everyone stand up and take notice. I'll cut to the chase: Ricardo Pepi scored three goals on the night and became the youngest player to score a hat trick in MLS history at 18 years and 196 days old.
MLS All-Star Game
No doubt spurred on by his record-breaking hat trick, Ricardo Pepi was named to the 2021 MLS All-Star game in Los Angeles. It was MLS's best against Liga MX's best for the very first time. And, once again, Pepi seized his moment. With the game tied at 2-2 in penalties after a 1-1 draw in regulation, Pepi stepped up and smashed his penalty in off the crossbar to hand the MLS All-Stars a dramatic win.
National Team Debut
It wasn't long until Pepi's MLS form translated into senior national team interest. Courted by both the United States and Mexico, Pepi decided to choose the country of his birth and accepted the call from U.S. head coach Gregg Berhalter for the September World Cup qualifiers. He didn't feature in either of the U.S. first two games, a scoreless draw with El Salvador before a 1-1 contest with Canada. But Pepi was given a chance in the final game of the window away at Honduras. The U.S. went down early but pulled one back just after halftime. With the game tied, it was Pepi's time to shine. In the 75th minute, DeAndre Yedlin swung in a cross for Pepi to nod home the score giving the U.S. its first lead of the night with his first international goal. After scoring the game-winner, Pepi assisted two more goals to help the U.S. to a 4-1 statement win and make his USMNT debut stuff of legend.
First USMNT Brace
A month after scoring on his USMNT debut, Pepi put on a show in the Texas capital. Pepi scored both goals in the U.S.'s 2-0 win over Jamaica at Q2 Stadium in Austin, bringing his tally to three goals and two assists from his first two caps. His impressive record helped solidify him as the USMNT's first-choice striker and he took over the #9 shirt in the following qualifying camp.
The MLS Young Player of the Year award honors a player age 22 or younger. This is the first time FC Dallas has won the Young Player of the Year, since the award started in 2020, replacing the MLS Rookie of the Year award. FC Dallas' Tesho Akindele earned MLS Rookie of the Year honors in 2014.