FRISCO, Texas – “I just had a good feeling about it. Then I scored my first goal and I thought, ‘Yeah, this is going to be my day.’”
Those are the words of Ricardo Pepi, recalling the events of his very first pro game for North Texas SC over four years ago. It was also the club’s first-ever outing, taking place just a few months after FC Dallas announced it would create a reserve team to compete in the third division. Ricardo was the club’s first player and he delivered a hat trick on opening day.
Ricardo had been a standout from his early teens. His talent was so apparent that FC Dallas helped him move from El Paso to Dallas so he could join its academy system while living with a host family. He’d been involved with both the U.S. and Mexico’s youth national teams. Ricardo was always "the next big thing".
He was just 16 years old when he scored that debut hat trick back in 2019. That’s really when “El Tren” began gathering steam. It kept gaining momentum as Ricardo kept collecting accolades: MLS All-Star, MLS Young Player of the Year, debut goal for the United States, and a record-breaking move to Europe. Now 20 years old, Ricardo is among the U.S.'s top strikers and plays for one of the biggest clubs in the Netherlands.
But this story isn’t about Ricardo. Not really. It’s about his little brother, Diego.
“The first time I came here, it was for my brother's signing. When I was holding his jersey in that picture, I remember thinking ‘next time, it’ll be me signing that professional contract.’ It’s always been my goal since he signed his first contract with this club.”
Diego’s journey to the pro level was less auspicious than his older brother’s. He grew up playing alongside Ricardo in El Paso before the elder left for the FC Dallas Academy. Even when the entire Pepi family relocated to Frisco, Diego played for FCD’s Youth and ECNL teams, a step below the Academy where Ricardo was making waves. And that’s where he stayed until 2023 when his goal-scoring feats at the ECNL and high school levels earned him a call-up to North Texas SC training, and eventually MLS Next PRO games.
“It was pretty hard, playing ECNL for two years. I never thought I was gonna get the opportunity to go straight to North Texas,” Diego admitted. “I thought I was gonna go to the Academy first and then North Texas. But I got that opportunity and I took it.
“I do have a chip on my shoulder because I wanted to be a part of the Academy. But there’s nothing I can change about that. Now, I’ve completed my first step and I’m here and ready to keep going.”
While he may not have the same spotlight as his brother, Diego has the same fight. They’re both relentless pressers who never give the backline a second to breathe; tireless runners never afraid to make a late run or chase a lost cause. It’s the main trait that sets them apart.
“Diego is his own person and a different kind of player,” said North Texas SC general manager Matt Denny, who signed Ricardo as the club’s first player back in late 2018. “But what he shares with Ricardo is that work rate and that desire. That’s what helped Ricardo get to where he is. He wants to play wants to compete, he wants to fight. I’d say Diego's a different kind of player, but those characteristics are what will help him succeed.”
Diego and Ricardo’s play styles are complementary: They’re both feisty forwards but they go about their business in different ways. Ricardo is more of the prototypical striker, whose 6-foot-1 frame and long strides make him a danger in the air and running into space. He’s a modern poacher, in many ways. Diego, on the other hand, is smaller, speedier. He attacks from wide areas and likes to take players on the dribble before combining with a center forward. But make no mistake, Diego is a natural finisher, too.
“I've learned from his [Ricardo's] movement,” Diego explained. “He plays around with the center backs and times his runs perfectly. He can win the ball and hold it up when he needs to. And just his hunger. He's always hungry to score.”
“I’m very proud of him,” Ricardo said. “I feel like me and him have two different paths. But just seeing him start his professional career with North Texas, I feel like he's on a good path. I’m just super excited for his future and see what it holds for him. And just very proud of him.”
Diego may not be following in Ricardo’s exact footsteps. But he’s certainly heading in the same general direction. "El Trencito" is just getting started.
“That's one of my goals: Follow the Pepi legacy. And I’m doing it the same way.”