Ricardo Pepi makes statement as USMNT reaches CONCACAF Nations League semis

ORLANDO — The U.S. men’s national team overcame a lackluster first half to beat El Salvador 1-0 Monday  advance to the semifinals of the 2022-23 CONCACAF Nations League.

Ricardo Pepi scored the goal for the Americans in the second half after being superbly set up by Weston McKennie. The USMNT joins Mexico in the final four of the regional tournament, where in June it will meet an opponent to be determined Tuesday — possibly El Tri.

Here are three thoughts following Monday’s match.

Pepi the big winner this month

The 20-year-old forward was one of then-coach Gregg Berhalter’s final cuts before the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, where the three strikers on the 26-man roster managed just one goal between them in four games. Pepi had every reason to feel slighted; his goals during World Cup qualifying helped the U.S. return to the planet’s biggest sporting event for the first time in eight years, and after struggling mightily upon moving to Germany’s Bundesliga from MLS side FC Dallas in early 2022, he’d rediscovered his scoring touch on loan with Dutch club Groningen.

This month, in his first two international games since the snub, Pepi scored three times in about 90 total minutes of action. His deft finish on Monday was the best of the lot:

“It’s been a roller coaster, to be honest,” Pepi said afterward of the last few months. “I’m happy to be just in the squad, scoring goals again, after missing the World Cup. I think I made a big statement tonight.”

It comes at a good time. The striker position is as unsettled as ever, to the point where much of the focus of USMNT fans over the last week has been on U.S. Soccer’s efforts to recruit New York-born Arsenal forward Folarin Balogun, who has been tearing up France’s Ligue 1 on loan this season. Balogun, 21, is also eligible to represent England and Nigeria. Landing him would be a coup, no doubt. But Pepi still did all he could this month to show that he deserves serious consideration for the starting job heading into the summer.

Miles Robinson looked like his old self 

The central defender didn’t even dress for Friday’s 7-1 win in Grenada; after the projected World Cup starter ruptured his Achilles tendon last May and missed the trip to Qatar, he’s still unable to play two full games in quick succession.

You wouldn’t have known it on Monday. Partnered with 35-year-old veteran Tim Ream, Robinson sure didn’t look like someone who hadn’t played at the international level in almost a year. He might even have been the Americans’ top performer against El Salvador.

“My Achilles feels fine,” Robinson said following the contest. “I wasn’t playing worried ever. So yeah, it felt great. I was happy to get back out there for a clean sheet.”

His most impressive moment of the night came around the hour mark, when he raced back 40 yards to dispossess Los Cuscatlecos center forward Brayan Gil deep in his own half of the field, snuffing out a potential scoring chance.

“That one recovery run that he had he looked like he was shot out of a rocket,” Ream said of Robinson. “It’s impressive considering the injury that he had. But I said earlier in the week, he looks like the Miles of old.”

The 26-year-old’s return only adds to the competition at center back, of which there is plenty. Ream said Monday that he wants to continue all the way to the 2026 World Cup, while Qatar vets Cameron Carter-Vickers, Walker Zimmerman and others all remain firmly in the mix. If he plays like he did in Orlando, though, Robinson will be tough to beat out.

After a rough first half, U.S. finishes the job

Even in front of their home supporters, this was always going to be the tougher of the two March games. The Americans still probably didn’t bank on it being as difficult as it was. Despite fielding a starting lineup that featured seven World Cup starters (Daryl Dike, Gio Reyna, Miles Robinson and Alex Zendejas were the exceptions), the U.S. wasn’t the better team over the opening 45 minutes.

Sure, the Americans had almost 60% of the possession in the first half and outshot the visitors 6-1 (2-1 on target). They were also uncharacteristically disconnected and sloppy on the ball.

A tactical tweak by interim coach Anthony Hudson at the intermission put the hosts in a position to take advantage of their talent edge after the break.

“Second half, we were far more compact, for the most part, which allowed us to get closer to them,” Hudson said. “That just allowed us to get a little bit more control of the game, and then you build confidence from that.”

The U.S. needed only a tie to advance, and the outcome was never in doubt over the last 20 minutes or so. “Basically, we ran out of gas,” said El Salvador coach (and former USMNT midfielder) Hugo Perez. Still, the result was a little too close for the hosts, which will face a much stiffer test in June. 

Hudson should still be at the helm then; U.S. Soccer might not have a new sporting director, whose first job will be to hire the new full-time coach, until July. It’s certainly not ideal. And at some point, the lack of a clear long-term plan might manifest on the field and come back to bite the Americans. While the final score Monday was sufficient, the performance from a close to full-strength USMNT was well short of convincing.

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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