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Soccer: Rising star Ricardo Pepi leads U.S. men over Jamaica in World Cup qualifier

Soccer: Rising star Ricardo Pepi leads U.S. men over Jamaica in World Cup qualifier
Striker Ricardo Pepi totaled three goals in his first two games for the United States Men's National Team, including two in a win over Jamaica on Thursday in Austin, Texas. Photo by Matt Paletto/Wikimedia Commons

Oct. 8 (UPI) -- Ricardo Pepi, an 18-year-old rising soccer star for the United States Men's National Team, scored twice in the second half to lead the Americans to a shutout of Jamaica in a World Cup qualifier in Austin, Texas.

Pepi scored in the 49th and 62nd minutes of the 2-0 win Thursday at Q2 Stadium. The victory pushed the Americans into first place in their CONCACAF regional qualifying group. The U.S. men outshot Jamaica 17-5.

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"It was a special moment for me and for the team," Pepi told reporters. "I felt like we needed these three points. We went out there and gave it our all."

Pepi, a dual citizen, chose to play for the United States instead of Mexico in August. His parents are Mexico natives, but he was born in El Paso, Texas. Pepi also scored in his U.S. debut, a 4-1 win over Honduras on Sept. 8 in San Pedro Sula, Honduras.

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"We are just sitting here on the train, observing everything that's happening," U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter told reporters, when asked about Pepi. "It's amazing. An 18-year-old gets an opportunity and takes advantage of it.

"He has this instinct. It's really hard to teach that to players. He has an instinct to score."

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Pepi found the net for the first time against Jamaica less than four minutes into the second half. Right back Sergino Dest collected a pass in the right side of the box to start that exchange. He chipped his first touch near the face of the goal.

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Pepi stood about six yards away from the net and flicked a header just inside the left post for a 1-0 lead. He doubled the Americans' lead about 13 minutes later.

Forward Brenden Aaronson ran toward the left corner flag to receive a pass at the start of that play. He dribbled into the box and grounded a left-footed pass ahead for Pepi.

The U.S. striker sprinted and slid into the area, using his first touch to slap a right-footed shot past Jamaica goalie Andre Blake.

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"Just being able to play in front of our fans and give our fans a win is a special feeling, not just for me, but for the whole team," Pepi said. "We were in front of our fans and we needed to get the win for them."

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The U.S. men face Panama in another World Cup qualifier at 6 p.m. EDT Sunday in Panama City, Panama.

The Americans (2-0-2) lead Mexico (2-0-2) due to goal differential in their eight-team qualifying group. The group will send three teams to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. A fourth team from the group will advance to an intercontinental playoff.

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