FC Dallas Signing Ricardo Pepi Signaling a Shift
By Andy McCloud (@extrafluff)
In September of 2015, Weston McKennie lifted the MVP trophy of the Lafarge Foot U17 tournament in France, a competition that featured teams from Australia, Austria, and France. That team featured players like Tyler Adams, Auston Trusty, and Reggie Cannon, but it was McKennie who would go on to lift the trophy.
A few months later, McKennie would be cut from the U17 World Cup roster by Richie Williams, a decision that McKennie says drives him to this day. He knew he had to work harder, and he did, impressing so much the next spring with FC Dallas's U18 National Champions that he earned himself a move to Schalke 04, a club that has produced Leroy Sane, Leon Goretzka, Manuel Neuer, and countless others.
It's a great story, and one that benefits both the player and the club. However, of course, where there are big winners there are big losers, and FC Dallas lost big with McKennie. They had an asset now worth tens of millions of dollars, and they lost it for nothing, and a club that prides itself on youth development and pours money into its youth system needs to be rewarded to justify their expenditure.
Almost four years later, FC Dallas’s signing of Ricardo Pepi indicates the club is learning from their mistakes. All those aforementioned events that happened with McKennie leading up to his departure? Pepi signed last Friday at a younger age than McKennie was for any of them. He’s ineligible to move to Germany until January 2021, but now he gets to spend valuable time developing with the first team in Dallas under the guise of former academy director and current head coach Luchi Gonzalez.
And that’s a great thing for both Dallas and Pepi. Considering Pepi must wait to leave for Europe, having the opportunity to play with the first team of FC Dallas is the best option for the next year and a half for his development. On top of that, Dallas now has the opportunity to receive compensation for what they have spent on Pepi’s development, depending on whether he grows as much as everyone hopes and earns them a transfer fee in a year and a half. It’s the best scenario for all involved— sign young, receive the best training MLS can offer and even play a little at the MLS level, and then move on when it’s time.
Over the past six months, Dallas has embraced their role as America’s Ajax, but that hasn’t always been the case. Early in Oscar Pareja’s tenure, the team played youth players like Kellyn Acosta, Jesse Gonzalez, and other homegrowns, but the longer Pareja stayed in charge, the more difficult it became for players to break into the first team at a young age. Paxton Pomykal went from 123 minutes in MLS last year to forcing his way into the USMNT conversation in a mere six months, but avid followers of his game know that those minutes should have come earlier. Recently, Pomykal talked about how difficult it was to break in when he was only given a few minutes at the end of games that were already decided. However, former academy director and now head coach Gonzalez has turned the youth knob to 100, recently starting Pepi alongside Brandon Servania (20), Jesus Ferreira (18), Edwin Cerrillo (18), and Bryan Reynolds (17) against New Mexico United in the US Open Cup, while Pomykal rested and Cannon played with the USMNT. Dallas lost, but it speaks volumes about the direction the franchise wants to go in. If they’re aiming for Ajax, they’re on the right track.
However, playing their youth players is only one part of that process. Along with playing the kids, Dallas has to be prepared to let them go when the time comes. Back in 2017, Kellyn Acosta was hitting his stride with the national team, playing a key role in the Gold Cup at just 21. Acosta wanted to move to Europe that summer so he could be integrated with his new team by the time the World Cup rolled around, but then Technical Director Fernando Clavijo wanted to wait until January so Dallas could make a title run. Eventually, the wheels fell off, Acosta started playing poorly down the stretch, got hurt before the start of the next season, and was eventually offloaded to Colorado the following summer. He’s now firmly out of the national team picture and reports of a move to Europe are few and far between.
It’s an indicting tale. Dallas had every right to prioritize winning over Acosta’s career goals, but those choices will have consequences on how youth players view your team as a pathway. It would be hard to blame a player like McKennie for heading directly to Schalke when he sees Acosta, a one-time prized asset, toiling away in the cellar of the Western Conference at 23. It’s a reputation that Dallas has tried hard to combat, and they appear to be back on the right track. Their partnership with Bayern Munich resulted in a $1.25 million sale of Chris Richards, widely agreed upon as the best performer of the US’s U20 World Cup quarterfinalists under Tab Ramos, who now has interest from Barcelona, Valencia, and a plethora of Bundesliga clubs. It should be noted that FC Dallas retains a 40% sell-on clause on Richards.
The next to go, of course, should be Paxton Pomykal. The player once compared to Frenkie De Jong has shown out in the MLS this year. Perhaps the next best standout on that U20 World Cup team, Pomykal bolstered his international reputation after dazzling as a connector in the midfield while putting his impressive motor on display.
After half a season in the MLS, Pomykal looks prime for a move to Europe. Dallas has the option to retain him for 2.5 more years, but hopefully they learned their lesson with Acosta. Players need to be set free, and Dallas should follow in the footsteps of the New York Red Bulls with Tyler Adams. A pre-agreed move to Europe with Pomykal moving after the MLS season finishes would make sense for everyone involved. The kid from Lewisville, Texas gets his move and forces his way into conversation with the USMNT, and Dallas gets paid. On top of that, the pipeline keeps moving, opening up a spot for ’01 Thomas Roberts to get more playing time.
It would be confirmation of FC Dallas making true progress. If Pomykal makes the jump, he’ll be the first homegrown with minutes at FC Dallas to do so, but he certainly will not be the last. The pipeline needs to keep moving, and it inevitably will. The introduction of North Texas SC has only accelerated their program, and perhaps in January of 2021, we’ll be talking about how Ricardo Pepi is the first FC Dallas player to move from the academy to the USL team to the first team, and then be sold to Europe. It’s a future we can all look forward to.