Published in ESPN.com
IN THE TUNNEL of Toyota Stadium, Ricardo Pepi poses during a photo shoot. The late morning feels perfect. The sun casts a shadow over a good part of the grass, which looks as green as anything that’s ever been. The cool breeze rippling through the flags of Texas, the United States and FC Dallas makes it feel like the season is finally changing after another hot summer.
“Do something with your hands,” the photographer tells Ricardo. His voice echoes through the tunnel, as does the sound of the camera.
Ricardo spreads his long arms to his side. His palms, near his waist, face out with fingers almost extended. His chin high, he looks straight into the lens.
“The Zen pose,” is what the photographer calls whatever Ricardo’s doing.
“You’re a natural,” the photographer says.
Ricardo smiles the grin of the rare teenager full of confidence.
“I try to be,” says the 18-year-old.
His voice lacks any hint of hesitation, as if he understands something no one else knows. Just weeks ago, Pepi made the momentous choice between two countries and joined the USMNT, a team trying to shake off its failure to qualify for the last World Cup. He has proved to be a revelation, scoring a crucial goal in the USA’s win over Honduras on Sept. 8, fulfilling the promise he makes to his family before each game: “I’m gonna score. I’m gonna score. I’m gonna score.”
And yet, even as his entire world is changing, even as he prepares for another round of games this week that will hopefully take him and his teammates to Qatar 2022, he seems so calm, peaceful. It’s like he’s always known it was just a matter of time and hard work before the attention would come. That his and his family’s sacrifices would eventually lead them out of El Paso to here. And that from here, he, and maybe they too, will go somewhere else.
Somewhere farther than the 10-hour drive between this place and home.
EL PASO IS about 83% Latino, most of that of Mexican descent. But decades ago, the city was a lot whiter. And back in those days, Alameda Avenue was a sort of dividing line. If you were white, you likely lived north of that street. If Mexican, you stayed south. Between that avenue and the Rio Grande, on the eastern part of El Paso County where land is cheaper and it becomes clear that this is life deep in the Chihuahuan Desert, is San Elizario.
San Eli is what everyone here calls it. That’s where Ricardo’s childhood home stands about a mile south of Alameda Avenue and double that distance north of the Rio Grande and the rust-colored border wall that scars the soul of this place. The overgrown weeds, the still-hanging Christmas lights, the empty rooms and the white car with deflating tires parked in the back, make it feel like the home was hastily abandoned. As if an opportunity came up that couldn’t be passed.
Like many houses in this neighborhood, the Pepis’ former home looks like it’s still in the process of being constructed. Good enough to live in — the doors and windows lock, the water and electricity work, the roof doesn’t leak — but still unfinished.
“I built it,” Daniel, Ricardo’s father, says in Spanish. Whenever extra money came in, it went to the house. Little by little, working on the weekends and after long weekdays doing construction, Daniel built this with his hands.
“When Ricardo was growing up, the conditions weren’t the best for us,” Daniel says. “That was part of the reason we lived in San Eli. It wasn’t because we wanted to. I didn’t grow up in a rural area where the roosters wake you up, where the neighbors have cows.”
From this house, Daniel and his wife, Annette, raised their young family. It was a life common to many El Pasoans. Monday through Friday, while working or at school, they stayed on the north side of the Rio Grande. On weekends and the random weeknight, the Pepis returned to the south side of the river to spend time with family still living in Juárez, Mexico.
“We consider it one city, one community,” Daniel says of El Paso and Juárez. “It doesn’t really matter if you live in El Paso or live in Juárez, you cross that bridge as much as you can.”
From this house, Ricardo — the oldest of the three Pepi children — started playing soccer at 4 years old. He’d grown up watching his father play, and Daniel coached him for a few years. Apart from practice, they’d sometimes do drills on a field in the shadow of a church that traces its roots as far back as the U.S. Constitution.
Daniel put his son in leagues a year or two above Ricardo’s age. Yes, he did it to push him. To challenge him. But he also did it because Ricardo was always bigger than his peers. His family nickname had once been Gordo. Outside of El Paso, Daniel had to carry his son’s birth certificate to show that he wasn’t older than the competition, he was actually younger.
Ricardo had, what Daniel says in Spanish, “el olfato de gol.” Some words or phrases lose their beauty in translation. This is an example. But the idea is that even at a young age, Ricardo had a nose for goal. Like he could smell it. Like he could feel it. Like he could seemingly score at will — which he often did — even when his father had him playing defense. And as he did that, the opponent’s parents doubted Ricardo’s age again.
“QUINCEAÑERO!” those parents screamed, implying the young boy was 15.
“¿CUÁNDO ES LA BODA?” they yelled, sarcastically asking when he was getting married.
Daniel laughs when he remembers those days. But he turns serious when asked if he feels like he pushed his son too hard. Like during those games when Ricardo didn’t feel like running because sometimes that’s the last thing 7-year-olds want to do. When that happened Daniel would take Ricardo out the game, then drive him home. It’s a long, lonely drive out to San Eli. It’s a perfect stretch of road for a proud man to brood in silence.
“Yes, I was hard on him,” Daniel admits.
“I’d make him take his uniform and cleats off and put them in the trash. I’d tell him, ‘Look, if you don’t want to play, that’s fine. Don’t play. But you’re not going to be wasting my time and much less, my money.'”
WHEN YOU’RE THE child of immigrant parents, you often feel as if you’ve got to make their struggles and sacrifices count for something. Calling it a burden is too much. Call it that feeling you get when you look at your father or mother and wonder what dreams they had before life shook them awake.
Because sometimes your mother is 16 years old when she had you. And sometimes your father pawns the family car and borrows money because those can become tomorrow’s problems if it means everyone’s eating today. And sometimes, you live in a place like El Paso and Juárez that are often neglected by their governments, and it feels like you must escape.
Like the rest of the communities, largely of Mexican descent, along the north side of the Texas-Mexico border, El Paso County has a substantially higher poverty rate than the rest of the country. Its per capita income is over $12,400 lower than the national average. It has lower levels of educational attainment. It has more than twice the national percentage rate of uninsured residents under 65.
It’s why when you come from the El Paso-Juárez borderland — as I do — it’s easy to feel an urgency. It’s disquieting to notice how few things grow here. The barren surroundings don’t help. Out in the wide-open spaces of West Texas and Northern Mexico, it’s easy to get lost.
To live here is to feel the questions that are as omnipresent as the mountains surrounding the region and as persistent as the winds racing down from them. On the worst of days that wind howls. It makes the desert floor dance until the sand blocks the sun and turns the sky from a hue of blue to a reddish-brown.
That wind can rip the roof off buildings and tear doors from hinges. It can choke and blind you, sometimes worse. It’s on those days when it feels like we should all run away from this desert. Run away from this separate world between two countries. On those days when it sounds like some invisible hand is continually throwing dirt against locked doors and windows, it’s like the wind carries the existential questions that most here wrestle with.
If I stay, will being around family and all that I know be enough to make me content?
If I leave, will the things I hope to gain be worth the hurt of missing what I’m about to lose?
“IT WAS LIKE they took a piece of my heart,” Annette says, in Spanish, of Ricardo moving to Dallas. It was 2016. Ricardo was 13 years old. FC Dallas offered him a place in their academy. Ricardo said yes. And he left.
“The only thing I could do was support my son,” Annette remembers. “It was very difficult. Very difficult.”
Those first few weeks when her baby was away from home, Annette cried herself to sleep. In the mornings in between phone calls to her son, asking how his host family was treating him and if he’d already eaten, she’d cry some more.
“I can’t be without him,” she’d tell Daniel. “I can’t.”
Daniel would try to comfort her, telling her it was what Ricardo wanted. That the only thing they could do is support him. But even for Daniel, that distance became too much.
About a year after Ricardo left, his family drove to Dallas for a tournament. Twice a month they’d make that 10-hour, 635-mile drive. Coaches told Daniel that Ricardo was doing very well, and he had a bright future. During the visit, Ricardo told his father he wanted them all to move to Dallas so they could be together again.
“Son,” Daniel told Ricardo. “I’m not moving here. We’re not coming.”
If that wasn’t deflating enough, Daniel turned the question on Ricardo.
“I want to know if you’re ready to come back?”
As soon as Daniel asked the question, Ricardo started to cry. Whatever dreams he imagined himself pursuing were suddenly in doubt. To be 13 years old and to say no to the person who’s given you so much feels like the most difficult answer you’ll ever give.
In between tears, Ricardo said he understood how hard the distance between them had been, because he felt it too. He missed his family the most, but he also missed El Paso and Juárez. He missed the friends and family on both sides of that river that separates everyone there.
“I love you all,” Ricardo told his father. “But this is my dream and I’m going to stay. I’ll miss all of you.”
As soon as he heard that, Daniel felt chills. He began to cry. If you’ve seen the tears of a stoic Mexican man hardened by life, it stays with you. They hugged and kissed. Daniel told Annette what was happening, and she told him she was ready to move. “I don’t want to be without him,” she said.
Four years ago, the entire Pepi family — father, mother, brother and sister — moved to a suburb north of Dallas. Ricardo left his host family and moved in too. And just like it had in their old house in San Eli, their life revolved around soccer. When they weren’t at games, or at school, or Daniel at some construction site, or Annette cleaning another office, they’d watch Liga MX. And, as always, because the Pepis are “Américanistas de corazón,” they’d cheer for Club América, just like they’d always done.
“I was raised watching Mexican soccer,” Daniel says. “And that’s how I raised my children.”
So much Mexican soccer — the league, yes, but also El Tri — that as a young boy, Ricardo said something his father still remembers.
“Hey dad,” Ricardo told Daniel while watching El Tri play.
Maybe they were playing at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City. Or maybe the Mexican national team was playing in the United States, where they’re this country’s most popular team. Who knows?
“Imagine when I’m playing there,” Ricardo said.
“I WAS 99 percent sure he was going to pick Mexico,” Manny Ruiz says.
Ruiz, an FC Dallas season-ticket owner, is also a member of El Matador. They’re a bilingual group of FC Dallas supporters who during tailgates, play salsa and rap, and talk to each other in some combination of English and Spanish. Ruiz first watched Ricardo play in 2019, back when the precocious teen was a member of North Texas SC and scored a hat trick in his first professional game. Born and raised in Dallas, Ruiz is also a fan of El Tri.
And so, after a summer of watching Ricardo score at an increasing pace with FC Dallas — including becoming the youngest player in MLS history to notch a hat trick — Ruiz figured the dual national kid from El Paso would choose Mexico. Yes, Ricardo had attended international youth camps with both countries and was a member of the United States’ 2019 U-17 World Cup squad. Still, there has long been a perception that players coming from the U.S.’s Latino communities, playing in city leagues and not expensive suburban academies, get taken for granted, at best. At worst, the system ignores them. About two weeks before Ricardo decided, Mexican American player David Ochoa said he was playing for Mexico.
Then in late August, a day after Ricardo scored the game-winning penalty for the MLS All-Stars to beat the Liga MX All Stars, the USMNT announced its roster for World Cup qualifying. They’d called up Ricardo and he said yes. When he announced his decision, Ricardo said that even though he’d chosen the United States, he was proud of being a Mexican American and that “will never be taken away from me, no matter what national team I play for.”
“I was pretty devastated,” Ruiz says of Ricardo’s decision. As soon as it became public, the USMNT fans within El Matador called Ruiz to taunt him. It hardly mattered that they too were surprised.
“I was in shock,” Miguel Villalpando says. Villalpando, born and raised in Oak Cliff — a predominantly Latino neighborhood in Dallas — first heard about Ricardo when he played in the FC Dallas Academy. Villalpando says he immediately started paying attention to him because of their similarities. “He’s pretty much a Chicano,” he says, a term that describes someone of Mexican heritage born in the United States.
“He’s from here and his parents are from Mexico. You have to take pride in that, especially him being with FC Dallas along with me being a U.S. fan.”
To hear Villalpando tell how he, of Mexican descent, became a fan of the USMNT, it almost sounds like the origin story of a comic book villain. He was about 11, and the United States was about to play Mexico. “My dad was like, ‘a quién le vas? A Estados Unidos o México?‘” Which team did he want to win: United States or Mexico?
But before he could say anything, his father — from Irapuato, Guanajuato — answered for him. “Ah, tú eres Chicanito, you have to go for the USA.”
Villalpando, who laughs while telling the story and sprinkles Spanish words in every few sentences of conversation, admits it was his father’s way of being playful. But still, not every game is fun.
“He was trying to insult me,” Villalpando says. “But I took it as I’m going to embrace this. Ever since that, I’ve always been a U.S. fan because my dad did that to me.”
Friends and family — often playfully — call him a traitor. They tell him he should remember where he and his parents came from. And before each United States versus Mexico game, they tell him to get ready to lose. “I’m used to that,” Villalpando says, “it’s happened ever since I was a little kid. To me, it’s nothing.”
During this long, scorching summer, the United States beat Mexico twice in the final of two different tournaments.
Ruiz says that hurt. He says if Ricardo ever scores against Mexico, that’ll hurt too.
Villalpando says that felt great. He says he’ll soon buy Ricardo’s USMNT jersey.
BETWEEN PHOTOSHOOT LOCATIONS, Ricardo says choosing to play for the United States was one of the toughest decisions of his life. “I talked to my parents about it,” he says, standing a few feet from the pitch so unlike the ones he grew up playing on in El Paso. Those were full of rocks and weeds with thorns that’d get stuck to his shoes, laces and socks.
“I got the call-up from the national team,” Ricardo says. “I asked my dad for his opinion, and he didn’t really say much. He said wherever I wanted to play, he would support me.”
Like Daniel, the rest of the Pepi family, immediate and extended, have supported Ricardo’s decision, even if some still ask about it. Ricardo’s friends back in El Paso have been supportive too. They’ve even bought their USMNT jerseys with “Pepi” on the back.
Still, Ricardo says he knows there are a lot of people and even media who think he should have chosen Mexico. Explaining only that it was a better opportunity, he says he made the right choice.
Whenever he talks of that decision — he’s asked the same question in each of his increasing number of interviews — there’s zero doubt in his voice. He’s calm and at peace just like he is before every game, when he sits in silence and meditates. “This all has a lot to do with the mind,” he says. “If you’re prepared for it, if you expect it, then it’s going to come.”
But just because he’s at peace with the decision doesn’t mean he can ignore what’s about to come. On Nov. 12, the United States plays Mexico and there isn’t a Zen with an energy strong enough for Ricardo to pretend it’ll be just another game. To not feel any type of emotion when he hears the Mexican national anthem play, and he’s not singing along. Maybe even cry, since members of El Tri and their fans have been known to do just that.
Ricardo says that game will be different. He knows two countries will be watching and the line between who cheers for whom isn’t always clear. He knows he could become the first Mexican American superstar on the USMNT, and that there will always be those who think he made the wrong choice.
He knows his father’s dream was once to have a son play for El Tri. But now, Ricardo knows he has his father’s full support.
“With all due respect,” Daniel says, “I’m still Mexican, and continue to love my country, but right now, my jersey is that of the United States.”
I DON’T QUITE remember when I figured out that even if I wasn’t physically there, I could never escape living in a borderland. That away from this place between the United States and Mexico, I’d always feel a barrier between me and whatever place I lived. That while here, I’d feel the closest sense to belonging in the middle of the river that both divides and unites El Paso and Juárez. That’s the thing about this place. It’s a lot of things and some of them are contradictory.
It sometimes feels like the most beautiful place in the world. Other times, it feels like living in the middle of the desert was always going to end with an escape. That same rugged beauty can inspire the wildest of dreams: a young boy playing soccer in Europe’s biggest leagues, a former construction worker writing this. But it’s also the type of place that can suffocate you.
So, you leave because there’s no other choice. But sometimes running away creates a sense of guilt.
Leaving can cause irreparable damages to bonds once so strong you would have bet they could withstand any distance. Leaving makes you understand that the farther away you are, the less likely you’ll ever feel at home.
“Whenever I get a chance, I try to make it over there,” Ricardo says of the borderland. He misses the culture, how everyone’s friendly and humble and how Spanish is what you most often hear on both sides of the Rio Grande. He misses his family. The season is long, so it’s harder to return. But, he says, when he’s back, on Saturday mornings he likes to eat barbacoa in Juárez at a place called El Chivo Brincon.
“You ever eat there?” Ricardo asks me.
When I tell him I’ve never been, he responds with an incredulous “nooooo” that goes on for at least two seconds. I tell him the place we used to eat was a simple cart next to a gas station that, if it had a name, was ignored.
“Everyone called it ‘el güey de la gasolinera,'” I tell him. The f—ing guy at the gas station.
We laugh and the people around us don’t even know why.
Unless you’re from here, you’ll never know how comforting it feels to meet an El Pasoan or a Juárense away from this place. It’s difficult to describe but it’s in the way they talk, especially when the conversation turns to Spanish. It’s in the music they listen to and the food that they eat. It’s in the shared memories of this place.
It’s in the interaction. Because, if nothing else, for once, you don’t have to explain where you come from. No need to explain how much you miss it. Or the struggle to stay or leave.
No need to explain how the border wall never looks as jarring as it does when you leave and go back.
Or that, because it feels like it has always been there, sometimes that goddamned wall becomes just another part of the desert.
“IT’S IMPOSSIBLE,” DANIEL says when asked to describe his emotions when he heard Ricardo was starting the World Cup qualifier against Honduras.
The game before, against Canada, the Pepi family traveled to Nashville. Since the USMNT played a scoreless tie in El Salvador, a game in which Ricardo didn’t get any playing time, Daniel figured his son would get 10 or 15 minutes in Tennessee.
“We traveled there with that hope,” Daniel says. “Unfortunately, he didn’t play. And to be honest, the U.S. only got two points in two games, I figured he wasn’t going to play much, if at all, against Honduras.”
Two games into qualifying for the 2022 World Cup, and the USMNT looked lost. The team had been expected to win both games and managed only draws. For fans, those results awoke dark memories of the team’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
That’s why the game against Honduras mattered. And why Daniel figured Ricardo wouldn’t play, since he was unproven. Of course, look at it from the opposite angle and it becomes clear that whatever USMNT had done wasn’t working. And so, on the plane to Honduras, Gregg Berhalter — maybe coaching for his job — told Ricardo he was starting.
Daniel was driving around Waco, Texas, where he works Monday through Friday, when he heard the news.
“Are you playing with me?” he asked Ricardo, the surprise so great that Daniel had pulled off the road.
“No,” Ricardo answered.
At halftime, losing 1-0, and again, thoughts that everything might be coming apart for the USMNT — maybe even thoughts that they’d chosen the wrong country — Daniel worried Ricardo would get replaced. Not because he was playing badly, but because it was his first start.
“I see him starting the second half,” Daniel says, “and how he’s playing. I tell my wife, ‘A goal’s coming, a goal’s coming, a goal’s coming.’ And then it comes.”
In the 75th minute, Ricardo’s header broke the tie, 2-1. And as he — the second youngest player to play for the United States in a World Cup qualifier, after teammate Christian Pulisic — ran and screamed and jumped in celebration with his teammates, his family did the same at home. All celebrating the euphoria of what Ricardo calls “a goal that changed the game completely.” A goal that, at least for one game, broke the USMNT free from the panic and doubt and insecurity that had surrounded them.
“There wasn’t enough room in our hearts to fit such emotion,” Daniel says. Sitting beside him, Annette also jumped and screamed. She cried. Because that’s what she always does when Ricardo scores.
“My son has always said that he was going to be a professional. That he was going to play on a European club. And always, always, always, when he scores, I get tears of happiness and joy,” Annette says. As she talks, her voice begins to crack.
“I know this is his dream,” she says of her son, who finished his USMNT debut with a goal and two assists to beat Honduras 4-1.
“That game was special,” says the teenager from the edge of two countries.
RICARDO STANDS BY his Camaro. It’s the last photoshoot location of the day.
His car, a symbol of American muscle, looks as red and shiny as a candy apple. He got it about a month ago. It’s the first car he has ever bought for himself. And when he parks it, he’s careful not to touch the windows when closing the door. He doesn’t want his fingertips staining the tinted glass.
“It’s been crazy,” Ricardo says about the past few months. He says he gets recognized lots more. Fans approach him and ask him for an autograph, and some — more than before — tell him they’re from El Paso too.
Watching him play against men, it’s easy to forget how young Ricardo is. That, somewhere in the middle of his life-changing season, he graduated from high school. That he still lives at home with his parents. That when he’s not scoring goals, he takes out the trash, walks the dog and occasionally washes dishes.
Ricardo misses home. But he has no second thoughts about the choices he has made. He says he understands how much his family has risked. They left the comfort and familiarity of El Paso and Juárez for Dallas, a giant of a city. Four years of living there, and they still use GPS to get around.
This place is where they live now. For how much longer? No one knows. Soccer rumors mention Ricardo’s name along with some of the world’s biggest clubs in Germany, Italy, England and the Netherlands. Daniel says the family thinks about that every day.
“But we don’t think of it as wondering what comes next,” Daniel says. “We know what comes next. He’s long visualized his path. He knows where he wants to go, and the path to get there.”
But no matter where he, or they, as a family, live, they speak as if they too know you can’t escape the El Paso-Juárez borderland. They still own that unfinished house in San Eli. They talk about visiting as much as they can, crossing that bridge that divides and connects home. They say it never feels like enough. Because even if Ricardo chooses to play for the United States instead of Mexico, they all seem more comfortable in that place between those two countries.
It’s like the last thing they want to do is forget where they come from. It’s why even if Ricardo and his magical right foot play for the United States, they only speak Spanish at home.