FC Augsburg secured their place in the Bundesliga next season despite a heavy 4-0 loss to RB Leipzig thanks to Bayern Munich and VfB Stuttgart playing to a 2-2 draw Sunday. That’s good news for American striker Ricardo Pepi, who has struggled mightily with Augsburg since his January move to the German club.
During that loss to Leipzig, Pepi came off the bench to play 32 minutes only touching the ball seven times, completing two passes, and taking zero shots. It’s the kind of anonymous performance that has been closer to the norm for Pepi as of late while he has struggled to acclimate to the Bundesliga environment.
El Tren left Major League Soccer when his stock couldn’t be higher, parlaying a 13 goal season into an $18 million transfer to the Bundesliga where he was expected to help save Augsburg from relegation. It’s a lot of pressure for any forward, especially one who is only 19. Add in that the USMNT World Cup hopes also rest, to some degree, on Pepi’s shoulders as the team struggles to find a high caliber starting striker, and it’s only natural that he disappointed especially when it’s hard for January transfers to break into a team.
But it’s not that he didn’t meet expectations in his first half-season at Augsburg, it’s how things happened. Pepi started three of the first six games that he was available for with the team winning none of those matches, and collecting only two points. Of their nine games that followed, he only started one match. They picked four wins and 12 valuable points to stave off relegation with a matchday to spare.
To date, Pepi has logged 474 Bundesliga minutes registering no goals or assists. This spilled over to national team play too, as in over four appearances, including three starts during that stretch, Pepi wasn’t involved in a single goal for Gregg Berhalter during World Cup Qualifying in 2022.
It wasn’t all bad for Pepi in Germany. Augsburg’s 3-0 win over VFL Wolfsburg felt like it could be a turning point. He took two shots, putting one on target for a total expected goals value of 0.34 while also playing a key pressing role while operating from right attacking midfield. But he wasn’t able to turn that flash into a sustained run and failed to get back into the team. The bottom line is that while Pepi’s positioning and work rate might be great, goals keep the lights on when a team is threatened by relegation.
Compared to other Bundesliga forwards, Pepi didn’t bring his shooting boots. Of all forwards to play 400 plus minutes in the league, Pepi took the fewest shots with eight. He did put five of those on target which is good but they weren’t nearly dangerous enough only creating an xG of 0.94 from all of those chances combined. He didn’t help enough with his passing either, only creating five chances which was fourth worst among his peers.
It’s tough to put all of this on Pepi even if coming in as a January signing but not showing a glimmer of his massive potential in his first Bundesliga half-season is a bit concerning. While Augsburg won’t be heading to the 2 Bundesliga, it could be good for him to head out on loan if Markus Weinzierl doesn’t see enough improvement during the preseason for Pepi to play meaningful minutes next season. Destinations like Hamburg or FC Saint Pauli, if neither are promoted, could give Pepi the experience of a high pressure environment with expectations without the weight of relegation from the top flight.
It’s hard for Pepi to gain confidence when he’s likely thinking about his scoring drought that has reached more than seven months for club and country. His last goal was on October 2021 against Jamacia where he had a brace for the national team. And if things don’t turn around for Pepi the USMNT will be forced to prioritize other options.
One of those options could be Pepi’s former teammate Jesus Ferreira. Ferreira has seven goals in 10 games for FC Dallas and is also a better passer than Pepi. If he isn’t hitting the back of the net he’s capable of getting the wingers on the team involved in the attack. Beyond Ferreira, Berhalter is clearly aware of the concerns in the attack ahead of Qatar and continues to look far and wide for a potential forward to lead the line. This summer he will be getting a look at Haji Wright during a critical June camp. Wright has scored 12 goals in 29 appearances for Turkish club Antalyaspor and is one of the top goal scoring Ameicans abroad.
Berhalter has stated that the World Cup roster will essentially be set by September so this June camp could be one of the last chances for off the radar players to impress Berhalter. He has also said that Pepi may not be called up for those matches so that he can get a mental break.
That’s not a bad thing for Pepi. He’s a young player that has had a tough year but steps like this are concerning when starting forward is the biggest question for the national team. Hopefully, Pepi can find his feet at Augsburg and head into the World Cup firing on all cylinders, but if he can’t, at least Berhalter is doing his due diligence to get a look at other options in the forward pool. This is a time that could make Pepi a stronger player overall as well, which is always the goal, but the USMNT needs a plan just in case things go the other direction. Player development is tricky, and Berhalter can hope for the best from Pepi, but he’s exactly right to head into this summer planning for the worst as well.