Pepi discusses the risks, rewards, and the confidence in his move to Augsburg
February 24, 2022
A LOT OF AMERICAN player were on the move during the January transfer window but Ricardo Pepi’s transfer from FC Dallas to Augsburg was the most striking – for many reasons. As an 18-year-old player who worked his way into the starting XI for big U.S. national team games after scoring 13 goals for Dallas, Pepi fetched a price of nearly $20 million. After his decision to represent the United States over Mexico, Pepi endeared himself to American fans everywhere.
But that is only half the story of his transfer. The other half was Augsburg.
Several top young American players have moved from MLS teams to Europe, but typically to either established teams in top five leagues (Wolfsburg, Hoffenheim, Leipzig, Arsenal, Manchester City, Bayern Munich) or to top teams in “middle” European leagues (Salzburg, Genk, Antwerp, Feyenoord, Rangers). A move to a relegation-battling team in a top league is no unheard of (Venezia imported two Americans last year, Arminia Bielefeld bought George Bello), but not even for a fraction of the price Augsburg paid for Pepi.
Pepi, 19, set Augsburg’s record for a transfer and it came at a time when its survival in the top-flight is in jeopardy. That, of course, raised questions. How much time would it take for Pepi to adjust? Could the money have been better spent on players who could immediately help in a relegation battle? What was the role in the club’s American ownership?
For Pepi, he is trying to stay above those questions and instead focus on improving as quickly as possible so he can help his team. Augsburg can certainly use all the help it can get as it sits in the relegation playoff position, trailing Hertha Berlin by just a point for safety.
“I'm a young player moving from MLS,” Pepi said. “That's a big step. There's pressure because of the big transfer. But for me, I don't really feel the pressure. I feel like I have to be patient with myself. I have to work every day to become a better player and be able to succeed in this league. I'm progressing well and I'm feeling better and better and feeling more confident day by day…I’m being patient, but also being really, really anxious to score my first goal, for sure.”
“It's about the confidence. Augsburg made the big transfer because they have the confidence in me and they wanted me to come to the team,” Pepi added. “Obviously I have to take that under consideration when it comes to if someone has confidence in you, then there's no better feeling as a striker, as a player… I'm here to give back to the team.”
There is a need for a period of adjustment. As MLS continues to improve, more and more scouts monitor the league looking for talent. This has led to more and more transfers of players abroad. But MLS is still behind the traditional “big five” leagues of Europe. Pepi notes the difference in the intensity, even in training where in Germany, things are rarely ever toned down – even on practices close to matchdays.
Pepi has made five appearances, including two starts, thus far for Augsburg but the team has just earned one point in the five games he has played.
“There's a little difference between the level here and it's the speed of play and the level of technique that some of the players have,” Pepi said. “German soccer is a little different. Players here are more disciplined. Not even just players, but people here. Everyone is on time. Everyone is always looking to do the best they can. It's a little different than the Mexican culture.”
“The Bundesliga is of the top five leagues,” he added. “I want to be able to succeed in this league. It's a league that everyone wants to come and play. In America, every single player wants to come to play in the Bundesliga… The league, its top five league in the world. Obviously being in MLS, it's a league that is good for young players. But the next step is Europe for all of us… and coming through the FC Dallas pipeline, I know there were a lot of players who came through it. FC Dallas is one of the best teams at developing young players in the United States.”
The process of deciding to move to Germany and leave Dallas was one that took a lot of thought. Pepi came off a breakout season with FC Dallas and given his age and position, there was always widespread speculation that 2021 was going to be his last year in the league.
Following the season, Pepi consulted with family, his agent, and other members of his inner circle about the scenarios of making such a move. There were many factors to consider. One was the fast-approaching 2022 World Cup and whether the move would risk the playing time he needed to be at his best and compete for a spot on the team.
When the Augsburg move was mentioned, he knew it was risky given their position in the table. But the value the club placed on him gave him confidence in himself to agree.
“It wasn't the money,” Pepi said. “I was planning on staying in the MLS for about another year or another two years. When Augsburg talked to my agent and talked to FC Dallas and decided to come forward with an offer, both teams decided to have an agreement. My agent called me and he was like, what do you think about Augsburg? And I was like, you know what? They're a great team. He was like, you know the risks you're taking on to them? It's a team that they have a lot of young players and obviously they're in the relegation zone. Are you sure you want to take that risk? And I'm like, Yeah, I'm willing to take the risk.”
Pepi also sought out the advice of some of his teammates on the United States national team. The Bundesliga has been a hotbed of developing top young players for many reasons. For one it remains a great league and many of the clubs are willing to take risks and play young players. For American players, it also works well because the Bundesliga has far fewer restrictions on importing non-EU players than other top leagues such as the Premier League, La Liga, Lingue 1, Serie A, or the Eredivisie.
Many current top American players are either in the Bundesliga now or have begun the European leg of their career in Germany before moving on. After having gotten to know them with the U.S. national team in the fall, Pepi was quick to approach them for advice.
“Christian and Weston - they played here, and they succeed in this league. It's something that definitely caught my eye.” Pepi explained. “I had some talks with Weston, with Christian and even Gio. Those are players that helped me with this decision a little bit – to take an eye on the Bundesliga. They said it's a good league and they said it's one of the best leagues in the world - that I could get adapted to the league and they think in a couple of years I could do well.”
Pepi along with many of these players are set to reunite in just a few weeks when the United States will take part in its final three games of the Octagon. The U.S. team has a four-point cushion on a top three qualifying spot but has its most challenging window of qualifying. The first game is a trip to Azteca followed by a home game against Panama. It will then conclude with a visit to Costa Rica. The two road games will be in places the U.S. team has never won.
Pepi will also be looking to boost his contribution levels as he hasn’t scored for the team since the 2-0 home win over Jamaica in the October window.
“That kind of the challenge comes with all the games that we that we played and we feel as a team that we were put moves challenges for a reason,” Pepi said of the national team and its upcoming March window. “I feel like these next few games are now obviously in better conditions, better weather. We should be able to have no excuses. The team lost to Canada and that bothered us a little bit. But we have to make a comeback and knowing that these next three games are huge.”