By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Mar 29, 2023) US Soccer Players – It’s a job done for the USMNT following Monday night’s 1-0 win over El Salvador in Orlando. That result advanced the Americans into the final four of the 2022-23 Concacaf Champions League set for Las Vegas in June, a necessary step on the road to defending the title the US won in June of 2021 in a memorable game with Mexico.
Ricardo Pepi scored the winning goal for the Americans just two minutes after entering as a substitute. Pepi made a well-timed run and latched on to a perfectly weighted pass from Weston McKennie before chipping Salvadorian keeper Mario Martinez in the 62nd minute. It was a needed goal scored by a confident player.
Pepi’s game-winner in Orlando brought his tally from two games with the USMNT for this round of Nations League matches to three. The FC Groningen striker scored twice in the US win over Grenada on Friday, the first and sixth goals in the 7-1 romp. Combined with the three goals Pepi scored in two World Cup qualifiers in 2021, he now has six goals in 14 USMNT appearances.
The three-goal showing for his national team was Pepi carrying over the form he’s displayed for his club team in the Dutch Eredivisie. Pepi has nine goals in 21 appearances for Groningen, currently in 16th-place and embroiled in a relegation battle. Despite his team’s struggles in the standings, Pepi is building his case as one of the top young strikers in the competition and is earning the attention that label implies.
Hopes are high, and rightfully so that Pepi’s time in Holland will serve as a platform for him to ascend to the next stage of his career for both club and country. Pepi looks every bit the player that attracted European interest and generated a significant transfer fee for FC Dallas last January. The loan that gave him a chance to play regular minutes in the Eredivisie is proving to be a stirring success. It’s yet another example of the top division in the Netherlands helping American players to grow into their full potential.
As a league long known as an incubator of talent, the Eredivisie is serving that purpose for a 20-year-old Pepi and for a pair of Pepi’s USMNT teammates from the now-concluded March camp. Two other players who featured for the Americans over the last week can also point to Dutch experience as a major part of their stories as they hold down key roles for the USMNT.
21-year-old Taylor Booth earned his way into Anthony Hudson’s roster via his exploits at FC Utrecht. Through 26 games, Utrecht is having a solid season. They’re currently holding onto 7th-place and the UEFA Conference League qualifying playoff round spot it conveys.
Booth is a big reason why his club is dreaming of European competition this season. After joining last summer from Bayern Munich, Booth spent a few months establishing himself in the first team in the Netherlands. A stint with Utrecht’s youth team eventually led to a move into the starting lineup with the senior squad in October.
Since then, Booth has been one of Utrecht’s best attackers. A versatile talent who can play in the midfield and on the wing, Booth has two goals and three assists in the Eredivisie in just over 1,200 minutes. Every appearance represents a new highwater mark for games and minutes played in a campaign for Booth, a player who began his youth career in the Real Salt Lake system.
Thanks to an excellent run in which he scored both of his goals for the season so far, Booth won Utretcht’s Player of the Month award for November and is entrenched as a consistent starter with the season hitting the home stretch.
The Eredivisie is home to another talented American attacker, AZ Alkmaar midfielder Djordje Mihailovic. While Mihailovic didn’t play against Granada or El Salvador, his call-up to the national team as an injury replacement for Tim Weah happened because the former Chicago Fire and CF Montreal player is making waves with his Dutch club.
Mihailovic is still in the integration phase of his move to AZ Alkmaar after joining the club in the January transfer window via a move from MLS. An injury in early February slowed his initial momentum, but he’s making regular appearances again while AZ chases a top-three finish and a spot in European competition next season.
Two more players on the March roster also have Eredivisie experience. Heracles had no history with American players before midfielder Luca de la Torre signed with the club in 2020. De la Torre arrived in the Netherlands after making his way through the ranks at Fulham and finding playing time difficult to find at Craven Cottage. Heracles proved a perfect place for the silky smooth central player to develop his game. Although the club suffered relegation after the 2021-22 season, de la Torre’s exploits there earned him a contract with Celta de Vigo of Spain’s La Liga.
After spending the first half of the season as a reserve, de la Torre is now entrenched as one of Celta’s first-choice midfielders in a classic 4-4-2. De la Torre entered the international break on a run of nine consecutive starts, a run that coincided with a rise up the table for Celta.
De la Torre was one of the stars of the USMNT’s Nations League week, playing 94 minutes over two games in the side’s three-man midfield. His ability to dictate the pace of the game with the ball at his feet is a unique skill that benefited the US in both games. Following his inclusion in the World Cup team, de la Torre is among the players that make up the core of the USMNT heading into the next cycle.
The USMNT starter at right back on Monday, and in every game of the World Cup in Qatar, is a product of the Dutch league’s most famous club, Ajax. Sergino Dest’s rise through the ranks in Holland earned him attention as a teenager, eventually landing him in the starting lineup. Dest quickly earned a reputation across Europe as an emerging talent, moving to FC Barcelona in 2020.
Now on loan AC Milan, Dest, too, is part of the core of the USMNT that will play a central role over a new cycle that includes continental and hemispheric tournaments and culminates in a North American World Cup in 2026.
Jason Davis is the host of The United States of Soccer on SiriusXM.
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Photo by Robin Alam – ISIPhotos.com