Get Your Popcorn Ready, Here Comes El Paso’s Ricardo Pepi
You know how these things go. Every sports fan does.
You show up to a sporting event popcorn at the ready for that one bit of magic, but more often than not leave with only the un-popped kernels stuck in your molars.
That's because sporting magic is nothing but determination that rises above circumstance in a world where circumstance usually wins. It's rarest in team sports –– determination is everywhere making magic harder to come by. Rarer still is seeing that magic performed by one particular athlete in a team sport.
Saturday afternoon I took an opportunity to watch FC Dallas’ home opener, crossing over Lewisville Lake from Denton, where I was in town for UTEP women’s basketball that night, to Toyota Stadium in Frisco.
I came because maybe I’d get to see the young man from El Paso County, Ricardo Pepi, play in a Major League Soccer match. Maybe not. There was no guarantee he’d be in the 18-man roster.
Maybe I’d get to watch Pepi do something special. Maybe not. Even if he was on the roster there was no guarantee he'd play.
Well. Let it be said Ricardo Pepi is anything but un-popped popcorn.
Undone by the timely feet of their former teammate, Maxi Urruti, FC Dallas had its back against the wall, down 2-0 to Thierry Henry’s patient, opportunistic Montreal Impact.
Head coach Luchi Gonzalez had already made a double substitution to bring on playmaker Paxton Pomykal and Santiago Mosquera in the 62nd minute, only to see Urruti earn his brace six minutes later in front of the fans who’d cheered his ability to pounce on chaos just two seasons ago.
Gonzalez’s last sub had to be right, but “right” at this point in the match was anyone who might be able to put the ball in the net.
He called on Pepi, the 17-year-old who signed his first professional contract less than a year ago. A lanky teenager who had yet to bag his first professional goal.
The speculation this season was that Pepi wasn’t quite ready for the bright lights of the top flight, that maybe it would be best to loan him to a USL Championship squad for second division seasoning.
Pepi made his entrance in the 76th minute and hung around, doing well enough with his few touches, waiting for service that Impact was doing its best to strangle.
FC Dallas kept coming, though, and finally earned its first breakthrough in the 83rd minute.
Reggie Cannon’s cross found Zdeněk Ondrášek open in the box. “The Cobra” had caught the Montreal defense napping and promptly nodded the ball into a gaping net to draw one back for the home team.
But Henry’s Montreal side tightened up and held its ground.
Fans roared as FC Dallas' tide kept crashing on Impact's rocks. More cheers after referee Victor Rivas called for seven minutes of added time.
Added time or no, opportunity was slipping away; and not just for FC Dallas.
I had thought about packing it in after Urruti's second goal. Denton wasn't going to be less than 30 minutes away regardless of the final score and my phone was running out of juice. Dead batteries are problematic for ride sharing apps.
Still, I persisted. Standing on the concourse recording with my cell, the clock counting up as my battery counted down. Me, hoping to catch that one buttery, perfectly-popped morsel but thinking I was goofy because I've seen this movie before.
But which movie, Tin Cup or Hoosiers?
Eat your heart out, Jimmy Chitwood.
Sixth minute of stoppage time. A headed clearance goes straight to Cannon at the right corner of the 18-yard box. Cannon ahead to Michael Barrios, Barrios left to Ondrášek, Ondrášek back-heel left into a tangle of bodies in shadow and then a sudden low bullet to the far post. Goal, FC Dallas.
Looking at my phone, I couldn't see who scored it. Then, a lanky figure ran into the daylight chased by his teammates.
The first top-flight goal for Ricardo Pepi and it was as clutch as clutch can be. All from a kid who'd be wrapping up his junior year at San Elizario High School if his family hadn't made the decision to send him to FC Dallas' trailblazing youth academy at age 13.
In the embers of stoppage time, in the final milliamperes of battery life, a Hoosiers-worthy moment made even better by the absence of a script.
Sure, it was only the second game in a long regular season. Yes, the hope is that Pepi scores even bigger goals.
But Saturday, Pepi might have earned the right to shoot for those goals in MLS and the popcorn was as good as I hoped it would be.