Pepi lifts US over El Salvador 1-0, to Nations League semis

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ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Dropped by coach Gregg Berhalter from the U.S. World Cup roster, Ricardo Pepi returned to the national team under interim boss Anthony Hudson and responded with three goals in two games.

Pepi scored on his first touches of the match in the 62nd minute, lifting the U.S. over El Salvador 1-0 on Tuesday night and into the CONCACAF Nations League semifinals.

“It's been a roller coaster,” Pepi said.

The 13th-ranked U.S. (3 wins, 1 draw) is unbeaten against No. 32 El Salvador (1 win, 1 loss, 2 draws) in 22 matches since 1992, its longest streak against any opponent and a run that includes 17 wins. The Americans joined Mexico in the Nations League semifinals at Las Vegas on June 15, part of a final four that will include Canada or Honduras along with Costa Rica or Panama.

El Salvador, which needed a win to advance, has lost four straight matches and is winless in six.

Pepi replaced Daryl Dike in the 60th minute and ran onto a pass Weston McKennie released at the midfield stripe. The 20-year-old striker, who scored twice in Friday's 7-1 rout at Grenada, took a touch, fought off an arm from defender Roberto Domínguez and chipped the ball with his right foot over goalkeeper Mario González for his sixth goal in 14 international appearances.

At 20 years, 77 days, Pepi became the third-fastest American to score six goals behind Christian Pulisic (18 years, 263 days) and Jozy Altidore (19 years, 146 days), according to Opta.

“Really pleased with him, for him,” Hudson said. “We really value him. We love him as a person, as a character. We believe in him. ... In both games he could have had quite a few more goals. He's had a lot of chances.”

Gio Reyna got his second straight start in his return to the team after his family feuded publicly with Berhalter, who used the 20-year-old sparingly at the World Cup and nearly sent him home early because of lack of hustle in training.

“He clearly has talent and you see tonight some of the things he does,” Hudson said. “He probably needs a few more games under his belt. ... We're very, very pleased with how he's been this week in training."

The U.S. won consecutive matches for the first time since a December 2021 exhibition against Bosnia and Herzegovina, and a January 2022 qualifier against El Salvador.

Hudson is likely to coach the team at least through this summer's CONCACAF Gold Cup. Berhalter remains a candidate to keep the job.

El Salvador coach Hugo Pérez, who made 73 appearances for the American national team player from 1984-94, wouldn't say whether he was interested in coaching the U.S.

“If I say yes or no, they’ll kill me in my country,” he said.

After the final whistle, American goalkeeper Matt Turner televised a gender reveal of his second child by kicking a ball on the field that exploded with pink smoke.

Hudson changed seven starters, inserting right back Sergiño Dest, central defenders Miles Robinson and Tim Ream, left back Antonee Robinson, midfielder Yunus Musah, and Alejandro Zendejas and Dike at forward.

Miles Robinson played his first international match since the final World Cup qualifier last March 30 after recovering from a torn left Achilles with Atlanta sustained on May 7. Miles Robinson was the only player from Major League Soccer in the U.S. starting lineup, and he paired with Ream in central defense for the first time since the opening qualifier at El Salvador on Sept. 2, 2021.

“You saw moments of the old Miles where he's just so dominant in one vs. one situations and reads plays well and he steps in at the right time,” Hudson said.

Dike, who played for Orlando in 2020 and '21, made his first national team start since July 2021.

McKennie was wide with a header in first-half stoppage time, and Reyna hit the near post from 15 yards in the first minute of the second half off a feed from Pulisic.

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