LOS ANGELES — Ricardo Pepi grew up straddling the ever-dwindling divide between Mexican and American soccer. The Texas native who mostly watched Mexican teams as a kid is now a first-time MLS All-Star for FC Dallas, and both national teams have been chasing the 18-year-old prodigy’s commitment.
Pepi essentially confirmed Wednesday night he has decided to play with his fellow Americans — and he did it right after striking the decisive blow for his domestic league in the latest chapter of its growing, friendly rivalry with Liga MX.
New England goalkeeper Matt Turner made two penalty kick saves, and Pepi converted the final chance to lift the MLS team past a collection of stars from Mexico’s top league in the MLS All-Star Game.
The MLS team won the shootout 3-2 after finishing regulation tied 1-1.
Pepi is expected to announce Thursday he has chosen to represent the U.S. internationally when he is selected for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers. His penalty kick off the underside of the crossbar was a symbolic way to end an entertaining, friendly evening for the All-Star teams representing the continent’s two biggest leagues.
“To get called up to the national team and then get the win for MLS, it feels great,” Pepi said. “You guys can see the MLS is getting better and more competitive.”
The first matchup of these leagues’ top players in MLS’ midseason showcase was the latest step in the increasingly close ties between the U.S./Canadian league and Mexico’s top division. The teams put on a memorable evening at Los Angeles FC’s sold-out Banc of California Stadium in the heart of a cosmopolitan American city with a vibrant Mexican flavor.
Liga MX MVP Jonathan Rodríguez scored in the 20th minute of regular time, and Jesús Murillo evened it on a header off a cross from LAFC teammate Eduard Atuesta early in the second half.
The penalty shootout was a thriller: Turner won the game’s MVP award by stopping shots by Rogelio Funes Mori and Salvador Reyes, and Pepi finished it with style.
“I think (this All-Star format) would be great for both leagues,” Turner said. “You saw the competition was really spirited and high intensity. The fans were into it. It should be the norm, but it’s not my call. I had a ton of fun this week. People really wanted to win, and we don’t always get that in All-Star games here.”
MLS and Liga MX already hold two team cup competitions with hopes for even more interleague play, and both leagues agree a full merger is a real possibility in the coming years.
“Winning a match against the best players in Mexico feels so good,” said MLS captain Raúl Ruidíaz, a Peruvian veteran of both leagues. “It proves our league is growing. We enjoyed this a lot.”
These All-Star teams’ demographics reflect both leagues’ growth and international appeal. The MLS All-Stars were born in 13 different countries, while only 12 of Liga MX’s 27 All-Stars were born in Mexico.
“It’s amazing to be here with all these great players,” said Guillermo Ochoa, the veteran Club América goalkeeper who played part of the first half. “It’s great for the fans because they can see these players live. I would love to be here again next year.”
MLS was once well behind Liga MX in quality of play, but players from both leagues agree the gap has closed significantly in the past few years. These All-Star teams appeared to be quite well-matched as they played to a draw in regulation.
“The thing I learned out there is we are up there with Liga MX,” Philadelphia Union goalkeeper Andre Blake said.
Early in the first half, the game was paused after fans participated in the infamous homophobic chant that remains irresistible to some Mexican fans despite FIFA sanctions against their national team because of it. Fans largely stopped doing the chant on goal kicks after the warning, but many did it again during extra time in the second half.
Liga MX went ahead when América defender Jorge Sánchez delivered a long cross to Rodríguez, who controlled it and scored for the latest achievement in the Uruguayan veteran’s remarkable calendar year. Rodríguez won Balón de Oro as Mexican football’s most valuable player last year while leading Cruz Azul to its first Liga MX title since 1997.
Rodríguez even won the MLS All-Star Skills Challenge for Liga MX on Tuesday night, hitting the crossbar from about 45 yards to end the event.
The Los Angeles festivities were dampened earlier this week when MLS’ two biggest Mexican stars — the Galaxy’s Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez and LAFC’s Carlos Vela — both dropped out with injuries. Inter Miami’s Rodolfo Pizarro was the only Mexican-born player on the MLS roster, which had a handful of Liga MX veterans.