"It just made me hungry," Pepi said Friday. "It made me hungry to go on for the year. To do good for my club, do good for the national team and it was a turning point, for sure, in my career."
Pepi was included in the initial 31-player training camp ahead of the CONCACAF men's Olympic qualifying championship in Guadalajara, Mexico, in early March, but didn't make the cut when the roster was trimmed to 20 players. The team failed to qualify for the delayed Tokyo games and three of the four forwards on that roster -- Jonathan Lewis, Benji Michel and Sebastian Soto -- have not been involved in the mix for the senior side.
Since being left off the squad, though, Pepi has experienced a meteoric rise that has seen him establish himself as the starting No. 9 for the United States during World Cup qualifying. Pepi is one of a handful of players expected to start in Saturday's international friendly against Bosnia and Herzegovina in Carson, California, that is being used to keep the players sharp ahead of next month's three-match qualifying window.
After scoring 13 goals for FC Dallas in 2021, Pepi has been the subject of speculation about a European transfer, but he stayed coy about his club plans, steering the focus toward the USMNT.
"That moment is not yet to be decided," Pepi said. "I feel like I have a game here ahead of me and that's my main focus at the moment. I feel like we got to focus on the game and whatever happens is gonna happen, but we just got to be patient."
Pepi, 18, chose to play for the United States over Mexico in August and since appeared in six qualifying matches and scored three goals.
The United States roster also includes Jonathan Gomez, a former teammate of Pepi in the FC Dallas academy and with North Texas SC in USL League One. Like Pepi, Gomez has the option to play for Mexico or the United States, and trained with El Tri during the summer. He is headed to Real Sociedad in Spain when the transfer window open in January after spending the last two seasons with Louisville City in the USL Championship.
Pepi called Gomez's decision about his international future a person one and that he is willing to be a sounding board for him or anyone faced with similar decision.
"I'm always open to talk to them," he said. "I always try to just tell him, 'Do whatever you think is best. Go with your heart."
"It's been great having [Gomez] in camp," Berhalter said. "He's another player that is still maturing physically, still growing, but really a good competitor, technically good player. Very competitive. It's been great working with him."
Bello's Atlanta teammate Brooks Lennon will start at right back and earn his first USMNT cap, Berhalter added. Nashville SC centerback Walker Zimmerman, who has become an important piece of the U.S. backline, is expected to play the full 90 minutes.
Seattle Sounders FC forward Jordan Morris, who was sidelined for most of 2021 with a torn ACL, is expected to make his return to the starting lineup. He has not appeared for the U.S. since 2019, when he scored five goals in his last five appearances.
"He's looked sharp the entire [camp]," Berhalter said. "We knew that he had a long lay off. He got back into it with Seattle and they've done a great job of getting him back to a good point. He looks fit. He looks sharp. Really looking forward to him performing tomorrow."
After the game, the United States take a break before reconvening Jan. 6 ahead of the next qualifying window. The USMNT hosts El Salvador in Columbus, Ohio, on Jan. 27, visits Canada on Jan. 30, and then hosts Honduras in Minneapolis on Feb. 2.
Eight games into the 14-game qualifying schedule, the USMNT is in second place with 15 points behind first place Canada (16 points), ahead of Mexico (14), Panama (14) and Costa Rica (9). The top three finishers automatically qualify for the 2022 World Cup, while the fourth-place finisher will play the winner of the Oceania Football Confederation in a single-leg qualifier in Zurich, Switzerland, in June.