U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter likes to tout his team's "next-man-up" mentality, and it's been a constant of the USA's World Cup qualifying campaign.
Who'd have thought the USA would finish the three fall windows and eight games in second place, one point out of the lead, despite having first-choice wingers Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna available for only three starts between them or John Brooks, its best defender in the Concacaf Nations League, playing only two games? Throw in Weston McKennie and Sergino Dest, both limited to four starts, and that's five U.S. Champions League players who have missed at least half the Octagonal.
In eight games, Berhalter has used 34 different players and handed 30 of them starts. In all, 26 players have made their World Cup qualifying debuts.
Building a cohesive unit and getting consistent performances has been very difficult, though the USA showed glimpses that the whole could be greater than the sum of the parts, running Mexico off the field in the second half of Friday's 2-0 win.
With that in mind, here are Soccer America's individual U.S. awards through eight Octagonal games.
MVP (Weston McKennie). McKennie has only played four of eight games, but his value has been most evident in the difference how the USA has controlled midfield with him in the lineup alongside Tyler Adams and 18-year-old Yunus Musah and with him out of the team. The Texan's performances have been far from perfect with far too many needless turnovers but his relentless effort has constantly weighed on opponents in the last three U.S. wins. He was finally rewarded with the second goal in the 2-0 victory over Mexico.
Rookie (Ricardo Pepi). The USA used a succession of center forwards -- Josh Sargent, Jordan Pefok, Daryl Dike and Gyasi Zardes -- at the Nations League and Gold Cup before settling on the 18-year-old Pepi, who earned his first cap in the third qualifier at Honduras. He scored three goals and added two assists to lead the USA to its first two wins in the Octagonal. The El Paso native has displayed remarkable patience for a striker so young. He has not scored since his second start, but his willingness to work for his teammates has been outstanding. His set-up work, which has been underrated, earned him a team-high third assist on Tim Weah's goal against Jamaica in Kingston.
Comeback Player (Tim Weah). A case could also be made for Weah as MVP. Where would the U.S. attack, missing Reyna since the opening qualifier and Pulisic for the October window, have been without Weah? All he did was create the game-winning own goal against Costa Rica, set up Pulisic's winner against Mexico and score the opening goal against Jamaica on Tuesday, his first goal for the USA in more than three and a half years. A "horrendous" hamstring injury (Berhalter's description) required surgery and sidelined Weah for almost all of the 2019-20 season after his $11.2 million transfer from Paris St. Germain to Lille. The 21-year-old winger was slowly reintegrated into the national team in the last year but didn't made his first competitive start until the Panama game. He came back from an invisible performance in Panama City to put in three very good shifts in a row.
Best Goalkeeper (Matt Turner). Turner or Zack Steffen? We'll give the slight edge to Turner, who never played for the USA before this year but started the first five qualifiers, extending a streak of starts in goal to 11 games during which he recorded seven shutouts and allowed just four goals, one from the penalty spot. Berhalter switched to Steffen for the Costa Rica game and also used his former keeper at the Columbus Crew for the two games in the November window. “It was a difficult decision,” Berhalter said Monday. “It wasn’t something that was easy based on how we thought Matt was playing.” Steffen's ability with his feet gave him the edge over Turner, but the Revs keeper's distribution has improved. In the Jamaica game, he set the tone for a dominating second half by rolling the ball to his right flank, starting Sergino Dest off on the counterattack that ended with his pass to Pepi for the opening goal.
Best Defender (Walker Zimmerman). Zimmerman was the only field player who didn't play in the USA's opening three games and wasn't even on the original roster for the October window. But 24 hours after Berhalter broke the Nashville SC defender the news that he wouldn't be in the squad, the U.S. coach called back to say he was needed. First, Tim Ream pulled out for family reasons. Then, John Brooks withdrew because of back problems. “Walker was one of those guys that got his opportunity and really thrived," said Berhalter on Monday, "and really played a great game against Jamaica in that first game. And then played a very solid game against Mexico as well." Zimmerman is one of six players to start at center back, one of the positions of strength in qualifying. "He gives us a good aerial presence and does well in build-up," added Berhalter, "and was able to defend transition moments really well also.”
Best Goal (Sergino Dest vs. Costa Rica). Dest's golazo against Costa Rica drew the USA even after it conceded a goal to the Ticos in the 1st minute. It was similar to the goal he scored against Jamaica in March but with his less favored left foot. The amazing thing about this goal was that it came after 13 passes on the buildup from deep in the U.S. half.
Best Assist (Tim Weah vs. Mexico). Weah's relentless work on the right wing against Mexico finally paid off in the 74th minute, six minutes after Pulisic entered the game. He repeatedly beat Mexican left back Jesus Gallardo to keep El Tri pinned down. On his game-winning cross, a curving ball back across the goal to the streaking Pulisic, Weah said, “I tried to add a little bit of sauce in there on that cross, and it worked."
Best Save (Zack Steffen vs. Mexico). Turner and Steffen have had to make only 16 saves between them in eight games. The best? None falls in the jaw-dropping category, but Steffen's stop with his leg and fingertips on Chucky Lozano's one-on-one opportunity in the 18th minute was certainly a game-changer. The save kept things level at 0-0, and El Tri rarely threatened after that.