Sergino Dest, Jordan Morris lead U.S.'s breakout stars in Gregg Berhalter's first year as manager
It has been a year to the day since Gregg Berhalter was hired as manager of the U.S. men's national team. In 2019, the USMNT was largely treading water. In fact, its collective chin has inched dangerously close to the waterline at times.
The victories were expected, especially considering the CONCACAF-heavy schedule and the fact that just two of the Americans' 18 games were held outside the United States. Yet the loss to Canada in October raised alarm bells, and fans are still waiting for a signature win under Berhalter. Questions persist about the best tactical and stylistic way forward, though a better mix of direct and indirect play seemed to creep into the U.S. team's game during the CONCACAF Nations League victory over Les Rouges last month.
For all of the questions surrounding Berhalter and the way forward for this U.S. team, it's worth noting that he gave opportunities to some emerging players, and they either became mainstays or will warrant additional calls going forward. The lineup still has its share of questions, with the forward slot -- will it be Gyasi Zardes, Jozy Altidore or Josh Sargent? -- among them.
CONCACAF opponents can also result in false positives, but a few players stepped up in 2019 to make Berhalter's life easier.
Aaron Long | 27 | Center-back | New York Red Bulls
Heading into 2019, Long had just two caps under his belt for the U.S. and a glut of players seemingly ahead of him on the depth chart. But he made the most of the annual January camp, captaining the side in the first two matches under Berhalter, and aside from a pair of games in the first half of the year, he was a fixture in the U.S. lineup. His performances have been so solid that he has moved ahead of established players such as Matt Miazga, who wasn't called in for the last round of Nations League matches in November. Long also proved to be a force on set pieces with three goals, with his mobility allowing him to clean up plenty of messes in the back.
Long has made it clear that he wishes to test himself at a higher level than Major League Soccer, though his club form in 2019 wasn't at the same level as it was with the U.S. men. For now, a center-back pairing of Long and John Brooks appears to be the preferred tandem heading into 2020 and some meaningful fixtures.
Jordan Morris | 25 | Midfielder | Seattle Sounders
As of January, Morris had made 24 appearances for the U.S. He was hardly an unknown quantity when Berhalter arrived. But his coming off a torn ACL, not to mention a permanent shift to the wing, meant there were doubts as to what kind of impact the Seattle native could make at international level going forward. Over the course of 2019, Morris proved for both club and country that he was back. That was never truer than during the crunch Nations League win over Canada, when he recorded a goal and an assist just days after helping the Sounders claim their second MLS Cup in four seasons.
The question now is whether Morris has anything more to prove in MLS. It doesn't seem so, though he's known to appreciate the creature comforts of playing in his hometown. If he stays put, he risks getting leapfrogged by other players, but for now, he has established himself in Berhalter's pecking order.
Sergino Dest | 19 | Right-back | Ajax
Granted, this one was kind of a no-brainer, given Dest's performances for the U.S. at the FIFA U-20 World Cup, as well as his early-season success with Ajax. The ensuing international tug-of-war with the Netherlands meant there was every reason to fast-track him to the full U.S. team. Still, credit Berhalter for doing the right thing.
Although Dest took some lumps early -- such as getting nutmegged by Mexico's Jesus "Tecatito" Corona in a September friendly -- his play settled down once his international future was decided, and he was excellent in the aforementioned game against Canada. His minutes with Ajax have decreased, but he's still seeing the field often enough that his form should improve. His ability to play either side should give Berhalter some needed flexibility.
Jackson Yueill | 22 | Midfielder | San Jose Earthquakes
Heading into the end of the year, few players are riding as much momentum as Yueill. He didn't make his U.S. debut until a June friendly against Jamaica, and the fact that he wasn't on the Gold Cup roster meant he had to wait a while to get another chance. He impressed in the 1-1 draw against Uruguay, but it still counted as a surprise last month that Berhalter relied so heavily on the San Jose midfielder in the Nations League, especially with the Quakes' absence from the playoffs cutting into his match sharpness. But Yueill delivered in the Canada match, one with relatively high stakes, and Berhalter's faith in the midfielder is clear.
Yueill leans toward the deep-lying playmaker type, pushing his teams forward. Therefore, if he's on the field, thought must be given to who can provide the defensive steel beside him. Last month, that was usually Weston McKennie. In the future, that could be Tyler Adams. Under club coach Matias Almeyda, Yueill's defensive form figures to improve.
Will there be room on the field for him going forward? When Adams returns, that could prove difficult, but so far, the Quakes midfielder has done his bit to impress.