Inside the Hype, Ambition and Drive of Sergino Dest—USMNT's Most Wanted Man

Dean Jones@DeanJonesBRFootball Insider at Bleacher ReportOctober 8, 2019

United States' Sergino Dest controls the ball during the second half of a friendly soccer match against Uruguay Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019, in St. Louis. The game ended in a 1-1 tie. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

Sergino Dest's route to the United States men's national team has not been conventional. Until five years ago, the Ajax starlet had never even been to the country. 

Born and bred in the Netherlands, he visited New York with his father—a U.S. serviceman—in 2014. Dest was mesmerised.

"We were on a shuttle bus and, as we came out of a tunnel, we were in the middle of the city," he said in an interview with the USMNT-focused Scuffed podcast. "My eyes were instantly open."

Fast-forward to today, and Dest is one of the most talked-about names in U.S. soccer. After making his senior team debut in September in a friendly against Mexico, the full-back is now helping to open other people's eyes to a style of play they have been yearning for.

Dest, 18, is quick, technically excellent and skilful. He shows a fearlessness on the ball that is rare in someone so young. 

Yet the U.S. now have a battle on their hands to keep him in the stars and stripes. 

Dest, who has a Dutch mother, represented the Netherlands in younger age groups but began featuring for the United States' youth teams at under-17 level through to under-20, playing in two underage FIFA World Cups. However, the Netherlands are now interested in him again, having witnessed his progression into an Ajax first-teamer.

He played twice for the USMNT in the last international break but is not involved this time around. Playing in friendly matches is one thing, but if he features in a competitive match, that will be him set for the rest of his career. So he's stepping back for a moment.

Even though it is the United States who have shown most faith in him, he understandably can't dismiss the country he has known his entire life. The country in which he learned his trade. A country who, let's face it, have a better pedigree in the game than the U.S.

So what will he do?

AMSTERDAM, NETHERLANDS - SEPTEMBER 17: Sergino Dest of Ajax Amsterdam controls the ball during the UEFA Champions League group H match between AFC Ajax and Lille OSC at Amsterdam Arena on September 17, 2019 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. (Photo by TF-Images/G
TF-Images/Getty Images

America has become a huge part of Dest's life. The opportunity to represent them cropped up by chance when former U.S. under-20 assistant coach Dave van den Bergh, who played for Ajax in the 1990s, touched base with his former club about a different player, before asking if there were any players he should be aware of with dual nationality.

Since then, Dest has been part of the U.S. soccer set-up, accepting the chance to represent them at the U17 World Cup in 2017. He was also named in the team of the tournament in November's CONCACAF U20 Championship after the U.S. beat Mexico in the final. He was impressive, too, in May's U20 World Cup.

His development over the past 12 months has been meteoric. He has evolved from a young man in Ajax's youth academy, playing under-19 and under-21 football and training a handful of times with the first team, to a regular in a side regarded by some as the most entertaining in Europe. He made his Eredivisie debut in August and now has 13 senior appearances to his name, including UEFA Champions League outings against Lille and Valencia.

Dest is a phenomenon, the latest off a conveyor belt of talent in Amsterdam. Earlier this year, their latest gems, Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt, left the club to sign for Barcelona and Juventus, respectively, for a combined $190 million, per ForbesIt is reasonable to expect that Dest will eventually follow them to one of Europe's very top clubs.

B/R sources indicate that Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur are already tracking his performances with a view to a future move to sign him. The player himself may not be so keen on such a prospect, though.

"I want to play at Barcelona, Real Madrid..." he told Scuffed. "The Premier League is good, but I don't know if it fits my style. It is very physical." 

Adam Belz is one of the few USMNT soccer fanatics lucky enough to have grabbed time with Dest to understand how his mind works. He runs the Scuffed podcast and interviewed the teenager in January, just as Dest was preparing for his big breakthrough.

"I was struck by his combination of confidence and humility," Belz told B/R. "He came across as a player with big ambitions, but one who knew it would take hard work for him to realise those ambitions.

"The traits that really stood out were his candor and a clear-eyed assessment of himself. I asked him what he needed to improve and he gave a long list of specific things: fitness, left foot, passing, first touch, shot. 'I want to be a complete player,' he said. 'I want to be good at every single part.'

"He also admitted he played scared on the ball at the 2017 Under-17 World Cup, and said he regretted that. He vowed not to play that way in the 2019 Under-20 World Cup. That impressed me—and he made good on that vow in May."

The podcast's interview with Dest is fascinating, and you can hear it here

Jan Verdonk has supported Ajax since 1991 and has spent a long time watching the club's youth teams. He's witnessed Dest's growth from boy to man. 

"The first time I saw Dest playing was when he was 14 years old," he tells B/R. "He was very small, not special at all in my view, and I never thought he would make it all the way to Ajax senior team. But he started to change when he was around 16.

"He grew physically in this period, and although he was a right back, he played at several other positions as well in this phase. He impressed me several times as a winger, where he showed great technical skills. The thing was, wherever he was playing, he did well. He proved to be extremely aware of his tasks, and eagerness to learn and improve.

"This great mentality might be the American side of his genes, but it was impressive.”

Dest is not the finished article; there is still room for growth, and he knows it. But he's doing everything he can to improve day by day. As part of his push to become a complete player, he made the most of resources offered by Sanjiv, a devout U.S. Soccer fan and analyst who runs the Twitter account @USMNTvideosSanjiv often collates "highlight reels of up-and-coming players."   

"My first time watching him was at the Under-17 World Cup," Sanjiv tells B/R. "I have periodically talked to him for about a year now. He would send me Jong Ajax games last year and sometimes tell me he's playing a game and ask for me to make a video.

"I sent him videos I made of him at first, and I think he liked to get the videos for his own viewing. But he posted one on his Instagram once of his CONCACAF Under-20 performance.

"I think his ability to forget mistakes and move on is one of the many special qualities he has. As any young defender is prone to, he will make mistakes."

Sanjiv notes the first goal against Ukraine in the U20 World Cup as an example of this. "After that mistake, he was still not at his complete best," he explained. "But shortly thereafter, he made up for it by combining and creating the [United States'] equaliser. As a person, I like his attitude in showing no fear and having confidence in himself.

"After he was nutmegged by Jesus Corona (which led to a goal) in a match between USMNT and Mexico, Dest reacted similarly, saying: 'It's just a great action from him. I don't think I played a bad game, just that moment was crucial. I have to learn from it.'"

Sanjiv adds: "You can see the confidence he has but also the ability to move on. As a USMNT player, he can serve as a vital piece to our back line—whether that be at right-back or at left-back."

GDYNIA, POLAND - JUNE 08: Sergino Dest of USA controls the ball during the 2019 FIFA U-20 World Cup Quarter Final match between USA and Ecuador at Gdynia Stadium on June 8, 2019 in Gdynia, Poland. (Photo by TF-Images/Getty Images)
TF-Images/Getty Images

Marc Geschwind is a football analyst and Ajax expert, watching every game at senior and youth level. 

"I first noticed him during the 2017-2018 UEFA Youth League, which is when I typically start to look for the next wave of Ajax youth talent," he told B/R. "He played as a full-back and as a winger, and I immediately noticed how quick and skilful he was. 

"From his speed and fearlessness to his fast feet and skilful dribbling, there's a lot that stands out when you watch Dest, but if I had to pick one thing that impresses me the most, it's his combination play and overall comfort on the ball.

"It's not that rare to see a fast full-back who's a good dribbler, but it's a lot more rare to see a full-back who is so relaxed on the ball and can offer so much in possession. That's what makes him Dani Alves- or Marcelo-esque.

"The best teams in the world need full-backs confident and competent enough to find their own solutions when there seemingly are none, and that's exactly what he does." 

Geschwind adds: "I think it's hard to say he should play for either USMNT or Netherlands...but being valued is often the most important thing for a player, and I think Sergino recognises how much the United States believe in him.

"At the end of the day, it'll be his decision to make, and I don't think any parties involved can be too upset no matter the outcome."

It is time to believe the hype around Dest. This teenager is the real deal, and a battle for his services is well worthwhile.

Various sources close to Dest have been contacted by B/R to get guidance over his decision, and most on the U.S. side of the picture seem very relaxed over how the future will now shape up. They have quiet confidence he will stick with them after getting a taste of life in their ranks.

But those in the Netherlands hold hope, too. They know Ajax's commitment to bringing him through is appreciated, and they also feel he is excited by the crop of players the national team currently have coming through.

Sources also believe he has a determination to play at the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, so he has to weigh up that situation.

Now, as Dest takes his time to make the biggest decision of his career, we must wait for the outcome.

Listen to Dean on the B/R Football Ranks podcast. New episodes every Wednesday. 

 

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