Sergiño Dest and his date with destiny

The U.S. Men’s National Team face off against the Netherlands in the Knockout Round of the 2022 FIFA World Cup on Saturday. For Dutch-born USMNT star Sergiño Dest, it’s the culmination of a modern journey of mixed identity and loyalty.

Sergiño’s Choice

As a young boy, Sergiño Dest played soccer on the streets of the newest city in the Netherlands. The quaint city of Almere is also the home of one of the most highly regarded midfielders in Dutch history, Frank Rijkaard who, like Dest, played for AC Milan and in the World Cup. And, just like Bayern Munich defender Matthijs de Ligt, his fellow Dutchman who will be playing on the opposing side on Saturday in the 2022 FIFA World Cup Knockout Round, Dest grew up a fan of Ajax. He even made 22 appearances with their first team, after de Light moved on from his own meteoric rise as the club’s youngest captain and joined Juventus.

But unlike both Rijkaard and de Ligt, Dest chose a different side. Dest, born to American-Surinamese father and a Dutch mother, chose to play for the U.S.

Time just seems to move fast for Dest. The young Sergiño was enrolled in his first youth soccer academy in 2009 when he was nine, and three years later, joined the Ajax Academy where he transformed from striker to fullback in the world-renowned training program that helped build some of the Dutch greats like Dennis Bergkamp and Wesley Sneijder. In typical Ajax style, Dest was taught and expected to focus on the four tenets of Dutch soccer – technique, insight, personality, and speed (TIPS) – all of which he displays with the USMNT in spades. But he didn’t idolize Dutch players the way he respected and enjoyed Brazilian players like Ronaldinho and Robinho. That combination of rigorous Dutch training plus individualism really captures his personality on the pitch – the craft and flare of Brazilian style combined with the speed and skill of a classical Ajax player. It’s no wonder he landed at FC Barcelona at the age of 19 and played with Messi just seven months after he signed with Ajax’s first team. Now, at the age of 22, he’s in his first World Cup for a country he didn’t even visit until he was 14.

That decision to join the senior team for the U.S. was one Dest made out of loyalty and upon careful deliberation. After attempting to join the Netherlands youth national team several times but failing, he was invited to join the U.S. camp by U-20 coach and Ajax player Dave van den Bergh. Soon afterwards, he debuted with the U.S. U-17 team. He next represented America in U-17 and U-20 World Cups. By then, at age 18, he’d caught the attention of the Oranje and received an offer from their manager Ronald Koemen to join them. The young fullback had a decision to make. Ultimately, he went with the USMNT because they had stood by him and had given him his first national team opportunities.

Although Dest, on loan from Barcelona, has played just nine matches across all competitions for AC Milan this season, starting just two matches, has failed to score or assist a single goal with them, he’s started in each of the last three matches for Berhalter’s USMNT, even registering an assist for Christian Pulisic’s winner against Iran. This World Cup for Dest has always been his opportunity to convince AC Milan to sign him permanently from Barcelona. Now, in a twist of fate, it is also his chance to prove himself on the same level as the national program that once overlooked him.  

The Oranje

The Netherlands, after missing the 2018 World Cup in Russia and failing to exit the Round of 16 at Euro 2020, are playing for their own form of vindication. And, they are being managed by one of the world’s best, “Louis” van Gaal, who also helmed Barcelona and Manchester United, and previously led the Oranje to finish third at the 2014 World Cup. Van Gaal has named a Dutch first league, Eredivisie, dominated roster. He’s been less than traditional opting for a 3-5-2 formation with free-flowing attackers, rather than the traditional Dutch 4-3-3. They are captained by the brilliant Liverpool defender Virgil van Dijk whose aerial presence is noteworthy. Jurrien Timber, Man City’s Nathan Ake, Juventus’ Matthijs de Ligt and Inter Milan’s Stefan de Vrij round out a dream team backline. An obvious threat to the Stars and Stripes this Saturday is PSV Eindhoven winger Cody Gakpo who already scored the opening goal in all three of the Netherlands’ group games. Daley Blind, winger at Ajax, while lacking in speed, creates numerous opportunities for his teammates with his long passes and ability to cherry-pick methodical crosses. And Barcelona’s Frenkie de Jong, is the ultimate generalist midfielder who can create, press, attack, counter, and maintain possession.

In spite of all their talents, the team hasn’t been without flaws. They bested Senegal 2-0, but they didn’t even start scoring until the 84th minute, and their 1-1 draw with Ecuador belies the fact that Ecuador outshot them 15 to 2. This team hasn’t yet hit their stride and that’s where the USMNT could pounce.

The State of the United States Men’s National Team

Like Dest, the USMNT are underestimated until the proof of the contrary is insurmountable and irrefutable. Thus far, the millennial U.S. have done what was in doubt – two consecutive clean sheets (for the first time in 92 years), and no losses in the Group stage. After somehow holding off England from scoring, and a rocky second half in their match against Iran, they find themselves facing the team that was practically guaranteed the top spot of their group, Sergio Dest’s homeland.

“The end of the game is really what I’m most proud of, because it’s the mark of determination and an extreme amount of effort and resiliency to hang in there and get the win—not buckle,” Berhalter told media after their victory over Iran.

This will be the fifth all-time meeting between the two countries, with the Netherlands having a 4-1-0 advantage. Although Pulisic’s condition remains uncertain after his pelvic contusion sustained in the aftermath of the sole goal which was also his first World Cup goal, Berhalter could replace him with Brendan Aaronson as he did in the second half of the last match, and still use the untested Gio Reyna as a potential striker to replace Josh Sargent who also remains day-to-day recovering.

Midfields win the biggest games, and the U.S. have been bestowed with one of the most unique in which all players can take up different positions when they need to push forward or defend. They’ve switched positions in all three matches played. As long as the USMNT maintain a healthy level of possession against the Netherlands, Captain Tyler Adams can decide the pace and energy of the match. If not, the rest of the “MMA” of the midfield, Yunus Musah and Weston McKennie, will need to use their guiles and prowess to unlock that Dutch dominance. And, with the midfield continuing to pass in the final third a large portion of the time as they have already done in first halves, the USMNT will create more attacking chances no matter what team they’re up against.

This is the most important match in USMNT history since 2014 knockout round battle with Belgium that cemented Tim Howard’s status as a legend. Both sides are determined to prove a point after missing the last World Cup. Sergiño Dest is chasing his own destiny that intertwines with both his homeland’s team and the team he chose to be his own home. Most experts say the U.S. won’t survive this one but as the ever observant and eager Dest once put it,  “I feel like nothing is guaranteed, you see a lot of things going on in football. You can up, you can down, nothing is guaranteed you know, you have to be focused at all times and be aware that everything can be over as well.”  

Saturday’s winner will play either Argentina or Australia on December 9.

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