The bad news for the United States men’s national team is that when it lines up against Cuba in its first-ever CONCACAF Nations League game in Washington, D.C. on Friday, 18-year-old Ajax right back and object of American fascination Sergiño Dest won’t be there. The good news is that when the Netherlands faces Northern Ireland in a Euro 2020 Qualifier in Rotterdam a day earlier, Sergiño Dest won’t be there either.
Shortly after his USA debut against Mexico on September 6, Dest, a remarkable prospect who can also play left back, told Yahoo Sports that he was still contemplating which of the two national team programs tugging at him he would pick. He needed time to talk it over with his family, he said then. And he’s remained remarkably consistent in that answer.
Ever since reports emerged in the Dutch press that the fabled Oranje were also in pursuit, Dest has said that he needed to think and hoped to have it resolved by the international break in November.
“I haven’t decided yet on either one. I need more time,” he told the Dutch FOX Sports affiliate after Ajax beat Valencia in the Champions League last Wednesday. “I’ve said I’m still figuring it out and turned down both [the United States and the Netherlands for the October camps]. I need to think carefully. So I left it alone this time.”
💬 | Sergiño Dest hoopt volgende maand de keuze tussen de Verenigde Staten en Oranje te hebben gemaakt.
"Het is een beslissing die ik moet maken voor m'n hele leven. Daar wil ik zorgvuldig mee omgaan en goed over nadenken."#valaja pic.twitter.com/RglPhWcrZV
— FOX Sports (@FOXSportsnl) October 2, 2019
Netherlands manager Ronald Koeman was candid about his pitch to Dest. “We painted him a picture of his future with Oranje,” he said on Monday. “I don’t promise anybody anything, but I indicated that I see a future for him with the Dutch national team.”
USA head coach Gregg Berhalter would only say that “the conversations were positive” and would “remain private.”
On Tuesday, Ajax’s website published a joint interview with Dest and another U.S. youth national teamer at the club, Alex Mendez, in which Dest revealed more than he had until that point.
He portrayed himself as someone who grew up Dutch and very much considered himself that, until he began exploring the American piece of his identity fairly recently. “My father is from Brooklyn, but we spoke Dutch at home,” he recalled. “Actually, until a few years ago, my English was very poor. I wasn’t thinking of my American roots at all, until I went to play in an American youth team. From that moment, my English improved, and I started to feel more American. I realized that, ‘Hey, this is my nationality, too.’ Now I think it’s great to be an American as well. It’s an asset and also, the U.S, passport is one of the most beautiful in the world.”
But Dest also conceded that, “When I thought about soccer [as a child], I’d think about Ajax and Oranje. Never about America. But Oranje didn’t approach me.”
Is that a factor, his interviewer asked?
“Maybe,” Dest answered.
Later in the interview, Dest is laudatory of the U.S. national team program’s ethos. “I think that the Netherlands can learn a lot from the American team spirit,” he said. “In Dutch football you see a lot of individual quality, but in American football it’s really about teamwork. That really appeals to me.”
As the world around him tries to read the tea leaves, Dest genuinely sounds like a very young man who hasn’t made up his mind. He’s mature and composed in addressing the issue, but it’s entirely possible that he just doesn’t know yet, as two programs jostle for him and fans wring their hands – likely more so on the American side.
Plainly, it’s a big decision. Dest made two appearances for the senior U.S. team and went to the Under-20 and Under-17 World Cups with its youth national teams. But then he was never really in the picture for the Netherlands until he surprised everyone by breaking in as a regular at Ajax this season. Traditionally, young, homegrown Ajax players also make it into the Dutch national team fairly quickly. Two years ago, Matthijs de Ligt made his Oranje debut after just two Eredivisie starts for Ajax.
Just as Dest’s emergence was unexpected, the choice he faces was as well. And it’s unlike many of the other dual nationals the USA has courted. The raft of German-Americans who joined the program when Jurgen Klinsmann was the head coach weren’t serious prospects for Die Mannschaft. Others, like Jozy Altidore, were plainly better off picking the U.S. over Haiti.
There’s a lot to be said for both programs. Dest is likelier to be a starter for the U.S. But then the Dutch depth chart at right back is thin as well, with several other contenders either floundering in their club careers or failing to convince when given a chance by Koeman. Both teams will probably make most every World Cup – especially once it expands from 32 to 48 teams as of 2026 – and Ajax is unlikely to push him one way or another. The club has made a marketing push stateside and could use an American star on its team, just as another Oranje regular would surely be welcomed in equal measure.
It may just come down to logistics – and Dest’s appetite to fly back and forth across the Atlantic a half dozen times a year – and his feelings about the program that nurtured him from the Under-17s onward versus the one he says he envisioned himself playing for growing up.
But choose he must. And the choice Dest makes now is permanent. If he appears in a competitive USA game – rather than a friendly – he can no longer appear for the Netherlands. If he files a one-time switch with FIFA, since he’s already played for the Yanks, he can’t go back, whether he actually ever sees the field for the Dutch or not.
In the end, this boils down to identity. Culturally, Dest is Dutch. But identity is a squishy thing. That’s true at any age, but especially when you’re only 18. And in a globalized world, it’s perfectly common to have two strong strands of nationality that coexist.
So what Dest is being asked, in a sense, is to decide who he is, less than a year after legally becoming an adult.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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