It was a subtle thing, a few throwaway lines from Barcelona’s Sergiño Dest over the course of a 23-minute Zoom call Monday with around a dozen United States and foreign reporters.
Dest, who last week became the first American player to appear for Barcelona’s globally renowned first team, was talking about about making history, about his dream coming true, about playing alongside new teammate Lionel Messi, when the 19-year-old offered a notable distinction.
“I don’t only want to be the first one,” Dest said. “I want to be the first one that actually does something great at this club. I worked really hard for this. I want to achieve big things.”
Dest, along with Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic and Juventus’ Weston McKennie, is at the forefront of a new generation of young Yanks playing major roles for some of the planet’s most important clubs for the first time. They didn’t get there by accident.
Over the last three decades, American soccer fans have obsessed over the few U.S. players who came close to reaching anything approaching Europe’s highest level. Just 24 American men have ever appeared in the UEFA Champions League. Historically, with few exceptions, the country’s best have represented humble top-flight clubs like Fulham or Everton or Schalke. Merely making it as a role player in Premier League or Bundesliga was seen a triumph, and it was.
But the USA’s relative lack of quality compared to even mid-major European and South American squads didn’t prevent athletic, disciplined and well-funded U.S. teams from punching above their weight through seven consecutive World Cups before being brutally exposed just over three years ago in the Trinidadian village of Couva.
Now, finally, the U.S. has some legitimate world-class talent within its ranks. And part of what sets the truly elite apart is that even after, say, joining Barcelona as a teenager, they never think they’ve arrived.
“Everybody is hungry and everybody wants to achieve something with the U.S.,” Dest said. “I think that’s a good sign, because Sergiño Dest can achieve great things but not only personally — also as a team for the U.S.
“I think we are the guys that have to do it. If you’re playing at a big club and you’re gonna be like, ‘Oh OK I already made it,’ then we can’t achieve anything. So I hope that everybody keeps doing what they’re doing and always wants to develop themselves even more than right now.”
In addition to Dest, McKennie and Pulisic, 20-year-old Chris Richards has broken into the starting lineup with Champions League holders Bayern Munich. Tyler Adams, 22, led RB Leipzig to last season’s semifinals. Giovanni Reyna, 17, is collecting goals and assists for Borussia Dortmund.
With their ascension, the up-and-comers are expected to restore credibility to the USMNT program. The 2022 World Cup is now just two years away. In 2026, when most of the new batch will be right in their primes, the U.S. will host the event along with Canada and Mexico.
“Everybody feels the excitement,” Dest said. “We have more players [with] big clubs so I think that’s the reason why everybody is excited that we can really achieve something in the upcoming World Cups. I’m also really excited to see how the team is in the next few years.”
Everyone feels their confidence, too. Dest spent just one season as a starter with Ajax before Barca came calling. He didn’t hesitate when they did.
“A lot of people say I could’ve used one more year to develop myself, but I like challenges,” Dest said. “I dreamed of this all the time, so now I get the opportunity to play for such a big club like this, I should take it and try.”
For now, Dest’s looking forward to Oct. 24’s Clasico against Real Madrid — “The best game you can play in this sport,” he called it — and training with Messi again when the Argentine returns from World Cup qualifying duty.
He’s had some time to reflect on his whirlwind transfer and debut, which occurred a few days after his arrival at the Nou Camp. And he’s looking forward to convening with this young and revamped U.S. squad next month for the first time in a year. He believes it could be the start of something special.
“I feel like because we haven’t achieved really big things yet with the U.S., everybody wants to be the first,” said Dest. “Everybody is so motivated to develop themselves, to win the first big trophy for the country.”
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