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Since taking over as head coach of the United States men’s national team at the start of the year, Gregg Berhalter has won nine games. On Monday, he got a 10th victory when 18-year-old Dutch-American fullback Sergiño Dest decided to stick with the USA when the Netherlands, where he was born and raised, had recruited him as well.
The long-awaited announcement by Dest, who made his debut for the U.S. against Mexico last month and can play on either flank, felt like a coup. Because he’s forsaken a chance to play with a golden generation of Dutch prospects who have already reached an international final in the UEFA Nations League. Instead, he committed to Berhalter’s wholesale rebuilding project in the wake of a humiliating loss to Canada.
But Dest’s choice doesn’t represent the capture of a coveted player. It means something bigger than that.
The thing to remember in all of this is that Dest probably never expected to break into the starting lineup at Ajax Amsterdam as quickly as he did this season, or indeed next season.
Even though Ajax had moved on from right back Rasmus Nissen Kristensen and part-time left back Daley Sinkgraven over the summer, the logjam at both positions still made for very long odds for Dest. In Noussair Mazraoui and Nico Tagliafico, manager Erik ten Hag had well-established starters in both wing spots. And central defenders Daley Blind and Joel Veltman were the preferred alternatives. Dest didn’t figure in anybody’s projections for significant playing time, as underscored by the number he was assigned – 28.
Which is all to say that chances are, not even Dest figured on having to make a difficult choice about which national team to pick. Because he likely didn’t think there was a choice at all. You don’t get a look for the Dutch national team until you’re getting steady playing time at a well-established club. So when Dest did break out during the preseason he put himself on Ronald Koeman’s map. Dest’s senior debut with the U.S. in September evidently sent alarm bells ringing at the Dutch federation headquarters, and an effort to retain the newly minted and suddenly coveted defender was quickly mobilized. A meeting with Koeman followed. And Dest rejected invitations from both nations for the October international window, in order to prevent cap-tying himself to either.
Dest was likely surprised and unprepared for the choice between the country that had nurtured his international career – the United States, by bringing him to two youth World Cups – and the nation where he’d been born and raised, the Netherlands.
Monday’s choice for the American program, then, followed weeks of agonizing, a process Dest said he didn’t particularly enjoy.
“I chose America because to me that was the best choice,” Dest told Ajax’s website. “It wasn’t an easy choice. I spent a long time thinking about it. America, I spent my entire youth [national team career] playing with and they treated me well. On the Netherlands, of course, you play with the best players in the world. They have a very good team. And that’s great. But in the end, it was my gut feeling that was the most important.”
Dest said he’d had several conversations with both managers and admitted to being tempted by Oranje. He felt a lot of pressure, he said, but in the end he simply followed his gut, rather than make some kind of grand calculation about playing time and positional competition. “I don’t think I have any certainty on either team,” he said. “Maybe the players are a little less good there [on the USA], I can admit that, but I still have to do my best.”
Landing Dest means more than just securing a very promising player who can be slotted into two problem positions. It will inject the program with some optimism. Since the missed World Cup of 2018, it’s felt like the senior men’s national team has careened between regression and being entirely rudderless. Morale has gotten so low that Berhalter sent a letter apologizing to fans for not going over to thank them for their support during the loss to the Canadians on Oct. 15, the first loss to them in more than a generation.
Dest’s commitment finally imbues the program with some desperately needed momentum, a flash of hope that a strong new core really is forming, alongside midfielders Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams and forwards Josh Sargent and Tim Weah.
And there could be a knock-on effect down the line. In a globalized world, where dual-nationalities threaten to become the norm, any program with pretensions of belonging to the elite will need to win more of these battles for the biggest prospects than it loses. One such prospect tends to beget more. Players are sensitive to fashions. And seeing Dest pick the U.S. might reassure some other player wrestling with the same decision down the line that it’s a sensible move.
Most of all, Dest signaled publicly that he buys into Berhalter’s project, that he can see his vision. National team coaches have to be salesmen too. Berhalter sold an 18-year-old on passing up on a better team, which he’d grown up fantasizing about.
Dest, above all, is a vote of confidence.
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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