How the USMNT found and kept Dest

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With the stroke of a pen on Gregg Berhalter’s lineup card and the referee’s whistle to finish the game, a 4-1 U.S. Men’s National Team victory over Canada, Sergino Dest officially tied his future to the USMNT. It was arguably the final step in a recruitment that began more than three years ago thanks to a message from Amsterdam, Netherlands to Dave van der Bergh.

Since retiring as a player, the former New York Red Bulls and FC Dallas winger has spent his time coaching youth teams within U.S. Soccer, and in this instance, he was working with then U.S. Under-17 head coach John Hackworth. Hackworth was unavailable for comment on this story.

Dest first came on van der Bergh’s radar from a contact at Ajax, where van der Bergh came through the youth academy, and it led to Dest’s first call-ups to the U.S. U-17s in 2016.

“I was tipped off by people at Ajax that there was a player with a dual nationality, and considering that we had been looking at dual nationalities, that I should take a look at him,” van der Bergh said in an e-mail. “I found out about him through the club itself, actually.

“The first time I saw him, I asked for video footage from Ajax, which they gave to me and that was great. Then I asked a really good friend of mine to take a look at him for us. He is somebody I really trust as far as scouting goes, and he said the same things that I thought I had seen. That’s when I decided to tell John Hackworth about him.”

Hackworth and co. brought Dest along slowly, getting him incorporated in the group. He was a reserve in the 2016 Nike International Friendlies as a 15-year-old, with Sporting KC defender Jaylin Lindsey starting ahead of him at the time.

But while the U.S. Soccer Federation was at turmoil at the top – this was just months after Jurgen Klinsmann was fired and replaced by Bruce Arena after his season with the LA Galaxy wrapped up – Dest was making a very good first impression to the coaches.

“I thought that it was unusual,” former U.S. Under-20 Men’s National Team coach Tab Ramos recalled in a phone interview. “Normally, our defenders on youth national teams, 1-on-1 they usually have a lot to learn. I felt that Sergino was one of those defenders that never got beat 1-on-1, and that caught my attention.”

Dest wasn’t part of the U.S. U-17s run to the CONCACAF Under-17 final in 2017, but he earned a spot on the 2017 FIFA Under-17 World Cup roster, and it’s where he became a breakout star for American soccer fans. His impact  play from left back or right back added a new element to the U.S. attack and he held his own defensively.

Since then, Dest has continued to progress for club and country at a rapid rate. He helped lead the U.S. U-20s to the CONCACAF U-20 Championship and a run to the quarterfinals at the 2019 FIFA U-20 World Cup, and for Ajax he went from the U-19s in 2017 to Jong Ajax a year later and now a sure-fire starter at right back for the first team in 2019.

“He just became more and more mature,” Ramos said of Dest’s progression as a player in a short span. “He became more of an impact player on the attacking side of the field, and in general I give the players the freedom to express themselves within the context of the way we want to play. I think he was happy with the way we played and it allowed him to express himself, so it worked really well.”

His success in the Ajax first team of course got the attention of the Dutch National Team, who suddenly had an interest in Dest. In the youth stages, it made more sense for Dest to play with the U.S. because he’d have a better opportunity to play at a youth World Cup. The Netherlands hasn’t made the World Cup at U-20 or U-17 level since they hosted the U-20 World Cup in 2005, a shocking statistic considering all the stars they’ve produced over the years.

Suddenly, Dest was being faced with the prospect of competing for playing time on a team that made the final four less than a decade ago and looks to be surging back to prominence, or staying with the only national team program he’d known. The U.S. stepped up its recruitment in September when Gregg Berhalter called Dest in for a pair of matches, first against Mexico and then against Uruguay, where the teenager started both matches. At the same time, his former coach Ramos was keeping in touch with Dest once he decided in October to take more time to make his decision between the U.S. and the Netherlands.

“I continue to be in contact with Serg like I do with many of the players,” Ramos said. “Basically, my recommendation to him was to go with his heart. I feel like, of course you can listen to your agent and you can listen to people in the press, and you can always choose what’s more convenient to you, for your career. But I think the most important thing when playing for a country is to choose where your heart is. That’s basically what I told him.”

Dest made his decision to stay with the U.S. on October 28, and it was a big win for a USMNT program that had lost promising midfielder Jonathan Gonzalez in a similar situation to Mexico. Even bigger, Ramos noted, was that Dest wasn’t born and raised in the U.S., and his main connection with his nation was through the national team itself.

“I’m very proud of that, because it means he has a trust in our program and he’s confident that he’s going to get the most out of his opportunities that he gets here with our program,” Ramos said. “I think it goes to show the great job Hackworth did with him and how happy he was to be with us in the U-20s that he feels like this is his home.

“You have to remember this a kid who never lived in the U.S., he grew up in Holland, and that the closest thing for being home for him has been our youth national teams. I think he felt comfortable. He’s been comfortable and he felt like we took care of him, and he’s been happy. That’s just my feeling.”