Sergino Dest is all smiles as he sits in Barcelona, the sun streaming through the window as the USMNT rising star discusses life playing for one of the biggest clubs and one of the most ambitious national teams on the planet.
Life is good for the Dutch-American defender.
Dest, 20, has just launched his first campaign with Nike on an underwear line as he and several other young American stars are the talk of European soccer as they continue to develop impressively at huge clubs, all at the same time.
Speaking to ProSoccerTalk on a video call, he reflects on a whirlwind 12 months which has seen him go from just becoming a regular at Ajax to signing for Barcelona for a fee which could rise to $30 million.
“I think it has been a really good choice for me and a good development for me, because I play on the highest stage,” Dest said of his move to Barca. “We play every three days so that makes me stronger. Unfortunately I had a little quad injury but I’m back again. For me it is really helpful. I like Barcelona, the city is nice, my teammates are helping me a lot and I can’t wait to keep on going with this season with Barcelona and the USA.”
Has there been a ‘wow’ moment for him yet? A moment where it has sunk in that he was the first American in history to play in El Clasico, and that he gets to play and train alongside Lionel Messi every single day?
“It is not one moment, it is every time I am on the field, I am seeing him next to me I’m like ‘wow, okay, I always saw him on TV and now I’m playing with him!’ It is really strange but I’m blessed that I can play with him in his career,” Dest smiled.
What has been his highlight with Barcelona so far?
“The Champions League games were awesome and El Clasico was really nice, but I think I will go for my goal in the Champions League against Dynamo Kiev. It was my first goal for Barcelona and hopefully I will score many more,” Dest said.
The confident right back is always striving for more. More goals, more defensive solidity, more wins, more trophies. He just wants more. On and off the pitch.
Speaking about his new project with Nike, he revealed that his mindset is simply ‘why not?’ when it comes to maximizing his potential on and off the pitch.
“Why not? If we can also do that in our career, why not?,” Dest said when it comes to opportunities for him and other young USMNT stars. “I think you have to take full advantage of what you can achieve in your career, also off the pitch. If I get some opportunities, it depends on what it is, but I will always look at it and take advantage of that.”
In recent weeks he has taken advantage of being deployed in a right wing-back role by Ronald Koeman — which has suited his attacking instincts extremely well — while Dest has spoken about working on his defensive game after Kylian Mbappe (the best of the best) gave him a tough outing in the Champions League last 16.
In recent weeks Barca have surged up the La Liga standings, plus reached the Copa del Rey final in dramatic fashion, as Dest’s first season in Spain is now reaching an exciting climax.
“I feel like we still have a chance to win the league. The gap is close between us, Atletico and Real Madrid. I think it will be exciting, We still have the Copa del Rey too. We have a chance,” Dest said. “Hopefully we can win both tournaments. The ball is round.”
The matter of fact nature of that statement is quite something to hear from a 20-year-old American playing for Barcelona, challenging for the La Liga title and Spanish Cup in the latter stages of a season. It is wonderfully refreshing. As Dest says with an excited shrug and a smile, ‘the ball is round.’
Skilful and dynamic with that round ball at his feet (he was once a forward in Ajax’s youth team), does Dest feel like he can play a more attacking role for Barcelona and the USMNT in the future?
“Yeah, I can,” Dest explained. “I play wherever the coach needs me and wants me. For me, I think for my full potential it is best to play right back but right wing-back, I think I have to play it more often to know if that is really good for me. Against Sevilla it was really nice to play in that position. I got some space, I could go forward. If I lose the ball then there is someone behind me so it was not as dangerous. That gave me some good confidence in that game. I like that position, very much.”
Golden Generation for the USMNT?
On the international stage, Dest is a key member of what is starting to be dubbed as the ‘Golden Generation’ for the USMNT, alongside Christian Pulisic, Gio Reyna, Weston McKennie, Zack Steffen, Tyler Adams and Yunus Musah.
That may be slightly premature, but if you talk to any of those USMNT youngsters coming through at Chelsea, Manchester City, Juventus, Barcelona and several of Europe’s other big clubs, they want more hype around them, not less.
They want this to be the dawn of a new era for American soccer.
“I think it is really good we have a lot of competition and we are all young guys, so we can still improve a lot,” Dest said. “For me, it doesn’t matter if I play right or left back with the national team. I just want to help the team. If the coach needs me at left winger, I play left winger! It doesn’t matter. I like it that we have a lot of young players with good potential and hopefully they develop to their best and the same for me. Then we can trigger each other, you know?”
The fact that Dest, a dual national wanted by the Netherlands, and now Yunus Musah, a dual national wanted by England, Italy and Ghana, have both chosen to play for the USMNT shows that head coach Gregg Berhalter is building a talented young squad which is going places and is a tight unit that has been developing together for some time.
Dest was part of a very positive U20 World Cup run in the summer of 2019, and even though the Dutch national team (led then by his now manager at Barcelona, Ronald Koeman) pushed hard to have him represent the country of his birth, he wanted to be a key part of this USMNT rebuild.
How easy was the choice between Holland and the USA?
“It was not easy. I grew up in Holland but the U.S. gave me a chance, especially in the youth, the chance to develop myself and they had faith in me. For me it was something to pay back to the U.S., some loyalty,” Dest said. “I like the USA a lot, I like to explore the cities and I like to play with the USMNT. It was just a little bit different and it was something that fits right in my career. I thought it was the right decision for me. I have two hearts, you know. Holland also did a lot of things for me so I am also thankful for that.”
When discussing the dilemma for dual nationals over which country to represent, Dest is both respectful and reflective. He knows how tough that decision can be for players and the USMNT have a lot of young talents who have difficult decisions to make in the months and years ahead.
Folarin Balogun, Efrain Alvarez and many others are next in line to make that decision, one way or another, and Dest has this advice for them.
“I can tell them, just follow your heart and do whatever feels good for you,” Dest said. “For us, we hope that you come and play for the USMNT, but if you feel like you have to make another decision, just follow your heart.”
Next up for Dest: Domination with USMNT
There is something wonderfully positive about Dest.
He isn’t afraid of setting high goals or targets. After all, at the age of 20 he is a regular for Barcelona and the USMNT and has already played in the UEFA Champions League for, and against, some of the biggest players and clubs in the world.
There is no fear in his eyes when discussing what the USMNT can achieve in a busy 2021, as they have the Gold Cup, CONCACAF Nations League and World Cup qualifiers coming their way this summer, and first up are two friendlies against Jamaica and Northern Ireland in March.
“We have a tough schedule this year, we have a lot of tournaments and I think we have to be prepared for that and focused… and try to win all of those games!” Dest smiled. “We can. If we are just focused, we have the right players for it. The ball is round… but we have a good chance to win a lot of games.”
“I think we can reach more. We have to put a standard that going to the World Cup, it has to be normal for us,” Dest continued. “We have to put that as the standard. If you are at the World Cup, the World Cup is another two years so we still have time to improve and develop ourselves. We will be a different team at that time, you know? We have to work on ourselves and keep faith and we can’t predict anything, but you guys will see what happens then.”
The effervescent Dest is eager for this young USMNT group to make the most of its potential.
“I want us to win every game,” Dest laughed. “I want to play with the team and I like to play for the national team. I can’t wait to come back with them. We have a lot of camps so hopefully we can win a lot of games and represent the U.S. right and put the standard high for ourselves. Then, we can only make each other better.”