The Case for Sergino Dest

The Case for Sergino Dest… in a USMNT Senior Shirt….RIGHT NOW

Sergiño Dest is an absolute baller. For those not familiar with the 18-year-old Jong Ajax RB’s game, @USMNTVideos has recent archives, and you can find his U-20 CONCACAF highlights from this past November — where he shone on both sides of the ball in the elimination round – sprinkled across various internet outlets.

The highlights may not paint the bigger picture, which we can summarize curtly: he probably has a higher ceiling than any USYNT fullback or winger ever. He can dribble, defend, pass, cross, make deep runs and even shoot better than most American players in the senior pool. The only debate on whether we need him in a USMNT senior shirt is…when? And if Berhalter gets the relationship or the timing wrong, Dest may be wearing Dutch orange.

Well, we should no longer be having this debate. Dest should be called into the senior USMNT right now, or – at minimum – for the Gold Cup. Below is a comprehensive breakdown of why we need him now, and how we will lose him soon to the Dutch if we do not act quickly.

Disagree? Argue away on @DisgruntleUSMNT.

He is playing football against (arguably) better competition than Major League Soccer (MLS). The same USMNT traditionalists who applauded Benny Feilhaber and Dax McCarty’s inclusion in our ill-fated October 2017 squad will say that Dest should not be called-in because “he is not getting first-team minutes.”  Depending on who is making this argument, it ranges from disingenuous to downright ignorant.

The disingenuous who cite this lack of first team minutes realize the Ajax senior team might be one of the 10 best in the world right now, having just dispatched Real Madrid from Champions League to reach the Quarterfinals of the competition for the first time since 2003. In all likelihood, not a single American would start for Ajax’s senior team, and only a select few would even see minutes. Of the clubs where Americans are actively playing, none have a first team with near the number of quality international players as Ajax. Why should Dest’s form be measured by not playing amidst these superstars by age 18?

The ignorant contingent might not appreciate that Jong Ajax is not *really* a reserve team. Yes, their roster consists entirely of U-23 players, but they compete in the Dutch 2nd division against primarily full senior teams. There are only three other “Jong” (U-23) teams in this division, two of whom, Utrecht & AZ, are likely to get relegated. (The third is the U-23 junior affiliate of PSV Eindhoven, the Netherlands’ other football powerhouse.) When you consider Jong Ajax is 9th in the 20-team table and has scored the fourth-most goals of any club, you can see that Sergiño Dest is starting on what is a very competent professional team.

There is no reasonable way to measure how the Dutch 2nd Division compares to MLS, but given the US domestic league’s recent performances in CONCACAF Champions League, this is not the time for the pro-MLS contingent to be bullish. We think we can reasonably conclude that Dest would be starting for at least 75% of MLS clubs right now, probably all of them.

So, if we are comfortable that he is playing at a level comparable to many of his USMNT peers, what are the unique drivers that warrant his call-up?

Sergino Dest is more skilled than probably anyone in the current USMNT senior pool. A Uruguayan-American friend has watched USMNT with me for over a decade and has consistently made the same observation, even as our more talented younger generation has appeared on the field of late: the United States needs more Futsal players.

I do not know whether Sergiño Dest was ever a Futsal player, but it’s enough that he plays like one. His feet are quick, and his calculated movements appear almost nonchalant. He can beat opposing players, as he did Mexico’s Diego Lainez in the U-20 CONCACAF qualifying final, in a humiliating fashion. This is surely welcome to a fan base in a country that loves flamboyant NBA dunks and graceful, toe-tapping NFL sideline catches. Does anyone believe these types of skills are in adequate supply within USMNT senior team pool, especially as we debate capping players like Corey Baird and Jonathan Lewis for the March friendlies?  

Lastly, Sergino Dest can defend. Like really well. So his offensive skills do not create a gap there.

Positional Play

His versatility is a great fit for USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter’s system. All signs from Gregg Berhalter’s first camp as USMNT Manager – some surprise starters, in-game adjustments against Costa Rica that turned the tide of the game, player interviews after the camp – point to him and his staff being extremely tactical.

After January, USMNT pundits crowed about the “inverted RB” or “Nick Lima role,” but that was likely a function of the players he had in the camp. Whether we see that formation again is irrelevant; the more important takeaway is that we should expect Berhalter to make tactical line-up adjustments based on player availability and quality/style of opponent. Dest is a huge asset because he can play RB, LB or either winger spot, which can offset the need to call-in multiple, purpose-built bench players.

What do we mean? Consider that USMNT RB mainstay DeAndre Yedlin is suddenly not starting at Newcastle, Antonee Robinson looks to have lost his LB spot at Wigan during injury, Tim Weah and Jonathan Amon are consistently unused subs, etc. Across multiple spots in a USMNT Starting XI right now, there is risk to a player’s form dipping and back-ups needing to be called into action. Traditionally, this would have meant naming multiple back-ups – like Reggie Cannon, Baird, Lima, Jorge Villafana – who can really only excel in one position (excel being used loosely here).

At a minimum, Sergino Dest could be a super sub for as many as 4-5 spots on the field depending on a Berhalter configuration.

Sergino Dest at Ajax

Ajax is a major pipeline for the Dutch National team, whose RB situation is unsettled right now. After missing both the 2016 European Championships and 2018 World Cup, the Dutch national team showed a resurgence last fall by winning their 3-team UEFA Nations League group with Germany and France. The interesting part about their renaissance is that it’s not being driven by youth. Of the regular Starting XI from their Nations League matches, the only consistent starters under the age of 25 were PSV winger Steven Bergwijn (21), and two regulars from Ajax’s senior team: CB Matthijs de Ligt (19) and Barcelona-bound Frankie de Jong (21).

The appointment of these three players is consistent with a Dutch soccer tradition dating back to time immemorial: the biggest clubs in the Netherlands are key pipelines to the senior Dutch National team. (Moving to a bigger European club has also proven to be a rite of passage for the best Dutch players, as de Jong just did.) Within the Dutch senior team picture, two details are most interesting for Sergino Dest – and perhaps nerve-wracking for USMNT fans:

Firstly, many Ajax and PSV youngsters are called into National team duty after limited first-team club minutes. De Ligt, for example, was cap-tied at age 17 after just two Ajax first-team appearances. If Sergino Dest makes a spring-time appearance for Ajax’s first team – he already has a senior team contract – does Dutch Manager Ronald Koeman reach-out?

He might do so if he thinks that his team has a RB crisis on their hands, which they well might. At a minimum, the spot appears up for grabs. Consider that, in the four (4) Nations League matches they played last fall, RB duties were split between two players:

  • Kenny Tete, a 23-year-old at Lyon who got his first senior team appearance in 2015 after featuring only briefly for Ajax’s senior team. Since last fall, he has been out of favor, having appeared in only five (5) Ligue One games and not making the bench for European games.
  • Denzel Dumfries, a 22-year-old from PSV whose Nations League appearances for The Orange were his first at any level; he represented Aruba as a youth. He does not appear to be a regular first-choice RB for PSV, having made only 12 appearances this season.   

If these overtures cause panic in USMNT supporters, some (slight) relief comes in the form of two additional Ajax data points:

  1. Joel Veltman was club and country’s first-choice RB prior to having a serious knee injury in August 2018, from which he is due to return in the spring. He will likely be given the chance to earn his starting spot(s) back, which should push Dest further down in the pecking order.
  2. With so much talent in Ajax’s system, the Dutch cannot grab ALL the talent, and some Dutch-born players do defect. Attacking midfielder Hakim Ziyech and current starting RB Noussair Mazraoui, for example, were both born in the Netherlands but now represent Morocco. Ziyech, 25, played at the 2018 World Cup, while Mazraoui, 21, became cap-tied this past fall through an Africa League of Nations Qualifier.

Guest post from: @DisgruntleUSMNT