Sergiño Dest turns 19 in a few weeks, yet he's faced with a decision that will define a good portion of his playing career.
It's no secret that Dest, the Netherlands-born, U.S.-eligible fullback is currently mulling over his international future. On one hand, there's the USA, where he's played in U-17 and U-20 World Cups and earned two senior-team caps in September. On the other, there's the Netherlands, his birth nation and one with a vastly more rich footballing history and pedigree. With the USA, he's likely earmarked for a starting spot–either on the right or left-as long as he's healthy and maintains his current trajectory. Ajax-bred talents don't come around here all too often. With the Netherlands, there are no guarantees, but the payoff could be greater, the personal connection could be deeper and the transatlantic flights will largely be removed from consideration.
Each player's international decision is unique to his or her situation. There is no general set of circumstances by which fans can or should judge a complete stranger who may or may not wear the shirt of their preferred national team. And for Dest, it appears he's doing his due diligence to weigh the pros and cons of either side while entertaining the recruiting pitches of both.
The latest evidence of that came Tuesday, when Ajax published a very open, candid and at times borderline-bizarre back-and-forth between Dest and fellow U.S. U-20 and club teammate Alex Mendez on Tuesday. The two discussed their dual-nationalities (Mendez is Mexican-American), their backgrounds, the differences between soccer in the USA and the Netherlands and Dest's big decision. For Ajax, the decision matters, too. Dest, who has become somewhat of a regular with the first team so far this season, could be a marketing gem for the club in the USA as long as he plays there. Less than a year ago, the club opened an office in New York City with an eye on expanding its reach. There's also pride in producing Dutch greats, though, and the club would clearly relish in the pristine Ajax brand being attached to another potential Oranje standout.
“My father is from Brooklyn, but we spoke Dutch at home," Dest said in the conversation. "Actually, until a few years ago, my English was very poor. I wasn’t thinking of my American roots at all, until I went to play in an American youth team. From that moment, my English improved, and I started to feel more American. I realized that 'hey, this is my nationality, too.’ Now I think it’s great to be an American as well."
Dest, according to Ajax, indicated that the Netherlands' lack of interest in him over the last couple of years could wind up being a factor in his final decision–though early in his life, representing the USA wasn't even on his radar.
“When [I thought] of football when I was younger, it was always Ajax or the Dutch team," Dest said. "Never the U.S. But I [hadn't] been approached by the Dutch team.”
That changed recently. Prior to the September international window, Dest indicated that the Dutch federation reached out, initially offering him a chance to play with the U-23s. Those conversations have since escalated, with Netherlands senior team manager Ronald Koeman saying that they discussed big-picture plans with him.
“(Dutch federation technical director) Nico-Jan Hoogma and I have spoken with him,” Koeman said, according to De Telegraaf. “We have sketched the picture about his future with the Oranje. I don’t promise anyone, but I told him that I see a future for him at the Dutch national team.”
U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter has also been actively doing his part to woo Dest. By not just starting him against Mexico and Uruguay, but proclaiming on the eve of the Mexico match that Dest was starting, his actions indicate the urgency with which the U.S. is approaching the player. Berhalter remained tight-lipped prior to revealing his squad for the upcoming Concacaf Nations League matches vs. Cuba and Canada–games in which Dest would be cap-tied if he suited up.
“I understand there is going to be a lot of attention surrounding the availability of Sergiño in this next camp," Berhalter said in a prepared statement. "I’ve had conversations with Sergiño, the conversations were positive, and the content of these conversations is going to remain private.”
When asked to elaborate on a subsequent conference call with reporters, Berhalter remained coy and diplomatic, allowing the process to play out on the player's terms. If Dest winds up playing for the Netherlands, it won't be for a lack of trying by U.S. Soccer.
While there's no true need for him to decide immediately, all signs point to a final decision prior to November's international window after Dest turned down overtures from both in October. The Dutch will have Euro qualifiers against Northern Ireland and Estonia. The USA will have Nations League games. Both will cap-tie Dest, though by filing the FIFA one-time switch required to play for the Netherlands at this point, that would have the same effect.
One particular exchange between Mendez and Dest and published by Ajax sheds light on the particular difficulties of his case–one that's a lot for a teenager, who has deep ties to his birth nation but also recognizes his value in the eyes of his "other" nation, to consider as two federations wait for the final verdict.
Mendez: “It’s a choice that will impact the rest of your life, and that’s really tough. There’s a lot of pressure on Sergiño, I can tell. That’s exactly why he should take his time to make the right decision, and not let outside opinions influence him.”
Dest: “What would you do if you were in my shoes?”
Mendez: “I can’t tell you, man, because there’s a lot to be said for both. It’s amazing to play in the U.S. jersey. And you’ve also played in the U.S. youth teams, so you know what it’s about. But on the other hand, on the Dutch team, you’d be playing with so many stars. It’s really a tough one.”