The U.S. men's national team is in dire need of a stretch of good news, which makes the events of the last three days quite encouraging.
On the heels of Christian Pulisic's hat trick for Chelsea in the Premier League comes official word from Sergiño Dest that he has elected to represent the USA instead of his native Netherlands on the international level.
U.S. Soccer had the jump on Dest, which undoubtedly played a role in his decision. He played for the USA in U-17 and U-20 World Cups, long before he appeared on the Netherlands' radar. That only happened after he recently ascended to Ajax's first team, and while the lure of playing for the Oranje–the team Dest, a native Dutchman, grew up admiring and likely envisioning for himself–was strong, it's likely that the USA's entrenched commitment to the player, plus the clear path to a starting role for the next decade-plus, wound up sealing the deal. Dest alluded to the factors in explaining his choice, but also repeated that "feelings" and "emotions" had plenty to do with it.
"I have based my decision on a feeling, however, it was a tough one," Dest, who turns 19 on Sunday, said in a video produced by Ajax. "It took me a long time to come to this decision. In the end, it's Team USA.
"Team USA, I have played there throughout all youth teams, and they have embraced me from an early age on. In the Netherlands, you would play amongst the best players in the world, and they have a great team. That would have been amazing. In the end it was a decision based on feelings and emotions, and therefore I chose Team USA."
It's a win on a number of levels for the U.S. Not only does a player of Dest's pedigree help a first team that is seeking to establish cornerstones for the present and future, but he plays at a position of need. That Tyler Adams was going to be shoehorned into right back due to the lack of discernible fullback depth spoke volumes. Suddenly, a depth chart that includes Dest, Reggie Cannon–one of the few bright spots on the field for the U.S. recently–and veteran DeAndre Yedlin gives manager Gregg Berhalter some options. Dest can either fill the longstanding hole at left back, where he is comfortable, or he can deputize on the right, something he's more accustomed to doing for his club.
Dest played at left back in his two caps with the U.S. senior team in September, displaying his potential and technical ability–though also his faults–against Mexico and Uruguay. Before anointing him as the next Roberto Carlos or Cafu–most would suffice for the next Steve Cherundolo, to be honest–though, it's important to note he's not an infallible player. Then again, what 18-year-old not named Kylian Mbappe is? Pulisic himself undressed Dest for his game-winning assist in the Champions League last week, and his 1-v-1 defending is a needs-improvement area.
What he offers going forward is tantalizing, though, and the glimpses of his class on both ends of the field are evident.
“He’s a good kid, he’s a pleasure to watch," Berhalter said last week, after visiting Dest and his father in the Netherlands along with U.S. Soccer's Dutch-American sporting director, Earnie Stewart. "When you talk about teams trying to scout for him, he’s very difficult because he’s good defensively–he has good quickness defensively, but also offensively he’s always getting forward and he’s a handful there, so he’s a really interesting combination playing as a fullback.”
For all of the grief coming Berhalter and U.S. Soccer's way–and it's wholly deserved following a series of home lapses and a listless loss in Toronto to Canada–this represents a major victory.
They played the Dest situation perfectly, not appearing to push too hard while simultaneously making sure the interest and intentions were known. U.S. Soccer has won plenty of recruiting battles and lost a few over the years, but none of the German-Americans who opted to play for the USA really appeared to have long-term Die Mannschaft potential at the time of their choices. Dest could have tried to fight his way into a Netherlands team that appears to be one of the most promising in international soccer, and he very well could have succeeded given his ability level. Instead, he'll bring that skill to the U.S.
Dest deserves credit for handling the decision with the maturity beyond his years. He made it clear he needed time and would not rush into a decision, acting in fairness to both federations and giving both a chance to make their pitches. He made sure to inform Netherlands coach Ronald Koeman so he wouldn't learn from a secondary source. He did the same in his Ajax locker room, knowing the vested interest some of his teammates had.
He has a balancing act to juggle, given the presumed desire of Ajax fans and some of his Ajax teammates for him to suit up for the Oranje. While his commitment clearly means more to the USA than his dejection does for the Netherlands based on their respective player pools, there are multiple parties he needed to please and account for in his decision, and he appears to have done so with thoughtfulness, honesty and grace.
"I hated to keep the people waiting, and it was extremely tough," Dest said. "The reason for the waiting is that I wanted to make the right choice and this simply took time. But now the news is out. I'm ready to move on, and I hope the full focus can be on the next games and performance again."
U.S. fans can only hope that his decision-making will be just as sound on the field, when he suits up wearing red, white and blue instead of orange.