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Sergiño Dest Knows He Hasn't 'Made it' Just By Signing With Barcelona

It's one thing to sign with Barcelona. It's another to turn that opportunity into something great. That's where Dest's focus is now after the whirlwind of his transfer from Ajax and his immediate debut has calmed.

The record will show that in the 75th minute of Barcelona’s La Liga match against visiting Sevilla on Oct. 4, Sergiño Dest entered as a substitute, simultaneously realizing a long-held dream and becoming the first U.S. international to appear for the storied club’s first team.

It’s a good thing those types of moments are recorded, because for Dest, who’d joined Barcelona from Ajax just three days earlier, that debut and the ensuing hours were a whirlwind. A lot happened quickly for the 19-year-old defender from Almere, a small city across the IJmeer lake from Amsterdam.

“The first couple days I didn’t realize it that much, but when I look back, I’m just like, ‘Wow, I play for Barcelona!’ Because everything went so fast the first couple days,” Dest said Monday. “So right now I’m just realizing as I’m seeing all those photos back and the videos, and it’s just an amazing feeling. It’s an emotional moment. It was an emotional moment for me when I was on.”

Photos may help Dest slow things down and process an individual moment in time. But it’s worth noting that even though he’s got just a season of top-tier pro soccer on his resume, he does seem to have a firm grasp of the bigger picture. Dest knows Barcelona represents the aspirational apex of the game (that 8-2 hiccup against Bayern Munich notwithstanding), and that it’ll be a challenge to secure and keep his place. That’s why he wanted to sign there. He’s well aware of his status as the first American to wear the Blaugrana in a top-tier match, and of the scrutiny, vicarious fantasies and expectations that come with it. And he’s excited by, and ready for, this bigger, more collective moment in time—one that suddenly features young Americans at huge clubs, 10 eligible for the UEFA Champions League group stage and genuine optimism about the future of the national team.

In fact, he barely flinched during Monday’s video news conference when a reporter asked if the USA might win the World Cup in 2026.

“Everybody is hungry right now, so everybody has to keep being hungry and we have a lot of talents from the youth that can also be something great in the future if we just work hard together,” Dest said from Barcelona. “Coach Gregg Berhalter is busy with us, and he has a plan for us, a philosophy for all the players and for the selection to reach something great at that tournament. So if everybody keeps concentrated and keeps motivated, we can definitely do something great.”

Sergino Dest on his Barcelona debut

Staying hungry and motivated was a theme Dest touched on several times. Just because you step on the field at the Camp Nou, just because you’ve trained with Lionel Messi, doesn’t mean you’ve arrived. Dest’s $25 million transfer was the conclusion of a story about a smaller but skillful player whose emergence was never a sure thing, and it was the beginning of another. Even though Dest developed in the Netherlands and not in the USA (his father is American), the threshold he’s now crossing mirrors that of his young international teammates.

They’ve arrived in one sense. Christian Pulisic is at Chelsea. Weston McKennie is at Juventus. Giovanni Reyna is turning heads at Borussia Dortmund, Zack Steffen is making his case at Manchester City and Dest isn’t even the first American at Barcelona—U-20 World Cup roommate Konrad de la Fuente is a reserve on the cusp of the senior squad. But they’re all still getting started in another, more critical sense. The next step is to become permanent starters, difference-makers and stars. And then comes the national team, for which Berhalter’s European-based players haven’t appeared for nearly a year. Dest said he’s looking forward to next month’s planned camp in the U.K., which he said will feature friendlies against Wales and Australia.

Despite the big moves, big clubs and growing profiles and expectations, nothing about their impact or legacies has been set in stone.

“Everybody is hungry, and everybody wants to achieve something with the U.S. and I think that’s a good sign,” Dest said. “We all want to win the World Cup, achieve great things, not only personally but also as a team for the U.S. I think we are the guys that have to do it, and we all have to keep concentrated, because if you play at a big club and you’re gonna be like ‘O.K., I already made it,’ then you can’t achieve anything. I hope, really hope, everyone keeps doing what they’re doing and always wants to develop themselves even more than right now.”

He added, “We haven’t achieved really big things yet with the U.S., so I think everybody wants to be the first one, and that’s why everybody is so motivated to develop yourself and to win the first big trophy for the country.”

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But how do you get to there from here? Coming together as a national team is difficult in normal times. It’s been impossible in 2020. Dest said Monday that there’s frequent communication between the players on a WhatsApp group and with Berhalter, who frequently checks in.

“[He] is there also always for us if you want to ask something about the team, about the philosophy, about the roster. He will tell you everything. So he keeps being busy with us, and I really like and appreciate that,” Dest said.

Developing as an individual is something over which Dest has more control. He acknowledged that there were critics who felt he’d be better off with at least a second season at Ajax. He also admitted that Barcelona was his dream, and that the Camp Nou was enticing enough to pull him away from home at 19 and to choose over Bayern, the European champion.

Dest may be the first American to play for Barça, but he’s far from the first Dutchman. Barcelona is almost a Dutch club, shaped as it was by Johann Cruyff and Rinus Michels beginning in the 1970s. Cruyff’s fingerprints are all over Barcelona’s style of play and youth development, and several additional accomplished countrymen followed in the ensuing decades. Ronald Koeman, who scored the only goal when Barcelona won its first European Cup final in 1992, is now the manager. And Patrick Kluivert, who scored the only goal when Ajax won its most recent European Cup final in 1995, is Barça’s academy director.

“Ajax and Barcelona are a little bit similar [in] style of play, so I think that fits me pretty well,” said Dest, who may see more time at left back in the injury absence of Jordi Alba while his long-term future likely is on the right. Dest, naturally, said he’ll play wherever he’s needed. He knows there’s a lot to learn, and he’s certain there’s nowhere better to learn it.

“I know a lot of people say I could use one more year to develop myself, but I feel like I like challenges. So I feel like if I'm going to this club, then I will develop because then I see what I have to improve on the most, you know? And it’s just a big challenge for me and it keeps motivating me for developing myself all the time and playing with the best players of the world,” he said.

“I dreamed of this all the time. So now I get the opportunity to play for such a big club like this, so I should take it and try, and I think I can learn a lot of things from all those players, because it’s a really good team,” he continued. “The best player of the world is here, Messi. I can learn a lot from them and it’s the same—if you’re in Spain, it’s easier to learn Spanish. So I feel like if I’m with the best players, it’s easier to develop myself to be honest.”

Sergino Dest on his Barcelona debut

Spanish lessons have already begun, and those will help Dest communicate with Messi and his teammates. He’ll have no such issues with Koeman. And despite their shared background, that wasn’t a given—Koeman was the Netherlands coach when Dest made his final decision last year to represent the USA, for which he played as a junior international, rather than switch to the country of his birth. Dest has said previously that his time with the U-17 and U-20 teams, plus the USA’s early interest in him, sealed the deal. Thankfully, Koeman didn’t take it personally.

“It was not awkward at all,” Dest confirmed Monday. “In that time that I just choose between the Netherlands and the U.S., I just told him honestly that I didn’t want to play for the Netherlands and I wanted to continue playing for the U.S. national team. It’s not his fault or something, so we just keep our relationship good. And after a while he called my agent and asked me if there was a still a chance you can play over here, and I was definitely willing to play in this beautiful club, and when we met for the first time after that it felt natural.”

And so Dest is positioned as Barça’s first American, rather than just another Dutchman. That’ll make the spotlight, already bright at the Camp Nou, feel different. Events like Monday’s press conference are one sign—the club hasn’t reached out to U.S. media like that before. Another is the increased interest in American soccer from Barcelona—Berhalter did an interview with large local sports outlet Mundo Deportivo over the weekend. All of it—the excitement, the expectations, this huge club and the promise of U.S. soccer’s golden generation—might be a lot to handle for some. But Dest said he welcomes it. Even if he got lost in the moment last week, he knows this is how players make history.

“I don’t feel like pressure in a bad way. I feel pressure in a good way, so that's really good for me,” he said. “I feel like I’m the first American to be in the selection of Barcelona, so I’m really proud of that and right now I just want to make something great. I don’t just only want to be the first one. I want to be the first one that actually does something great at this club. So I’ll work really hard for this, and I want to achieve big things at this club.”