DAVENPORT, Fla. — For United States defender Sergiño Dest, returning to camp with the United States men’s national team has felt like lifting a weight off his shoulders.
After receiving an invitation to play with the Dutch national team, Dest sat out the last international break, mulling which country to play for on the international stage. Despite being born and raised in the Netherlands, he ultimately selected the United States, which he has represented at the youth level since 2017.
The weeks leading up to his decision were filled with questions from both sides.
“Everyone was pulling at me,” Dest said.
His decision was met with excitement from American teammates and fans alike, along with a fair amount of ribbing from his teammates at Ajax, his club in the Netherlands. After making his choice, Dest joins his teammates focused on Friday’s revenge match against Canada.
The time change in the Netherlands kept Dest from catching the team’s 2-0 loss to Canada last month. After he saw the score, he didn’t watch the highlights, either. But Dest came to the Orlando with a simple promise.
“That’s not gonna happen the next game,” Dest said, shaking his head. “Friday, we’re not gonna lose.”
Since arriving in camp in Orlando on Monday, Dest said he’s been greeted with excitement among his American teammates. Centerback Walker Zimmerman lauded Dest’s speed and aggression up the flanks; fellow defender Reggie Cannon pointed to the young player’s freedom as one of his most important assets.
Throughout the roster, there’s a shared respect for Dest’s commitment to the United States, which sits 11 places behind the Netherlands in the FIFA rankings table.
“It’s not an easy decision in any aspect,” Cannon said. “He chose us over Holland. That’s huge. That’s something that should be respected to the utmost degree. We love Sergiño, we all love him here, and we all know he’s a fantastic player.”
The decision is familiar for many members of the team. The journey of U.S. Soccer sporting director Earnie Stewart almost identically parallels that of Dest — a son of an American serviceman, he was raised in the Netherlands, where he started his soccer career before committing to the United States and ultimately making the move to MLS.
As a Mexican-American player, midfielder Paul Arriola also had to choose at an early age which country to represent.
“Everyone is different and everyone is inclined to their own opinion and has the right to feel the way that they feel about their country, their culture,” Arriola said. “In the end, when you’re in the soccer field, it’s about representing. I’m glad he chose the United States.”
Dest’s link to American culture is tenuous, resting mainly on his relationship with his father, who served in the United States military. He didn’t set foot on American soil until 2014, when he visited father’s home state of New York.
His main connection to the United States has come from wearing the crest on his chest on the football pitch. Dest had to catch himself once on Wednesday morning, correcting “they” to “we” when talking about the Americans. It’s still part of the transition.
In the five years since that first visit, Dest has quickly morphed into a figure for the future of U.S. Soccer as he rose through the youth development system. He’s now part of an elite set of young players headlined by Christian Pulisic that many fans hope will lead the country into a new era of international success.
With his decision made, Dest said he’s most eager to play with Pulisic. The two players went head to head in the Champions League last week in a game that descended quickly into a wild romp, with Chelsea overcoming a 4-1 deficit to finish with a draw while two Ajax players were ejected due to red cards.
After the final whistle — which ended a match that Dest believes was “one for history” — Pulisic and Dest met on the field. Dest had announced his commitment to the United States already, so Pulisic was spared the sales job. Instead, they talked about the match, sharing the same wide-eyed awe of two young players who have already ascended quickly to the top tiers of their sport.
In the midst of the fight for Dest’s services, it’s easy to lose track of an important detail about him — he’s only 19.
For Dest, it was important to choose for himself. He felt pressure from everyone — American fans, Dutch teammates at Ajax. Perhaps the biggest sway was his father, a U.S. veteran. But when he told his parents of his decision, he trusted in their support.
“He was happy, but he would have been happy [either way],” Dest said. “He’s my dad.”
Now, Dest’s focus has shifted away from his decision and to the future. Ahead of what will most likely be his third cap with the team on Friday — which will officially cap-tie him to the United States — Dest is ready to make good on his promise of a win.
“I’m an adult and … I made this decision on my own,” Dest said. “I made this choice and now it’s up to me to make sure it was a good one.”