AMSTERDAM — In the end, Sergino Dest’s decision to represent the U.S. came down to two things: trust and loyalty. The sparkling Ajax right-back shut himself away from the noise as he weighed whether to play for the U.S., whom he’d represented through the various youth levels, or the Netherlands, the country of his birth. Amid the social media frenzy, Dest knew he’d made the right call.
“A lot of people only want you when it’s going well,” Dest told ESPN while sitting in the heart of Ajax’s De Toekomst training base. “The USMNT helped me when it didn’t go well, and I’m thankful for that. They helped me through hard times, and if they hadn’t given me a chance, maybe I wouldn’t be here now with Ajax. Maybe I’d never have reached this level.”
But “this level” is only the beginning. The 19-year-old wants to make history with this promising generation of American players, including Christian Pulisic, and achieve a level of collective greatness never before seen in U.S. soccer.
Dest is from the Snapchat generation that already sees email addresses as a relic. He uses his mother’s account if he absolutely has to send anything. He lives with his parents — his mother is Dutch, his father Surinamese-American — and there are no signs of his fame changing him. “I keep focused. I’m not a person who talks bulls— to other guys,” Dest said. “I don’t look at others. I just focus on improving.”
While weighing his decision, he transported himself back to his younger self, playing on the streets in Almere, a small, nature-filled city 23 miles from Amsterdam. He remembered a piece of advice that he has followed since he was a kid.
“There was this guy I played street soccer with, and one time he said to me, ‘You never have to get stressed because if you get stressed, you’re going to do weird things in soccer.’ And that’s what I always think about,” he said. “Even now, if someone’s trying to press me or run in behind me, I just think about it and have it in the back of my mind.”
Dest’s lack of stress is evident in his play. He brings a wonderful, youthful exuberance from the right-back position, but anchoring him is a combination of self-confidence, which leads him to try the remarkable over the rudimentary, and self-awareness, which helps him learn from his mistakes.
These “mistakes” are the memories he offers when talking about his 22 career appearances for Ajax. Playing in the Champions League and scoring his first goals for Ajax were great, of course, but when looking back at the whirlwind year, he remembers how he gave away a penalty against Willem II — “I felt like it was the only option. I was running at a high speed, but I will be smarter in those situations in the future” — and how against Heracles, he lost the ball on the halfway line, and Cyriel Dessers ran off to score. (Luckily, it didn’t matter: The error came in the 90th minute, with Ajax 4-0 up.)
Dest also remembers those who laughed at him when he told them he was going to be in the 2% of prospects who make it into Ajax’s first team. “Now I’m here, now everybody who laughed at me will say, ‘Yeah, you’re good bro … how are you?’ Everybody wants to be my friend again,” he said. “But I know who were there in the hard times, and I keep them safe.”
One such time came when the Netherlands turned their back on the young Dest.
“Every time I got to the [last round of selection] for the Netherlands youth team, I didn’t make it,” he said. “I was like ‘s—, s—, s—,’ but my dad reminded me I also have an American passport.”
Given that Dest visited America for the first time in 2014, that meant a step into the relative unknown.
Word of Dest reached U.S. Soccer via former U.S. Under-20 coach and Ajax player Dave van den Bergh, and the U.S. soon capped Dest at Under-17 level. He remembers fondly how he had limited English when he turned up to training camp at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, but the team helped him and encouraged him both on and off the field. Dest played his first minutes in October 2016 against Costa Rica but again came off despondent, convinced that he had ruined his only opportunity to progress with the U.S. But the coaches stuck by him and encouraged him.
“That’s why I’m so thankful to the U.S.,” he said. “They helped me in hard times.”
Dest went on to represent the U.S. in the Under-17 World Cup and played a key role in last May’s Under-20 World Cup. It was his early introduction to performing in front of big crowds, and he thinks it helped him bury any nerves ahead of his eventual Ajax first-team debut in the Johan Cruyff Shield win against PSV in front of 51,837 at Ajax’s stadium.
The first two of Dest’s three U.S. senior caps came in September 2019 against Mexico and Uruguay, but they were considered “friendlies,” which meant Dest was still eligible for Netherlands selection had he wanted to switch. In October, he took a break from international football to make his long-term decision, and despite the flurry of rumours and counter-rumours, he trusted his instincts.
“My heart told me the U.S. was the best option for me,” he said. “I was raised in the Netherlands. I love it here. But in life, you have to make difficult decisions. I felt the U.S. was the best option. I had played in their youth teams, and I feel at home there.
“It’s not as if the U.S. is bad at soccer, either. They play in World Cups — and against a lot of the same teams as the Netherlands.”
Dest confirmed his decision on Oct. 28 and received some happy messages on Snapchat from U.S. teammates eager to congratulate him on his choice. He remembers that he later bumped into Netherlands manager Ronald Koeman after Ajax were knocked out of the Champions League to Valencia. Koeman smiled at Dest and wished him well. The young defender took it as a nod of approval, a message from an Ajax legend of the past to someone trying to emulate those who decorate the walls of the academy.
Ajax teach their academy players to attack space, play out from the back and trust both the system and the ethos instilled in the club dating to Johan Cruyff’s time in the 1970s and ’80s. Last season saw Ajax reach the Champions League semifinal and then lose their two brightest talents, Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong, to European powerhouses Juventus and Barcelona, respectively. As players leave, the club seeks to replace them from within their system, but such is their depth of promising talent that only roughly 2% transition from the academy to the first team. When Dest’s summer holiday was cut short by Ajax boss Erik Ten Hag — he had a 10-day break between the Under-20 World Cup and reporting for first-team training — he grasped the opportunity.
“I had to stay focused — I know I have potential — but I needed that focus to achieve what I have. I believed in myself,” Dest said. “When I got my chance with the first team, I knew it was all or nothing.”
Life at Ajax moves quickly, with trust put in players sooner than at other top European teams. That might explain why no one bats an eye at Dest’s career trajectory, having seen him sign his first professional contract in December 2018, make his first-team debut in August 2019, be at the centre of a tug-of-war between two countries and play in the Champions League at just 19 years old. They also encourage players to take ownership of decisions; when Dest wanted to leave their midseason training camp in Qatar due to the political tensions between Iran and the U.S., Ten Hag and Edwin Van der Sar respected his wish.
USMNT defender Sergino Dest insists he wants to do something with the U.S. “that nobody’s ever done.”
“I don’t think it matters how old you are: I think it comes down to how many games you have played,” Dest said.
Last year, Dest benefited from the wisdom of Winston Bogarde, the former Netherlands centre-back who is the Ajax reserve team’s assistant manager. Now with the first team, it is Michael Reiziger, a 72-cap Netherlands defender who was part of Ajax’s 1995 Champions League-winning team, keeping a close eye on Dest. Together, the pair have worked to hone his defensive positioning.
“All the faults in my career have made me who I am,” Dest said. “You have to make mistakes to succeed, and that’s the reason why I’m not scared to do anything or try anything, as if I make a mistake, I will learn from it. If I’m scared, I will never be able to improve or aim for something better.”
Both Reiziger and Bogarde told Dest, “We don’t have to help you a lot with attacking,” and a quick glance across YouTube finds the Dest highlight reels glittering with darts down the right wing, ambitious passes and intentions to take on the man in front rather than choosing the safer pass around him. Dest joined Ajax as a winger but was shifted to right-back; his versatility is heaven-sent for the U.S. and their long-term aspirations.
The day after we spoke, Dest was crowned U.S. Soccer’s Young Male Player of the Year for 2019. If he stays injury-free, he can comfortably play in three World Cups for the U.S., though their failure to qualify for the 2018 edition in Russia means he isn’t looking any further ahead than booking a spot at Qatar 2022.
Again, Dest isn’t concerned. He wants this generation of players with Pulisic, Weston McKennie and Josh Sargent (among others) to aim big. “I want us to write history. I want to do something with the U.S. team that nobody’s ever done or achieved,” he said.
“But nobody knows where I’m gonna stand in 10 years. Maybe it’s down. Maybe it’s up. You don’t know, but it’s nice to follow the path.”