USMNT’s Dest talks joining Barca, the U.S.’s World Cup ambitions

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Sergino Dest flew into Barcelona on a Tuesday and finally signed for the Catalan club that Thursday. Between landing at El Prat airport and penning a five-year deal at Camp Nou, Bayern Munich were on the phone trying to resurrect a deal they had been working on since January. The German giants had dallied, though, and the appointment of Ronald Koeman at Barca along with the sale of Nelson Semedo allowed the La Liga side to jump the queue. Dest has always preferred Barca to Bayern, but if the German and European champions hadn’t haggled on the price with Ajax, he would have happily moved to Munich.

All in all, it’s a transfer saga that will have excited fans of the United States men’s national team. Gregg Berhalter’s side is blessed with a generation of young, talented players plying their trade at Europe’s biggest clubs. Dest is one of those players, and the fact he was coveted by two of Europe’s heavyweights shows how highly thought of he is in the game.

Along with Dest, there’s Giovanni Reyna at Borussia Dortmund, Chelsea‘s Christian Pulisic and JuventusWeston McKennie, to name three. That list could go on. There’s expectation building ahead of the 2022 World Cup, although Dest points out that 2026, when the U.S. co-hosts soccer’s biggest competition with Canada and Mexico, is a more realistic target for success.

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When Dest, who comes across as confident but humble, says the USMNT could even win the World Cup, he means it, too. The Dutch-born defender turned 20 on Nov. 3, but he’s astounded employees at Barca with his maturity. Perhaps that was always obvious given his level-headed mindset which he made the difficult decision to represent the U.S. over the Netherlands while still a teenager.

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Sergino Dest explains why he chose Barcelona and how playing with the “best players in the world” motivates him.

After just one season with Ajax’s senior side, Dest already looks completely at home at Barca. He made his debut at left-back against Sevilla FC and then displaced Sergi Roberto at right-back for the Clasico against Real Madrid just 23 days after joining the club. Barca lost the game, but Dest’s reputation was improved, wildly regarded as one of the best players on the pitch. That’s a result of hard work… and not taking a vacation in years.

As he prepares for his first U.S. camp in a year due to a calendar disrupted by the coronavirus, with games against Wales and Panama ahead, he sat down with ESPN to talk about life with Barcelona and the USMNT.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

ESPN: How has your first month as a Barcelona player been?

Dest: It’s been amazing, my dream came true! I play for Barcelona right now. I had a great debut I think against Sevilla, I thought I played well in that game. Other than that, we lost the Clasico, but for me, it’s just starting, hopefully I can [achieve] wonderful things with this beautiful club and develop myself as best as I can.

ESPN: Koeman showed a lot of confidence in you when he put you in the starting XI for the Clasico.

Dest: That’s a good thing for me, I am comfortable. Of course you have to find your place in the team and play — that’s why at first I want to play a little simple, get my spot, get my chemistry with the team and then slowly grow more and more into the team. Koeman gave me confidence and now it’s up to me. I have to play good matches and develop myself. He gave me the chances, but you know it’s up to me if I make them work or not.

ESPN: You’ve just turned 20, but have managed to adjust to the demands at Barcelona much quicker than more experienced players. What’s the secret?

Dest: I am always going out with my own quality and trying to play with that. Sometimes, when I look at [my teammates] on the pitch I’m like, “Wow, a couple of years ago I watched you guys on TV.” Now I play with the best player in the world (Lionel Messi). That’s amazing!

For me, personally, I always try to work on my skills on the ball, so I’m confident when I have the ball. If you’re confident, it’s easier to play with big players than if you’re not confident, so I think that’s the big key for me. Left- or right-back, for me it doesn’t matter. I play where the coach needs me. If I have to play left wing, I play left wing. It doesn’t matter — I just want to play, but to be honest I think I am more comfortable on the right side.

ESPN: And you’ve adjusted to the city quickly as well.

Dest: I am getting used to it right now. Everything went so quick. Two or three days after I signed, we played against Sevilla. There has not been a lot of rest. I am now in my own place. Everything is more relaxed. I can concentrate more on soccer. I settled really quickly.

Barcelona’s a really nice city. I like it here, I feel at home. There’s not been a moment when I wanted to go back [to Amsterdam]. I am good here, I want to develop myself, train really hard every day and then relax, take my rest when I need to. Other than that, I am just in my house just chilling and it’s just a nice city. Also, in the States, with the USMNT, I feel at home over there.

ESPN: Has it helped to have Dutch speakers like Koeman, his assistant Alfred Schreuder and Frenkie de Jong around the club? And USMNT teammate Konrad de la Fuente, who is with Barcelona B?

Dest: That’s better for me, of course, it’s something good. It’s easier to talk with them if I don’t understand [things]. I’m also taking Spanish lessons, that’s important for me, and also Catalan. I ask them questions. If I don’t understand it in Spanish, I ask them: What does this mean? What does that mean? They help me and I’m learning everything quickly and getting used to everything in Barcelona.

ESPN: You’ve spoken about Messi a lot since you signed. How good is he in training?

Dest: Yeah, he is really, really good. He has some unbelievable moments, just a joy to watch.

ESPN: Along with yourself, there are a lot of young players getting chances at Barca. Ansu Fati and Pedri are both playing regularly. Are we seeing the next great generation emerging at the club?

Dest: It’s really nice to be part of that generation. I think it’s also good to play with a couple of young players so that they can adjust to the level. That way, [Barca] already have players for the future. I think it’s really smart that Barca does that right now and gives us the chance to improve quicker.

ESPN: How is La Liga? You’ve been thrown in at the deep end with games against Sevilla and Real Madrid.

Dest: I know! They were a couple of tough games. La Liga’s a tough league. It’s a great league to play in for me personally. Because we play a lot of good matches, I have to be focused every game; it’s good for me, it’s good to concentrate on every game. You have to be focused and concentrated and that’s good for me I think, I am growing into a man. To play all those hard games, I think I’ll develop much quicker.

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Sergino Dest is optimistic about the USMNT’s potential with so many players breaking into big clubs.

ESPN: What’s Koeman asked of you as a player?

Dest: Not much, to be honest. I try to play my game. First thing is to defend — you know I am a defender, so right now I am trying to defend a lot. If possible, I go forward. Before, at Ajax, maybe I went a little too much forward and forgot my [defensive duties], but now I am not forgetting. So I am looking for my moments to go forward. I feel like I am getting slowly more confident in the team and I feel like in a couple of weeks I will be totally myself giving everything I have. Obviously, I give everything I have right now, but then I feel more comfortable in the team and I think it’s better for me.

ESPN: You’re one of a lot of USMNT players at Europe’s biggest clubs now. Another is Weston McKennie. You played against his Juventus side recently.

Dest: Yeah! I didn’t speak to him [before] the game but he told me when I signed for Barcelona: “I will see you in the Champions League.” It’s nice to play against him. We’re good friends in the national team.

ESPN: Then there’s Reyna, Pulisic …

Dest: I haven’t met Gio Reyna, so I don’t know him as a person, but I played with Pulisic. He’s a really good player, they’re both really good players. I hope they keep working and we can reach something nice in the coming years. Pulisic is a really great player, he’s fast, [and] really good at dribbling. I saw in the first couple of [U.S.] training sessions before I made my debut against Mexico, he was so good, you know, in the training. I had some recovery sessions so I was just looking at the training, but he was almost unstoppable. And then in the games you see it, he plays really well. Hopefully we can get a good connection on the field and can play with each other really well.

ESPN: Could he play for any club in the world?

Dest: Yeah, yeah.

ESPN: Then there are the youngsters coming through. You obviously know Konrad at Barca, Alex Mendez at Ajax …

Dest: These guys are growing, they’re coming. They’re close to reaching the senior team and Konrad [has just had his first senior call-up]. There’s also Chris Richards at Bayern Munich. Hopefully everyone will keep working hard. I think we will have a really good team in the future. For me, it’s just focus on myself and if I can help the others, then I am there for them. But I have to focus on myself to develop myself even more; hopefully, they will do the same and I think we can achieve something great.

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Juventus’ McKennie looks forward to talking Cristiano Ronaldo & Lionel Messi with Barcelona’s Sergino Dest.

ESPN: What’s coach Gregg Berhalter like to work with?

Dest: The communication with him is really important. I have good contact with him — I like him very much, as a coach and a person. And he helps me a lot, man. After almost every game we speak and he asks me: What are your thoughts about this game? What do you think you can improve? We just speak. I think that’s good to have someone who’s really busy with you with that kind of stuff. I think he’s the right person with that. I think he does it with a lot of players and I’m really happy with him as a coach.

ESPN: Were you aware of the media explosion that would follow, especially in the U.S., when you signed for Barca and became the first USMNT player to play for the club in a competitive game?

Dest: Actually, no! When I signed for Barca, I was not looking to see if I could be the first American to play for Barcelona, no. I took the decision for me. I thought this was good for my development, I have the chance to play some minutes.

But when I had to choose between the Netherlands and the U.S. I had that in the back of my mind: OK, [I have] two options, but what are the advantages in Holland and advantages in the U.S.? In the U.S. [there is] more for me and I played my whole youth in the U.S., so it was also a little bit of loyalty. I made a good choice and hopefully I can get big in the U.S.

Soccer is not the biggest sport in the U.S., so hopefully we as a generation can let it grow and get more fans from the U.S. that will support us in soccer, making soccer a little bigger in the U.S.

ESPN: Tell us about your connection to the U.S.

Dest: My dad is from New York, Brooklyn. My first time in U.S. was in 2014. I went to New York, to Queens — that’s where my uncle lives. That was when the 2014 World Cup was on, when Germany won it. But other than that time, I hadn’t been to America a lot before. I have family in New York, family in other cities.

ESPN: Do you notice an added hunger around the team after missing out on the last World Cup?

Dest: A little, to be honest. I see that everybody wants to play in a World Cup, especially with the U.S. national team. The U.S. players want to play in the World Cup and reach something big for the U.S. We didn’t really come that far yet, we [will] try and win it. Everybody is hungry for that. I think the next generation is going to be something new and we will prove it to the rest of the world.

ESPN: Is 2022 too soon to win it?

Dest: I mean the ball is round so we always have chances, but I think we will have more chances in 2026 maybe. We have a lot of young players in the team — I think we should go and experience [the 2022 World Cup]. I just hope that we reach far, but that’s something we cannot tell yet.

ESPN: With the U.S co-hosting in 2026, it will be extra special.

Dest: I think everybody is extra-motivated because it’s in the U.S. We have to do something really good. Of course we are speaking about it. Everybody wants to play in a World Cup, but it’s something special to play in your own country.

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USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter breaks down the upcoming camp with mostly young, raw prospects.

ESPN: This week is your first time with the USMNT for a year. Last November was your last call-up. It’s been a long time.

Dest: Wow, it was! That’s a long time, man, almost a year. It’s nice to see the players again. With the next World Cup in 2022, hopefully the COVID-19 situation does not interrupt that. I don’t like it for many reasons, like we cannot play with [fans]. The rules are getting stricter right now in some countries, also in Barcelona, so hopefully everything will be all right in the future because otherwise it’s not nice to play, you cannot play without [fans].

ESPN: Has that been the downside to you first month at Barcelona? Playing the Clasico in an empty stadium must have been strange.

Dest: It’s really strange. You feel it the pressure, but you don’t really feel it. And I think the pressure is something that makes football; it makes the sport, the fans, everything around it. It’s not boring because you want to play, which is always nice — it’s just way better with the fans and the support from outside. My [Barcelona] teammates told me it’s so much pressure [with fans at the Clasico] but I have to see it with my own eyes.

ESPN: There’s more pressure on you now with the national team as a Barca player, too.

Dest: I am prepared for that. You know, just play the game and don’t worry about the outside. I am just in the game. When I am retired, I am out of the game, then I can worry about the things outside, but right now I am in the game so I won’t let it affect me.