For weeks it appeared that there was only one ending to the Sergino Dest saga. Eligible to represent either the Netherlands or the U.S. men's national team, the Ajax fullback was seemingly facing a decision that was not much of a decision at all.
On one hand, you had the Netherlands, the country where Dest was raised that just so happens to have one of the best national teams in the world.
On the other you had the USMNT, a team that has been languishing in limbo for the better part of two years. Unlike the Dutch, who used their missed World Cup as an opportunity to grow, the U.S. had seemingly fallen even further behind its local rivals.
And then came the surprise, one that could just be vital in reenergizing and rebooting a U.S. program that needed a moment like this more than anything.
Dest announced on Monday that he has committed his international future to the USMNT, continuing his career with a national team program he has been with since Under-17 level. The 18-year-old, who has broken through with Dutch powerhouse Ajax this season, has cemented his international future with a decision that stunned many for a variety of reasons.
From a purely sporting perspective, it is hard to justify Dest's choice. It is no big shocker to state that the Dutch team is significantly better than the USMNT right now. Should he have chosen the Netherlands, Dest would get to play alongside the likes of Virgil van Dijk, Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong for a team that seems poised to rejoin Europe's elite. As an Ajax player, that experience seemed invaluable, and also much closer to Dest's home base, preventing the long journeys to and from North America.
Playing for the Netherlands would also have given him a different set of opportunities. Having international caps for the Netherlands on your resume is viewed much differently than having appearances for the USMNT. At club level, playing for the Netherlands could have opened different doors for the 18-year-old fullback, and likely added a few extra numbers to his pricetag should he ever leave Ajax.
But it appears that was not all that Dest valued. The teenager, instead, says he went with his gut, making a decision that was based on comfort that had been built up in his years within the U.S. program.
"I have played there throughout the youth teams and they embraced me from an early age," Dest told Ajax TV. "In the Netherlands, you would play among 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 is a much-needed victory for a USMNT program that can use all of the wins it can get right now.
The talent pool appears as weak as its ever been, as there is a notable gap between the old guard and a new generation that is not quite ready for the international game. The recent loss to Canada illustrated that more than anything. There is talent coming through the ranks, including the likes of Josh Sargent, Timothy Weah and, now, Dest, but that talent has not yet shown it is ready to turn promise into success at the international level.
In Dest, the USMNT get a young prospect, yes, but one that has been proving himself at the highest level. He has shone for Ajax, becoming a regular starter for a team that was one of the best in Europe last season. There is a reason Ronald Koeman and the Netherlands were interested, and that reason is that Dest has been very, very good. He is a legitimate starter on a Champions League team and, for a program like the U.S., those do not come around all too often.
Even so, the key is to remember that Dest's switch should be viewed as more micro than macro. Dest's decision is a win, yes, but the 18-year-old is no savior. He is a teenager playing at a very high level, but still a young player with lots of growing to do. His two USMNT performances in September showed that. There is potential, but no guarantee.
And the same can be said of all other dual nationals currently in the pipeline. Many players, Jonathan Gonzalez chief among them, have been forced into their own decision. Dozens of young players will face this choice in the coming years, and plenty will not choose the way Dest did.
This was one individual choice, one which Gregg Berhalter and Earnie Stewart clearly handled well. Stewart, a former Dutch-American dual national himself, had a remarkably similar story, and he admitted that the decisions are rarely straightforward.
“We are excited that Sergino will continue with our program,” Stewart said. “In all of our discussions, Sergino expressed the comfort he feels within the group and his appreciation for the commitment the Federation has made along the way. As a dual national myself, I understand the choices that these young players face. Our job is to provide a clear pathway and maintain honest and open communication, and then ultimately it comes down to a personal decision.”
Dest's personal decision has been made and his career will be tied to the USMNT. He will be ready to join the squad for upcoming Nations League matches against Canada and Cuba in what would be his first official matches in a USMNT shirt.
Will it be a turning point? That remains to be seen. Will other USMNT-eligible stars follow Dest in creating a youth movement? We cannot be sure.
But, for now, the USMNT has every right to savor a much-needed moment of positivity while regaining just a little bit of hope that more moments could very soon be on their way.