Ronald Koeman has had his eye on Sergino Dest for quite some time. Throughout 2019, the right-back was at the center of a highly-publicized tug-of-war, one involving the Dutch legend.
On one side was head coach Gregg Berhalter and the U.S. men's national team, who could offer Dest, the son of a Surinamese-American father and a Dutch mother, a prominent role as part of a rebuilding phase.
On the other side sat Koeman. He offered Dest a chance to represent his country of birth, the Netherlands, a team that, by any measure, is one of the best in the world.
Dest's breakthrough campaign at Ajax had caught his eye and Koeman was planning for Dest to be a key figure in the Dutch team in the years to come.
"Nico-Jan Hoogma (technical director of the KNVB) and I have spoken with him. We have sketched the picture about his future with the Oranje," Koeman said at the time. "I don't promise anyone, but I told him that I see a future for him with the Dutch national team."
That future never came to fruition.
Just several weeks later, Dest committed to the USMNT, cap-tying himself to the program with a standout performance against Canada in the Concacaf Nations League. His choice was motivated by his level of comfort with the USMNT, a program that had shown a commitment to him for years. He responded to that commitment with one his own.
Koeman, in the end, did not get his man.
"I have personally informed the national team coach Ronald Koeman because I respect him greatly and didn't want him to learn from the press," Dest said at the time. "He told me he was disappointed.
"However, he respected my choice, as in the end it's my life and I have to live with the choices I make, good or bad."
Now, just a year later, much has changed and Dest faces another major life choice. Koeman is no longer in charge of the Netherlands, having taken over at Barcelona. Dest's time at Ajax looks like it is nearing its end, as some of the world's biggest clubs compete for his signature.
This time around, though, it looks like Koeman is strong enough to win the tug-of-war over Dest's future.
Koeman's Barcelona have spent the last few weeks battling Bayern Munich for Dest's signature, with the defender set to become the latest American star to make a major move to a mega-club. Barcelona appear to be the favorites, having submitted an offer worth €20m (£18m/$23m) up front plus an additional €5m (£4.5m/$6m) in bonuses.
It's a hefty fee for a 19-year-old defender and that fee would be one of the largest ever paid for a USMNT player. During a period that has seen an unprecedented amount of American talent join clubs at the highest level, a potential Barcelona move could be the most awe-inspiring of all.
This is Barcelona, after all, and no American has ever played for their first team. But, then again, Dest has seemingly been on this path for quite some time.
Born in the Netherlands, Dest was in the academy of hometown Almere City FC until 2012, when he made the switch to the youth teams of Ajax. It was at the Dutch club's fabled academy that he refined his game, eventually making his breakthrough for the club in July 2019, just months after Ajax's latest crop of starlets battled all the way to a Champions League semi-final.
Dest, in many ways, represented the next group. Gone were the likes of Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt, who earned massive moves following their run through Europe. Dest's debut campaign ended with 35 appearances in all competitions, prompting a battle between Barca and Bayern for his services.
Both have their benefits and their drawbacks, and this is a big decision. Dest will be a key part of the USMNT setup for years to come, and his development will be vital for the team's chances in 2022.
At Bayern, Dest would likely face an easier transition, with Benjamin Pavard and, if needed, Joshua Kimmich among the club's current right-backs. And, although Dest would likely be behind World Cup winner Pavard at the start, there is a case study across the field in Alphonso Davies, who took his chances and ran with them at warp speed to lock up the left-back position.
Barcelona, though, is the home-run move. After recently selling Nelson Semedo, the club has a need at right-back. Sergi Roberto is still in the squad but, if Dest ends up at Camp Nou, he would almost certainly be thrown right into the fire at one of the world's largest clubs.
Barca are a club in transition, yes, and parts of that transition would surely be rocky, but who wouldn't want to play behind Lionel Messi, even if it's just for one year?
Dest has always shown his affinity for Barcelona, with several U.S. youth national team teammates recently joking that he's been wearing Barca tracksuits to training for years.
“I want to play at Barcelona or Real Madrid,” Dest told podcast Scuffed last year. “The Premier League is good, but I don't know if it fits my style. It is very physical.”
Update: I and many others can verify that he’s had a Barca tracksuit since our YNT days 🤣❤️ https://t.co/GZJSwmxDUO— Mark McKenzie (@markmckenzie4_) September 22, 2020
Whatever team gets Dest will find themselves with a versatile defender with plenty to offer. Able to feature on either the right or the left of a back line, Dest is a typical Ajax product. He feels comfortable on the ball and knows what to do with it when he does get it. He has the ability to really help a team that likes to dominate possession, but he also has the speed to track back once that possession is lost.
The physical tools can only take you so far, though, before the mental side of the game kicks in. Dest is strong in that department too.
He's confident, perhaps even cocky at times, as he routinely attempts audacious skill moves on unsuspecting defenders seemingly just to see if he can. That confidence extends off the field, with Dest guaranteeing a victory over Canada ahead of his first competitive match with the USMNT.
His biggest weakness? Defending. While the attacking part of the game has been refined, his one-on-one defending is not yet at a Barcelona or Bayern level. Dest has also shown a bit too much eagerness to get forward at times, prompting Ajax captain Dusan Tadic into a fiery clash with the defender against Heerenveen in March.
"That is normal in football. I told him that he cannot always move forward," Tadic told Fox Sports after the incident, which was followed by a more civil discussion when the two marched off for halftime moments later. "If I lost the ball in that situation, we might have been 1-0 behind. I was a bit emotional.
"He is a good boy and a good player. I have a lot of experience and try to help him and our team."
Dest is a good player now looking to become a great player, a talented youngster hoping to become a star. And it may just be Koeman that becomes the man in charge of that development.
Koeman's standing at the club is relatively uncertain, despite the fact that he was only hired this summer. Barcelona's presidential elections could very well throw the club into a state of upheaval, with Koeman's stay potentially being a short one.
To start that stay, Koeman is seemingly betting on familiar faces. Barca have been heavily linked with Memphis Depay, the Dutch team's star forward, Gini Wijnaldum of Liverpool and now Dest, a player that Koeman recently admitted he still admired.
“Sergino Dest is a player for teams like Barcelona," he recently said on Catalunya Radio. "He’s one of those offensive full-backs who is fast and is comfortable with the ball. He has a great future on any team.”
In the coming days, we'll learn where Dest future's lies. Could it be with defending Champions League Bayern or a desperate Barca? Will he be given time to experience the growing pains of a teenager at a megaclub or will he be thrown right in at the deep end?
Dest has faced these choices before, and he had the courage to make the unpopular one. This time around, Koeman will hope he's on the right end of Dest's decision, one that could prove a landmark moment for both the USMNT and Koeman's Barcelona tenure.