Oct. 2 was quite a day for Sergino Dest. First, Ajax's 18-year-old Dutch-American right-back was unexpectedly missing from the U.S. men's roster announced for the upcoming games against Cuba and Canada. These are competitive matches, in the CONCACAF Nations League, so if Dest had played, he would have been bound to the USMNT rather than the Netherlands for his career. That evening, he played all 90 minutes in Ajax's 0-3 triumph at Valencia in the Champions League. After the game, he appeared on Dutch TV.
Dutch fans hoped he would announce that he had decided to play for their national team. Instead, he said he hadn't chosen either country yet. "I still need to think longer about both options ... It is a decision I have to make for the rest of my life and I want to handle that carefully."
He said he hoped to have a decision by next month. Gregg Berhalter, the U.S. coach, who had previously found Dest "enthusiastic" about playing for the USMNT, now sounded guarded. "I've had conversations with Sergino. The conversations were positive, and the content of these conversations is going to remain private," Berhalter told the Washington Post.
The cautious conclusion must be that the Netherlands are favorites to win this race. Certainly, they would be the rational choice for Dest. And though it's far too early to tell, he may prove a prize worth having for the next 15 years.
Dest was born and raised in Almere, a working-class town just outside Amsterdam, with a Dutch mother and a Surinamese-American father from Brooklyn. The first time he set foot in the U.S., on a visit to his dad's hometown, was in 2014. "At home in Almere we just spoke Dutch," Dest told the Ajax website. "In fact, a couple of years ago my English was still very mediocre. And I wasn't thinking about my American roots [until] I started to play in U.S. youth teams. From then on my English improved, and I kept feeling more American. I realised: hey, this is my nationality too. And the U.S. passport is one of the most beautiful in the world."
Dest had arrived at Ajax from Almere City as a child winger in 2012, and gradually transformed into an attacking right-back. Other Dutch boys' teams enduring the ritual humiliation at Ajax's youth complex, De Toekomst in those days, recall him flashing down the touchline, while his teammates queued in the box shouting "Serra," each begging Dest to grant them the final touch. After every cross, Dest would trot tirelessly back to position and resume his tackling, dribbles and "pannas" (Dutch-Surinamese slang for nutmegs). He was the Everywhere Back, sometimes popping up at center-forward, but for all his activity he made few mistakes, despite being a year younger than his teammates.
Yet the Dutch federation didn't pick Dest for its national youth teams. "I never got a chance," he says. The U.S. Soccer Federation pounced after Dutchman Dave van den Bergh, then one of the federation's youth coaches, heard from Ajax about the boy's American passport. Dest represented the U.S. in the Under-17 World Cup in 2017 (Ajax didn't wanted him to go) and excelled in the team's run to the quarterfinals of this summer's Under-20 World Cup.
For a long time, Ajax seemed ambivalent about Dest, possibly because although he's dedicated, he was also rather headstrong. Even last fall, when he was already 18, he looked headed for the exit in Amsterdam. Only in December did Ajax finally come through with a professional contract.
This summer, his career took off. After the Under-20 World Cup, Ajax head coach, Erik ten Hag, requested that Dest be given just 10 days holiday. Ten Hag had plans for him. Dest made his first-team debut in late July, and since then has become a regular, usually as a starter.
You can see why, because he is the full-back that a high-pressing modern side needs. Ten Hag says, "A back at Ajax has to be able to function as a midfielder and winger, too. It's a very dynamic role. We want to introduce a lot of variation into our game, to surprise opponents."
That's Dest's way. He told Amsterdam's Het Parool newspaper, "I think of myself [as someone who has] a good technique. I don't get frightened when I get the ball -- also not when under pressure, or on the opponents' half."
His high-risk game gives Ajax an attacking threat from right-back that they lacked even in their extraordinary last season. "Maybe in the past, when I first got into a higher team, I'd take it easy," Dest says. "But I've stopped doing that. Now I show at once what I can do."
In Ajax's opening Champions League game in September, a 3-0 win over Lille, he produced a roulette through two opponents from the full-back position -- a showboating move that Ten Hag may not have enjoyed as much as the fans did. Dest also has the good fortune that his partner on Ajax's right wing is Hakim Ziyech, a world-class player whose continued presence in the humble Dutch league is a mystery.
Dest's main shortcoming, for now, is that for a defender, he isn't great at defending. Being the speediest member of Ajax's back four, he's essential in snuffing out counter attacks, but he sometimes gets caught out of position. (Ajax's opening two clean sheets in the Champions League are above all down to keeper Andre Onana, surely headed for a giant club next summer.) Ajax demands that players "defend forward," that is, charge into challenges to try to win the ball back fast rather than sit back and cover space. Dest has yet to master this difficult art.
The consensus in the Netherlands is that he isn't ready for Oranje. Still, the Dutch federation knows it has to act fast. In September, Berhalter gave him his debut for the USMNT, starting him against Mexico and Uruguay. But these were non-binding friendly games; Dest retains the option to switch to the Netherlands. The Dutch would like to give him a full cap in a competitive match to claim him for life, then let him mature in the under-21s side.
The Dutch federation still laments missing out on Ziyech, who trained with Oranje in 2015 before choosing Morocco. It's determined not to make that mistake again. It is focused on recruiting Dest and the possibly even more talented 17-year-old Dutch-Moroccan Mohamed Ihattaren, PSV Eindhoven's playmaker who is tearing up the Dutch league.
Like the U.S., the Netherlands is short a top-class right-back: PSV's Denzel Dumfries, who has been filling the role with Oranje, lacks the technique for international level. Netherlands' coach, Ronald Koeman, and the Dutch FA's director of "topvoetbal," Nico-Jan Hoogma, sat down with Dest in September. Hoogma reported afterwards: "You can't promise someone a first-team place, but you can indicate who their rivals are. Based on our story, Dest has to make a decision."
Koeman said, "I'm not promising anyone anything, but I indicated to him that I see a future for him with the Dutch team. He decided to take his time. That he hasn't travelled to the U.S. now shows that the issue isn't decided for him."
The Dutch have a good story to tell. Since the U.S. returned to World Cups, in 1990, the Americans have progressed further than Oranje at a tournament only once, in 2002. (Of course, both countries failed to qualify for 2018 in Russia.) Moreover, if Dest chooses the Netherlands, he won't have to spend his career making disruptive exhausting trips to play second-rate national teams from the CONCACAF region.
On the other hand, Dest has an emotional attachment to the U.S., and the USSF was good to him at youth level when the Dutch FA ignored him. The Americans have a chance. But as battles for binationals become the norm in international soccer, the Dest case ought to be a prompt for the U.S. to ask itself: Why does the tiny fraction of American passport-holders raised in western Europe still produce such a disproportionate share of this giant country's best players?
Meanwhile, in a joint interview on the Ajax website with the U.S.-Mexican Alex Mendez, who plays for Ajax's reserves, the conflicted Dest turned to Mendez and asked: "What would you do if you were in my shoes?"
These decisions are always in part matters of the heart, but the betting must be that Dest chooses Oranje.