National Writer: Charles Boehm

USMNT reach CNL semis & Copa América despite "inexcusable" Dest red card


Is it the tropical heat and humidity? The melodious steel-pan music? The spicy warmth of the roti and other delicious curried dishes?

Whatever shape your particular theory may take, it’s hard to avoid the sense that strange things have a way of happening when the US men’s national team set foot on the sunny Caribbean island of Trinidad. 

So it was again on Monday night at Hasely Crawford Stadium, 34 years and a day after Paul Caligiuri’s “shot heard ‘round the world” broke the USMNT’s 40-year World Cup drought and changed the course of American soccer history, and six years and three weeks after the unfathomable 2-1 loss in Couva that ran the program’s 2018 qualifying campaign aground.

This time it was the proverbial red mist descending on Sergiño Dest. The Dutch-American right back’s anger at the refereeing crew led by Walter López Castellanos led him to lose all composure – seemingly on the turn of a dime – in the first half of the Concacaf Nations League quarterfinal second leg, drawing two yellow cards for dissent in a matter of seconds and forcing his teammates to hang on for dear life against a Trinidad and Tobago side who had looked mostly overmatched up to that point.

Dest had delivered the telling cross his opposite fullback Antonee “Jedi” Robinson had nimbly headed home for the game’s opening goal, too. But those positive vibes were soon lost in the chaos, as he jawed his way into an ejection even as multiple bewildered, despairing teammates begged him to calm down. 

“Disappointing we didn’t come and get the win. We obviously wanted to make a statement, come and win on the road,” Robinson said in a live fieldside interview after the final whistle. “We started the game pretty well, I think we had things under control. And then obviously a moment of unprofessionalism kind of went against us.”

Dest sees red

The Yanks survived this time, riding the 3-0 advantage they’d built in the first leg in Austin on Thursday night to win the series 4-2 on aggregate and advance to the CNL semifinals, while also qualifying for next summer’s Copa América 2024 despite the Soca Warriors’ 2-1 comeback win in Port of Spain.

But this was one red card that may linger in the collective memory for quite a while.

“We achieved the objective of this camp, which was to qualify for the Copa América, for the semifinals of the Nations League. However, it’s not in the fashion that we would have wanted to,” said head coach Gregg Berhalter postgame.

“It is concerning, because that's not what we want to represent. That's not who we are as a group. We pride ourselves on staying mentally disciplined, battling through any type of conditions, whether they're good decisions or bad decisions, we're supposed to keep going,” he added of what he called a “surreal” sequence from Dest. “That obviously wasn’t the right response from Sergiño. He apologized to the group, he said it's not going to happen again. As a team, players, the staff, we need to hold him accountable. Because it's inexcusable. It really is.”

With real stakes on the line, Dest’s moment of madness imposed extra labor and stress, under muggy Caribbean conditions, on his colleagues. The ejection’s destabilizing effects clearly played a part in the USMNT conceding an equalizer via a rifled near-post strike by Reon Moore just minutes later.

And when goalkeeper Matt Turner couldn't handle a viciously-struck knuckling free kick by Alvin Jones – the very same Alvin Jones who blasted the winner past Tim Howard in Couva back in 2017 – in the 57th minute, even the aggregate scoreline couldn’t calm the queasy sense of déjà vu bubbling in the guts of so many Yanks faithful back home.

“When you're down to 10 men, it's basically doing everything you possibly can to get out of there with, obviously we know what the scoreline needed to be,” said captain Tim Ream, who lambasted Dest’s “complete lack of respect for guys on the bench, on the field” in postgame remarks to the media.

“When the second goal goes in, I just tried to grab guys, bring everyone in and say right, we need to do more, not do less. We're down to 10, but everybody has to work that much harder. So yeah, it's just keeping guys mentally focused, not getting too down about anything negative, any of the bad stuff that happens, be it a goal, be it a foul, be it whatever it is.”

A learning experience

It’s the second red card of the year for Dest, who was also sent off during the semifinal win over Mexico in the previous edition of CNL in Nevada in June. What was almost as striking as the scale of his meltdown was the strength of the reactions from US soccer legends Julie Foudy and DaMarcus Beasley during TNT’s broadcast.

“I would’ve lost my mind on him. Because it’s just so selfish and unnecessary,” said Foudy. “It cuts deep that he still did it, when he had three players telling him this is a bad decision because it’s going to affect the team. I do think they value that culture and that chemistry so much, that they are so tight – it’s saying that you don’t care about us, because now you’re putting us into the deep end with this.”

Added Beasley: “If it’s me, I’m holding a grudge … this is something that could've hampered their chance to get to Copa América.”

Dest later extended his locker-room contrition to a public mea culpa on his Instagram account, and as the press-conference questions about the 23-year-old’s misdeed stacked up, Berhalter tried to pump the brakes on any public dogpiling that might ensue.

“Serg has done a great job of maturing and growing over the years that he's been with the group. For him, this has to be a learning experience. It will be a learning experience,” said the coach. “You know how we work, we give people second chances, we work with people, we help them overcome instances like this. So we'll do the same with Serg. He’s a talented player, an important part of our team, and we need to have good conversations with him, make sure we get him on the right track.

“What I don't want this to turn into is a witch hunt. You know, he's a young player. He's a fantastic part of this team. He's going to learn, he's going to grow. He made a dumb mistake. He knows that, he apologized to the team, and we move forward.”

Dest will be suspended for the Nations League semifinal, set for Arlington, Texas in March, leaving Berhalter, his staff and perhaps the USMNT’s leadership council to mull whether he’ll be called in at all for that window. But that’s a matter to kick down the road for a ways, perhaps with cooler heads after a few months have passed. Most importantly for the program, another weird trip to the West Indies ended with the key boxes checked.

“We take it,” said Robinson, who scored in both legs, Berhalter admiringly dubbing him “an animal” for his superb overall performances. “At the end of the day we’ve come through to the semifinals of the Nations League, we’re in the Copa América. So it’s still a successful [international] break.”