From the moment he made his full US men’s national team debut in September of 2019, Sergiño Dest’s game-breaking quality on the ball has been obvious.
Nominally a defender, the FC Barcelona man is every bit as eager to express himself and break down opponents as any striker or playmaker, whether working down the left or right flank. In eight caps to date, he’s proven that the exquisite individual skill that led FC Barcelona to pay Ajax a $25 million transfer fee for his services ranks at or near the top of the USMNT’s player pool.
Dest has shown a particular nous for combining with his friend Christian Pulisic down the left; the duo were nigh irresistible at times in the 4-1 win over Jamaica in March, including on the sequence capped by Dest’s first USMNT goal.
Alas, Dest’s potential vulnerability to being attacked has also been a feature since his debut, a 3-0 friendly loss to Mexico where Tecatito Corona nutmegged him to cross for the opening goal and Uriel Antuna scored the third on a counterattack into the space he vacated with a run forward.
We saw this again in the comeback loss to Switzerland on Sunday. The host nation spotted the gaps left behind when Dest ranged into the attack and carved out chance after chance as center back John Brooks shifted left to cover and got exposed in all that open field. Breel Embolo alone could’ve bagged a hat trick, underlining the extent to which the 2-1 scoreline of the defeat flattered the Yanks.
Gregg Berhalter has several personnel and tactical decisions to make over the next few days as the USMNT face two of the region’s top sides in the finals of the first edition of the Concacaf Nations League. First Honduras must be dispatched on Thursday night to earn a date with either Costa Rica or Mexico in the championship final on Sunday; otherwise it’s the third-place match at Empower Field at Mile High in Denver.
While we’re waiting to learn of engine-room linchpin Tyler Adams’ status, we can almost guarantee Pulisic will be in the starting XI; it’s about the same for Dest, too. The big question is how Berhalter maximizes the Dutch-American fullback’s tools while limiting his vulnerability, particularly given the other CNL semifinalists’ strengths in transition.
MLS viewers will remember the pace and aggression of Honduran winger Alberth Elis from his time with Houston Dynamo FC, and his talented attacking colleague Anthony Lozano is fresh off helping Cadiz survive their first season back in Spain’s La Liga.
The pros and cons of Dest’s deployment were enough of an issue against Switzerland for a reporter to ask Berhalter postgame if it was time to bring back the three-player backline the USMNT flashed vs. Northern Ireland this year, the idea being to trim down his defensive responsibilities and further liberate his attacking flair.
This could allow Dest and Pulisic more time around one another to unlock defenses, with a stay-at-home defender like Tim Ream behind them for security in a 3-4-3 or 3-5-2 shape. It’s not entirely clear, however, whether this US group is well-suited for making such a marked structural change for a big game after spending most of their time in a press-centric 4-3-3 over the past year or so.
A less dramatic adjustment could see Dest play right back, his preferred position with Barcelona, with Antonee Robinson – an attack-minded personality himself – at left back in the 4-3-3, or Ream used as a more conservative, stay-at-home option. This would probably separate Dest from Pulisic, however, given the Chelsea winger’s apparent comfort along the left channel and the frequent use of Gio Reyna down the right.
No choice like this is made in isolation; as Brooks’ difficult moments in space against the Swiss revealed, every player, skillset and assignment in the XI has a knock-on effect on the teammates around them. If the ferocious Adams is deemed fit enough to shield the backline, for example, Berhalter may feel more comfortable making more adventurous choices along the flanks.
But few other decisions look likely to be as impactful – for better and for worse – on the USMNT’s Nations League hopes as the task of getting the best out of Dest.