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Pushed out of Barca, second choice at Milan; is his international place under threat?

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Three years ago, Sergino Dest opting to represent the United States rather than the Netherlands, where he was born and raised, was nothing short of a coup for Gregg Berhalter & Co. U.S. Soccer’s Chicago headquarters, known colloquially as Soccer House, looked more like a frat house upon Dest’s decision, such were the ensuing celebrations.

Two years ago, he signed for Barcelona. In the process, he joined Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie as poster boys for the U.S. men’s national team, which now had players at three of the biggest clubs in Spain, England and Italy.

Now, though, things are different. He hasn’t started for club or country since April, Barca just finished pushing him out of the club, for tactical reasons as well as financial, sending him on loan to AC Milan, and his role at his new club could be viewed as understudy to the captain.

The national team’s friendlies against Japan and Saudi Arabia mark the first time in months that Dest can expect to be one of the first names on the team sheet. The question, then, has to be asked: Is his place in the Americans’ starting XI in danger?

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All that’s changed around Dest

It isn’t very often that the USMNT can boast a teenager making headlines at one of Europe’s most famous academies, like Ajax, rarer still that one of the national team’s starlets has three of the biggest clubs in the world courting him — in this case, Barca, Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain. The hype in American soccer circles was for real, and Dest didn’t disappoint.

In his debut season at the Camp Nou, a season that began when he was still 19, under the tutelage of then-manager Ronald Koeman, Dest proved himself to be an elite attacking full-back in LaLiga. Then last October, the Dutch coach was sacked, and everything changed.

Opportunities proved more limited under new boss Xavi Hernandez. Dest made 30 league appearances in 2020-21, logging 1,915 minutes. Those numbers fell to 21 games and 1,514 minutes last term.

The American didn’t make the matchday squad in Barca’s first three league games of the 2022-23 season. There were well-documented financial considerations at play in the Catalan capital during the summer transfer window — the club needed to raise €700 million through sales of broadcast rights, merchandising and outgoing transfers, to remain compliant with LaLiga’s spending limits, while its debts had already surpassed €1 billion — but Xavi had been unconvinced by Dest’s play, paving the way for his loan move to Milan.

The now-21-year-old has gone from sitting behind centre-back-turned-right-back Ronald Araujo and midfielder-turned-right-back Sergi Roberto at Barca to being second choice to 25-year-old Rossoneri captain Davide Calabria. Dest has been available to Stefano Pioli’s Milan five times since moving to San Siro; he has yet to start and has three substitute appearances and 90 minutes’ worth of action to his name — 33 of which came at right wing, rather than right-back.

The future that looked so bright three years ago, the momentum behind one of the United States’ most promising prospects, has dimmed and stalled. From the moment he announced that he’d represent the U.S. at senior level, he was considered a lock to start at November’s World Cup in Qatar — and that’s still the likeliest outcome — but in the time since, right-back has become one of the deepest positions in Berhalter’s team.

Three years ago, Reggie Cannon was still untested at the highest level; he’s now a regular with Boavista in Portugal. Joe Scally hadn’t even made his MLS debut yet for New York City FC; now in his second season with Borussia Monchengladbach, he continues to force his way into the starting XI, playing in all but 14 minutes in the club’s first seven Bundesliga games this season — including a draw at Bayern and a dominant win over RB Leipzig. DeAndre Yedlin has returned to the national team from an 18-month exile, Chris Richards has done the occasional moonlighting at full-back at club level despite his promise as an emerging talent in central defense.

Berhalter has his favorites, though, and Dest is certainly among them, but competition for the position is real.

Dest’s quality remains

Let’s revisit Dest’s final season at Barcelona. We’ve established that he was an elite attacking right-back in his first LaLiga campaign, and despite the instability he faced under Xavi, he only improved in that phase of the game in 2021-22.

According to TruMedia, last season Dest averaged per 90 minutes: 3.27 touches in the opponents’ box, 14.45 completed passes into the attacking third, 4.34 one-v-one attempts, 92.4% completed passes and 0.17 expected assists. All of those figures rank in the 90th percentile or better among right-backs in LaLiga.

Not only did he get better going forward, his defending improved markedly — even if that part of his game remained league average. His tackles went up by a third (47th percentile to 67th), his percent of successful tackles went up from 35.6 to 40.5 (24th percentile to 40th), and he went from 5.08 ball recoveries per 90 to 5.53 (37th percentile to 57th).

While Dest’s place in the Milan depth chart looks worrying from a distance, despite the growth of his game, there are positives to take from his situation there.

Pioli’s plan for 2022-23 from the outset had been to rotate Calabria with Alessandro Florenzi. When the latter suffered a hamstring injury that would keep him out until at least February, though, the Rossoneri required the signing of another right-back. Enter Dest. Such an arrangement should ensure that he sees the field on a consistent basis.

The early feedback from Casa Milan is encouraging, too. Part of the U.S. international’s limited usage can be attributed to his lack of match fitness, and sources told ESPN’s Gab Marcotti that the club believes Dest has the tools to develop into a player who can contribute.

Three years ago, few would have predicted that he would be longing for playing time, fending off challenges to his place in the national team from compatriots at clubs of more-modest ambitions. Most would’ve predicted he’d be at a historic club in one of Europe’s Big Five leagues, and he is; the route he’s taken there has just been a little more circuitous than many anticipated.

For a U.S. Soccer organization that’s been waiting five years for this World Cup, patience with Dest’s path is bound to pay off.

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