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An American in El Clásico

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 10/23/2020 Steven Goff
a man with a football ball on a field: Barcelona's Sergiño Dest, left, challenges Ferencvaros's Robert Mak during UEFA Champions League match this week at Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona. (Lluis Gene/AFP via Getty Images) © Lluis Gene/AFP/Getty Images Barcelona's Sergiño Dest, left, challenges Ferencvaros's Robert Mak during UEFA Champions League match this week at Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona. (Lluis Gene/AFP via Getty Images)

FC Barcelona and Real Madrid on Saturday will renew a torrid rivalry that, for more than a century, has entranced the soccer world with 90-minute blockbusters.

The biannual brawl known as El Clásico has always been devoid of a U.S. connection, though, with players of grand skill from Spain and the expanse of Europe, from Latin America and Africa. Americans were bystanders.

This weekend, however, the dynamic changes. For the first time since the inaugural clash at a horse track in Madrid in 1902, a U.S. national team player could take part, if not as a starter then as a possible substitute.

His name is Sergiño Dest. He will turn 20 on Election Day. He is a Barcelona defender who can play on either flank.

With an American father and Dutch mother, Dest was born and raised in the Netherlands, where he also trained, but has represented the United States in international soccer since he was 16.

“It’s the best game you can play in this sport, you know?” Dest said before the first El Clásico of the 2020-21 season, which will kick off at 10 a.m. Eastern at Barcelona’s Camp Nou stadium. “It will be a great experience.”

Dest joined Barcelona this month after just one full season with Dutch power Ajax, a $25 million transfer that, among U.S. players, ranks behind only Christian Pulisic’s $73 million jump last year to Chelsea from Borussia Dortmund of the German Bundesliga.

The other club bidding for Dest? European champion Bayern Munich.

With veteran Jordi Alba nursing a hamstring injury, Dest could start at left back against Real Madrid. He might replace Sergi Roberto on the right side or await a second-half role.

Dest said joining a star-splashed team for the purpose of improving as a player was like immersing in a culture in order to master a language.

“I can learn a lot from those players,” he said. “If you are in Spain, it’s easier to learn Spanish. So I feel like if I am with the best players, it’s easier to develop myself.”

Dest’s move comes amid a rise of young U.S. players at first-flight clubs throughout Europe. There is Weston McKennie (Juventus), Giovanni Reyna (Borussia Dortmund) and Chris Richards (Bayern Munich). There is also Tyler Adams (RB Leipzig), Josh Sargent (Werder Bremen), Tim Weah (Lille) and Antonee Robinson (Fulham).

U.S. men’s soccer is welcoming a golden generation. It’s already making an impact overseas.

Dest isn’t the first American in the Barcelona mix. Miami native Konrad de la Fuente, 19, has played for the club’s second squad for two years and has received first-team call-ups but no playing time yet (except in friendlies).

The promising U.S. generation, Dest said, is not surprising.

“I saw already in the youth we had a lot of good players,” he said. “Everybody is hungry for the U.S. We want to make the U.S. great. It is just motivation for each of us to keep trying harder.”

a person in a stadium: Sergino Dest. (Handout courtesy of Miguel Ruiz/FC Barcelona) © Miguel Ruiz - Fc Barcelona Handout/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock Sergino Dest. (Handout courtesy of Miguel Ruiz/FC Barcelona)

Those young players will form the core of a national team seeking to qualify for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar and seeking redemption for its conspicuous absence from the 2018 tournament in Russia.

After several cancellations caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. team is aiming to assemble next month for training camp and two friendlies in Britain. World Cup qualifying is not expected to begin until next September, a year later than planned.

Even if he hadn’t moved to Barcelona this fall, Dest was on the fast track for U.S. assignments. He debuted in September 2019 and made three appearances last year.

About a year ago, he contemplated switching allegiances to the Netherlands, but he stuck with the U.S. program, which in 2016 had given him his first international opportunity.

At the time, U.S. under-17 coach John Hackworth was seeking depth on the back line. His assistant, Dutch native Dave van den Bergh, had received a tip from an Ajax contact that, unbeknown to U.S. officials, a Dutch American prospect was eligible for the U.S. roster.

“Dave opened the door,” said Hackworth, now the coach of Louisville City in the second-division USL Championship. Hackworth invited Dest to U.S. residency camp in Bradenton, Fla., for about 10 days.

“He and his family were so appreciative we were going to give him an opportunity,” Hackworth said of Dest, who, until 2014, had never visited the United States. “Once he came into the team and saw our culture, he was pretty steadfast and loyal to say, ‘This is my team.’ ”

By summer 2017, Dest was fully engaged with the U.S. squad, using his summer break from Ajax’s youth setup to begin preparations for the U-17 World Cup that fall in India.

On a squad featuring, among others, Sargent and Weah, the United States reached the quarterfinals.

“I was fortunate to be around him and be able to coach him,” Hackworth said of Dest. “To watch him go on and have success, I am like a proud parent. I am not his parent at all, but I knew him when, and it’s fantastic to see him continue to develop.”

The jump to Barcelona from Ajax — a program that churns out young talent and typically sells it to big clubs for handsome fees — came quicker than expected. He began in the youth system at age 11 and played just 18 matches for Ajax’s second-division team in 2018-19 before gaining promotion to the first unit.

“A lot of people say I could have used one more year to develop myself, but I like challenges,” Dest said. “I feel like if I am going to this club, I have to — and I will — develop.”

Barcelona Manager Ronald Koeman has helped ease Dest’s transition; he also has Dutch roots and played for both Ajax and Barcelona.

An American at Barcelona will help boost the league’s profile in the United States, said Boris Gartner, chief executive of La Liga North America, a business and marketing venture.

“It’s a big deal,” he said. “What we’ve been trying to do is always find connection points between La Liga and American fans, both die-hard fans and casual fans.”

While many U.S. men’s players are in England and Germany, few have landed in Spain. Currently, Dest, de la Fuente and Shaq Moore (second-division Tenerife) are the only ones. La Liga matches are televised in the United States on beIN Sports, which lacks the reach of other sports networks.

El Clásico, Gartner said, “is our Super Bowl.”

“We want to always talk about it,” he said. “It’s the moment where we can showcase La Liga. And now we can tell it with an American dream.”

As Dest aims to solidify his place with Barcelona, he also carries the flag for U.S. soccer in La Liga. Fair or not, how he performs will reflect on the country he represents.

“I don’t feel pressure in a bad way. I feel pressure in a good way,” he said. “I am the first American to be in the selection of Barcelona, so I am really proud of that. I don’t only want to be the first one; I want to be the first one that actually does something great for this club, you know? I want to achieve big things.”

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