Dest’s red mist gives Berhalter a dilemma
When Gio Reyna, of all players, is the voice of reason urging his teammate to calm down, swallow his frustration and act less petulantly, you know there’s a serious problem.
The immediate impact of Sergiño Dest’s two yellow cards for dissent during Monday’s Concacaf Nations League quarter-final second leg against Trinidad & Tobago was that the momentum shift lurched what was shaping up to be a comfortable night into a 2-1 loss.
The scoreline wasn’t a huge deal since the USMNT held a 3-0 advantage from last Thursday’s first leg in Austin. More consequential is the question of whether head coach Gregg Berhalter can still trust the right back after his second petulant sending-off in five months.
Angry at being denied what he felt was a free kick for a foul moments earlier, Dest launched the ball skywards with the thrust of a SpaceX rocket, for which he was booked, then mouthed off to the referee, Walter López, earning a second yellow and blowing him a kiss. This prompted the rare sight of the US players not rounding on the referee who dished out the red but on the teammate who received it. Defender Tim Ream remonstrated with Dest and goalkeeper Matt Turner pushed him off the field.
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“Baby behavior,” said the former US stalwart DaMarcus Beasley in the studio. He is now a pundit on TNT, which is both a television channel and a description of Dest’s powder-keg temperament. Was this temporary insanity caused by the incessant noise of cowbells rung by fans in the stands of Hasely Crawford Stadium? Or is this who Dest is? A volcano who erupts with his team 4-0 ahead on aggregate?
Dest was also dismissed in June for shoving an opponent in the 85th minute after reacting furiously to some roughhousing on the wing during another advantageous scenario, a 3-0 Nations League win over Mexico. Then, as on Monday, he had provided an assist.
Berhalter took off Reyna and brought on Dest’s understudy, Joe Scally, but T&T promptly equalized and won the game with a 57th-minute humdinger. In the end, the visitors were fortunate to lose by only a one-goal margin.
A sorry situation should limit the damage
A year on from the dispute with Reyna that went nuclear and generated radioactive fallout that lingered for months, Berhalter again finds himself needing to assert his authority over an indisciplined but talented young player. It won’t be as messy this time and the other players have made their opinion of Dest’s conduct very clear. “A moment of unprofessionalism,” left back Antonee Robinson said on TNT.
Berhalter told reporters that Dest “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, and we were very firm with our words after the game.”
The coach added that he did not want a “witch hunt … he’s a fantastic part of this team. He’s going to learn, he’s going to grow. He made a dumb mistake and he knows that. He apologized to the team and we will move forward.”
At least Dest’s mea culpa via Instagram was as wholehearted as his tantrum. He said sorry to the “whole nation”, adding: “Selfish and immature I let my team down! It’s something I have to learn from and it won’t happen again!”
Dest’s attacking gumption sets him apart from Berhalter’s other options at right back. But as word spreads among future opponents that Dest is a fuse waiting to be lit, the head coach will surely keep an even keener eye on 20-year-old Scally’s progress in the Bundesliga in the coming months.
Though he’s been so-so for the US lately, with a poor display at left back against Germany in October, Dest’s splenetic conduct is hard to fathom. He’s 23, with 32 caps, so hardly inexperienced. He’s on loan from Barcelona at PSV Eindhoven in the Netherlands, the country of his birth, playing regularly for a Champions League team that’s won all 12 of their league matches. He’s rarely booked and has picked up only a single yellow card for PSV this season.
The double debate goes on
Sweet and sour, rain and shine, fire and ice, Balogun and Pepi. It was either-or until last week: Folarin Balogun was substituted for Ricardo Pepi in each of his six previous caps. But in the first leg against T&T the forwards played together after Pepi came on in the 66th minute, and they both started upfront on Monday.
With the game inedibly scarred by Dest’s exit it was hard to form any conclusions about whether the pair might forge a profitable partnership in the future. Balogun roamed in search of space slightly behind Pepi, who was more of a conventional target man but didn’t muster a shot in his 65 minutes. More evidence is required.
It does, however, seem clear that Reyna will be integral to Berhalter’s tactics if he decides to forgo a defensive midfielder in order to give the US an attack sharp enough to wound high-caliber tournament opponents. The playmaker, a fire emoji made flesh, scored in the first leg of the quarter-final and impressed again in the second with some adroit passes. And for now, at least, he’s fit. Last Thursday’s match was Reyna’s first full game for club or country since March 2022, after 51 successive appearances where he was either a substitute or substituted.
This was the USMNT’s first return to Trinidad since 2017, when, well, you know. Let’s just say that it also ended 2-1 to the home side and there was also a long-range strike from Alvin Jones, and leave it at that. The next four meetings, all in the US, brought four American victories with a combined margin of 22-0. Last week in Austin the US had 75% of the possession and outshot T&T 26 to one.
Pronounced home advantage in Concacaf competitions is not news, but is it any wonder when the US are such homebodies? This was the US’s 18th game of 2023 and just their second away fixture. (The other was a 7-1 win over Grenada - an island with a population of 125,000 – in March.) Of course, the players often face hostile and unfamiliar environments with their clubs. But a lack of exposure to the tactical and practical challenges posed by road games surely affects the team’s resilience.
Not that it’ll matter greatly in the next few years, with no 2026 World Cup qualifying campaign since the US are automatically included as co-hosts, while next year’s Copa América is also in the US, as is every Gold Cup. And indeed the 2028 Olympic Games.
Coping with the Copa
The 4-2 aggregate victory over T&T means the US have qualified for next summer’s Copa. Tuesday, incidentally, marks exactly twelve months since the US opened their World Cup with a 1-1 draw against Wales. Will the US enter the Copa as a more formidable team than they were in Qatar?
Balogun and an in-form Pepi are certainly upgrades over the strikers the US took to Qatar and a mature and healthy Reyna promises to add an extra creative dimension. Tyler Adams’ long-term injury is a worry but most of Berhalter’s key contributors – Yunus Musah, Weston McKennie, Christian Pulisic, Tim Weah and Robinson – are still performing solidly and logging minutes at their clubs.
All the same, things can change quickly. Only a month ago, Turner returned to England having made a superb save in a 4-0 win over Ghana. Two matches later he was dropped by his club, Nottingham Forest, and he really should have saved Jones’s free kick on Monday.
Though Cameron Carter-Vickers started both legs, Berhalter still appears to be trialling center backs and is – understandably – still picking the venerable Ream, who will be 38 when the 2026 World Cup kicks off. Malik Tillman and Kevin Paredes will get more chances, but they didn’t seize the opportunity to impress against T&T in the absence through injury of Pulisic and Weah, who were clearly missed. On this evidence, Robinson, who scored in both legs and was the impetus for numerous attacks, is indispensable.