DOHA, Qatar -- The United States are set to square off against Netherlands on Saturday in a World Cup round-of-16 match, and while it's an occasion that will be special for all involved, for defender Sergino Dest, it will carry extra significance.
Dest was born in the Dutch town of Almere, about 12 miles east of Amsterdam. He came through the famed Ajax academy and turned professional there. But thanks to his American father, Kenneth, Dest has played his international soccer with the US, so when the two sides line up on Saturday, he'll see plenty of familiar faces.
"I know almost every single guy over there," Dest said through a team spokesperson following Tuesday's 1-0 win over Iran that secured the US's passage into the knockout rounds. "Yeah, it's going to be fun of course. I was born there, I speak the language, I know all these guys. They want to go through, but we have the same dream. It's going to be a fight again."
Dest featured prominently against Iran. The Group B standings heading into the final round of games meant the US had to win to advance, while Iran required only a draw. As such, Iran were content to sit back and soak up pressure and try to strike through counterattacks. And for the first 35 minutes or so of Tuesday's match, the US were banging their collective heads against Team Melli's defense. The approach work was fine, but then the US seemed content to play it safe. It was going to take something a bit special to break Iran down.
That's where Dest came in. The US right-back began taking initiative, creating havoc in the 17th minute with a low cross that goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand could only push away, and later with a dynamic run that ended with his shot getting blocked. But the pathway to goal had been established, and it was with the help of Dest that the breakthrough finally occurred in the 38th minute. Weston McKennie's lofted pass out to Dest was headed across goal by the defender, allowing Christian Pulisic to knife in and finish from close range.
The US had to do more defending in the second half, and endured tense moments, but a collective effort allowed them to see the game out and clinch a massive victory that sealed the second spot in Group B.
"I'm really proud of the guys," Dest said. "The way we played all the three games, we really fought for each other. We have a brotherhood. Iran was pressing us a little bit in the second half, but we got the job done. We are happy. We can relax now."
That Dest was involved in the goal isn't a surprise. His attacking instincts have long been his greatest asset. And he's shown a knack for popping up for big plays in important games, such as his goal against Costa Rica in a World Cup qualifier.
But heading into the World Cup, there were issues. Dest has logged just 373 minutes for AC Milan in all competitions since being loaned from Barcelona in September. The move came about as Barcelona struggled to balance their books. And in terms of his playing time at Milan, it didn't help that his competition at the position, Davide Calabria, is Milan's captain. Even without the worry about accumulated rust, Dest's defending hasn't always been consistent, with his positioning also a concern. During his Barca days, then-manager Ronald Koeman stressed that Dest would too often switch off in games.
"He needs to be more aggressive, he needs to be more concentrated," Koeman said in February of 2021, following a Champions League encounter with Paris Saint-Germain's Kylian Mbappe. "He had too many periods in the game where he's not 100% focused."
That hasn't been an issue in Qatar. Dest has been impressive on both sides of the ball at this World Cup, including instances when he was isolated against Iran's attackers. It's been noticed by the man with the best seat in the house to judge defenders: US goalkeeper Matt Turner.
"He was unbelievable, free flowing up and down the field," Turner said. "I think what I've noticed the most about Sergino is he always seems to show up defensively in the big moments, and he's tracking runners in the box really, really well."
The same could be said about the entire US defense, which conceded just one goal and none from open play in its three group-stage matches. For US manager Gregg Berhalter, it's been a collective effort, although the backline has excelled. And full-backs Dest and Antonee Robinson have been giving the manager what he wants.
"The full-backs have been doing a good job," Berhalter said. "We want them to be a little bit more offensive today. And we got an assist from [Dest]. So it's a good thing. We need our full-backs to be aggressive, and it was good that they showed that today."
The Dutch have a talented team, finishing atop Group A with seven points, although there is a sense that Louis van Gaal's side haven't hit top gear yet. The same can be said for a US team that scored only twice. But for now, Dest and his teammates can look forward to taking on former Ajax teammates like Frenkie de Jong and Jurrien Timber.
"I can't wait to play the next match because it's going to be a pretty fun one, playing against the country I was born in," he said. "I have full confidence."