Sergino Dest's petulance led to a red card that punished his USMNT teammates — now it's time for him to pay the penalty
Do they get the NCAA Tournament on TV in the Netherlands? Or maybe the last thing Sergino Dest needs is more Madness. We’re trying to be kind here, pondering suggestions for what he might do with the free time that definitely should be forced upon him the next time the United States men’s national team gathers for competition. Because he should be nowhere near this squad next spring.
Dest’s preposterous outburst in the second and final game of the CONCACAF Nations League quarterfinal series Monday turned a peaceful stroll through Port of Spain, Trinidad into a marathon swim for the 10 teammates he left behind on the field. He forced them to cope with the possibility of surrendering an otherwise insurmountable lead and, more to the point, scrambling to cover the enormous vacancy he’d left in their lineup because he couldn’t be bothered to control his temper.
“Overall, it’s a complete lack of respect, for the guys that are playing, for the guys that are on the bench,” defender and captain Tim Ream told reporters. “There’s a feeling of a lack of respect for the game itself and for the referees. We knew — we talk a lot every time we come down here, every time you’re in a CONCACAF game, that anything can happen, so not to give an excuse for anything like that to happen.”
The USMNT still advanced to the Nations League semis March 21 — and qualified for next summer’s Copa America tournament — with a defeat of Trinidad & Tobago by a 4-2 aggregate score. Because he received a red card in this game, Dest automatically is suspended for that semifinal. He would be available for the final, were the U.S. to advance, but Berhalter should leave Dest back with his club in the Netherlands, PSV Eindhoven, as a clear message the consequences of such petulant behavior cannot be endured by his teammates and coaches.
“It is concerning, because that’s not what we want to represent. It’s not who we are as a group,” Berhalter told reporters afterward. “We pride ourselves on staying mentally disciplined, battling through any type of conditions. Whether they’re good decisions or bad decisions, we’re supposed to keep going and respond in an appropriate way. That obviously wasn’t the right response from Sergino.
“He apologized to the group. He said it’s not going to happen again. As a team – the players and staff – we need to hold him accountable. Because it’s inexcusable. It really is. And we’re very firm with our words after the game. He put a number of guys in jeopardy, made a number of guys do a lot of extra work in this weather. It’s inexcusable.”
In the moment, it was. In the future, it will be forgiven. That is how this USMNT has operated. This was not the first time Berhalter dealt with obvious player discipline issues on a team whose overabundant youth becomes problematic far more often in behavioral matters than strategic ones.
There was Weston McKennie’s team rules violation near the start of the 2021-22 World Cup qualifying process, which led to him being sent back to his club. And there was Gio Reyna’s quiet tantrum in advance of the World Cup, when he reacted to the message he would be open the tournament as a substitute by, according to reports, withdrawing his effort in training and a pre-Cup friendly. Reyna never was publicly suspended, but his absence from the 1-1 draw against Wales that opened Qatar 2022 was informative.
Each player soon was back in the team’s embrace.
“Serg has done a great job of maturing and growing over the years that he’s been with the group,” Berhalter said. “And for him, this has to be a learning experience. It will be a learning experience. You know how we work. We give people second chances. We work with people. We help them overcome instances like this. We’ll do the same with Sergino.”
The most frustrating aspect of Dest’s behavior, for those wearing USMNT colors, was he once again demonstrated his value to the squad with the beautiful cross from near the right sideline that Jedi Robinson was able to drive into the goal. It was Dest’s fifth assist in 32 caps, not bad for a right back.
“There were a lot of choice words at halftime. But at the end of the day, we had to focus on the second half. So we couldn’t focus on that situation at the time,” Ream said. “We had to dig in, with 45 minutes to try to get a result and obviously advance to Nations League and, ultimately, qualify for Copa.
“Yeah, there’s not too many things I can say publicly that we said privately.”
This is Dest’s second red card in a competitive tournament with the national team, though, the previous one occurred in a Nations League semifinal last summer against Mexico. That one was a juvenile episode in which he allowed himself to be baited by Edson Alvarez, who shoved him near the sideline in the 85th minute of a game the USMNT was leading, 3-0. That ignited a brawl that led to Dest being sent off and missing the championship game against Canada.
His place in that final was filled by Joe Scally, the same player subbed in Monday night to finish what Dest had started. And Scally would be a fine choice to get one, maybe two games worth of experience in March, the next international window.
Berhalter would not entertain a question about this possibility, instead turning his discomfort with Dest’s comportment into impatience with the postgame interview process.
“I’ve been asked three, four questions about Sergino already, and what I don’t want this to turn into is a witchhunt,” Berhalter said. “He’s a young player. He’s a fantastic part of the team. He’s going to learn. He’s going to grow. He made a dumb mistake. He knows that. He apologized to the team. And we’ve moved forward.”
After Robinson’s diving header in the 25th minute advanced the USMNT’s aggregate lead to 4-0 – with the added bonus of the away-goal tiebreaker that meant Trinidad and Tobago would need to score five times to advance – there was only one way for them not to reach the semifinals: If someone were to earn a red card, and the team found itself scrambling to defend with 10 men for all the time that remained.
Now, there are red cards that are accidental, red cards that are magnanimous, red cards that are dumb and red cards that are reckless. And then there are reds that are excruciatingly selfish – and that’s what Dest conjured in the 39th minute, a short while after he believed he was fouled near the T&T goal and immediately after he failed to keep a ball in bounds at the opposite end of the field.
Dest received a yellow card for immediately booting the ball well outside the playing surface and toward the stands. He wasn’t satisfied with that. He got the second for haranguing referee Walter Lopez until the referee retrieved the yellow card and waved it a second time, then immediately reached toward his pocket for the red.
“There was no explanation. The best guess that we have is he felt there was a foul down in the attacking half, and maybe felt the ball didn’t go out of play on the ball I played over to him,” Ream told The Sporting News. “But I don’t think either one of those really warrant the reaction that came.”
Dest’s teammates did not react quickly enough, emphatically enough, to extinguish this conflagration. In their defense, it’s one more way in which he put them into a terrible position. Not the worst way, though. With the temperature over 80 degrees and humidity nearly 90 percent even well after sunset, the U.S. players were forced to run and defend in trying conditions against an advantaged side eager to, at the least, add another embarrassment to the one that occurred in October 2017, when T&T denied the Americans qualification for the 2018 World Cup.
“I do like to think the team, we are a pretty forgiving group. We understand we are a young group,” Robinson said. “People can make mistakes, and it’s just a big mistake … The only thing I think Sergino can do is hold himself accountable and, when he’s inevitably called upon again to be a part of this group, he’s got to show — not just with words, say I’m sorry — but with his actions that we can trust him to be someone we can rely on, on and off the pitch, be professional and just show he’s learned from the situation.
“And, also going forward, it’s sort of a good case study for anyone else, if anyone coming into camp — anyone new, anyone current — I feel like if something like that happens again, it’s definitely going to be taken even worse because we’ve seen that before.”