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Soccer newsletter: Sergiño Dest is living his dream life

Ajax's Sergino Dest during a match against Getafe in February.
(Associated Press)

Hello, and welcome to another edition of the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, The Times’ soccer writer, and we start today in Spain where Sergiño Dest, a Dutch-born American international, is living a fantasy playing alongside Lionel Messi at Barcelona.

“Playing with the best players in the world, it’s something that I dreamed about,” he said. “The best player in the world is here. Messi.

“He speaks Spanish so I can’t really understand it. But for me, it’s awesome. I look up to him. I’ve seen him on TV and now I’m training with him. It’s really exciting.”

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Dest has already started taking Spanish lessons so the language gap will begin closing soon. As for the soccer-talent gap, there may never be another Messi but Dest, at 19, is already good enough to play beside him.

Barcelona won a tug of war with Bayern Munich to acquire Dest, an outside back, on a transfer from Ajax for a price tag that could eventually top $30 million. Three days later, on Oct. 4, he became the first American to play for Barcelona when he came off the bench for the final 15 minutes of a draw with Sevilla.

“I like challenges. I feel like if I’m going to this club, I have to… develop. I will see what I have to improve on the most,” he said. “If you’re in Spain it’s easier to learn Spanish. I feel like if I’m with the best players, it’s easier to develop myself.

”I don’t feel pressure in a bad way. I feel pressure in a good way. I’m the first American to be in the selection of Barcelona so I’m really proud of that. [But] I don’t want to just be the first one. I want to be the first one that actually does something great for this club. I want to achieve big things with this club.”

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The son of a Dutch mother and a Surinamese-American father, Dest was born about 20 miles outside Amsterdam and has lived his whole life in the Netherlands, playing first for Almere City’s academy team and then with Ajax, making his professional debut at 17.

As a result, the move to Barcelona was a big one in every way.

“Overall, I love it,” he said on a teleconference with reporters after training Monday. “It’s a really nice city. It’s a really nice and big club.”

“I knew it was big,” he continued “but I didn’t know it was that big. Everything is so well organized over here. They have so much stuff. The fields are amazing. Ajax is really good club but this is next level, to be honest. It’s just bigger.”

Regardless what he does with Barcelona, Dest may ultimately make his biggest impact with a U.S. national team now busting at the seams with young talent. Dest is one of a record 10 U.S. players eligible for the Champions League. And only two of those 10 – goalkeepers Zack Steffen of Manchester City and Ethan Horvath of Brugge, both 25 – are older than 22.

“It’s not a surprise. I saw in the youth [teams] that we had a lot of good of players,” said Dest, who played with two age-group national teams before making his senior debut 13 months ago. “Everybody is hungry. We want to make the U.S. great. It’s just motivation for each of us to try harder.”

Because of COVID-19, the full national team hasn’t gathered since last November’s Nations League matches, though Dest said the players have continued to meet in weekly WhatsApp chats and in private conversations with coach Gregg Berhalter. A largely European-based roster is expected to come together next month for friendlies with Wales (Nov. 13 in Cardiff) and Australia (Nov. 17 in London).

“We are all looking forward to that camp,” offered Dest, who said the players have heard the growing buzz over the national team’s potential.

“I feel it. Everybody [does]. We have more players that play for big clubs. That’s the reason everybody is so excited,” he said. “We haven’t achieved really big things yet with the U.S. so everybody wants to be the first. That’s why everybody is so motivated to develop themselves. To win the first big trophy for the country.”

However Chelsea midfielder Christian Pulisic, who said he too has gotten caught up in the team’s promise, is urging caution.

“Don’t overhype everyone, which has happened in the past,” he told CBS Sports. “We definitely have a strong team but I want to tell people to be patient. Let our team form a bit.

“We’re a hungry group of young players and we really want to be successful. We’re excited.”

The next competitive game for the U.S. won’t come before June’s resumption of the Nations League. Until then Pulisic and the others will carry the flag into some of the world’s biggest club competitions such as the Champions League or, in Dest’s case, the Oct. 25 El Clásico between Real Madrid and Barcelona.

“The best game you can play in this sport,” he said. “It will be a great experience for me. I’m looking forward to that game.”

Championship pedigrees

In addition to Dest and Pulisic, other Americans eligible to play in the Champions League this season include former Galaxy academy prospect Alex Mendez, now with Jong Ajax, the reserve team for Dest’s former Dutch club; Weston McKennie, with Italy’s Juventus; Konrad de la Fuente, Dest’s former national team roommate and now a teammate at Barcelona; and Borussia Dortmund teenager Gio Reyna, who leads the Bundesliga in assists after three games.

But none of them have gone as far in the tournament as Leipzig’s Tyler Adams, who last summer became just the second American, after DaMarcus Beasley, to appear in a Champions League semifinal when he came on the 64th minute of his team’s loss to Paris Saint-Germain. He scored the deciding goal in the 88th minute of Leipzig’s quarterfinal win over Atlético Madrid.

Was LAFC’s short-handed win a signature moment?

LAFC greatly improved its chances of making the MLS playoffs Sunday with a 3-1 win over the defending league champion Seattle Sounders at an empty Banc of California Stadium. And if Bob Bradley’s team makes a long run once it gets to the postseason, the team will probably point to the Seattle game as the one that changed its fortunes.

That’s because it wasn’t a game LAFC should have won.

The Sounders, leading the Western Conference, had thoroughly outplayed LAFC in the teams’ last two matches. Plus LAFC hadn’t won consecutive games all season, had won just once against a team with a winning record and had already lost as many games at home in 2020 as it lost there in its first two seasons combined.

In a season complicated and confused by a global pandemic – more about which in a moment – LAFC desperately needed to find a way to get back on track. The Seattle win may have been just that.

“This year is about trying to keep everybody around you -- players, staff, family, friends -- going. It’s just the way it works,” coach Bob Bradley said. “We’ve had moments where we felt that we were on the verge of moving things forward. It’s been more inconsistent at times than we’d like. We’ve made some mistakes.

“But to be a really good team, in basic ways, there’s two parts. There’s the football package of everything -- your ideas, your execution, important guys playing really well. And then there’s just something where you’ve got to continue to try to develop a mentality in a group. We’ve been tested more this year and hopefully in some way that’s still helping us.”

The test they got in the Seattle game was arguably the most difficult of the team’s first three season. LAFC, already missing two starters -- including reigning MVP Carlos Vela -- to injury, excused four others – including Diego Rossi, the league’s leading soccer -- for international duty.

Then it lost another two to injury in the first 13 minutes against the Sounders.

That left Bradley to finish out the game with two teenagers, including one who had joined the team just five days earlier, and two other players who had just one MLS start each.

“Great mentality to win a game where, man, there’s so many things that just seem to be going against us,” Bradley said. “Some guys that haven’t played regularly really did an excellent job tonight. An important, really good team win.”

And a really different one too. For much of its brief history, LAFC has relied on Rossi and Vela for much of its offense. With neither on the field Sunday, LAFC got two goals and an assist from Danny Musovki and another score from Francisco Ginella.

Entering Sunday the pair had combined for nine MLS starts and two goals in their careers.

The performance earned Musovki the league’s Player of the Week honors.

When Rossi and Brian Rodríguez return from Uruguay’s World Cup qualifiers, and if Vela is able to come back from knee surgery, Musovki will go back to the bench, taking additional experience and confidence with him. The same goes for 16-year-old academy product Christian Torres, who played his first full half as a professional Sunday. All that could factor big in the playoffs.

In the meantime, LAFC will remain shorthanded. Mark-Anthony Kaye limped off in the sixth minute Sunday with a severe ankle sprain and though X-rays were negative, he is unlikely to play in the team’s next two games in Portland against the Vancouver Whitecaps and Timbers. Andy Najar, who took Kaye’s place, lasted just seven minutes before going off with a hamstring issue. He could miss the rest of the regular season.

Because of an MLS-mandated quarantine, the international players aren’t expected back until Oct. 25 at the earliest.

Missing players aside the rest of the schedule favors LAFC (7-6-3), which plays just one more team, the Timbers, who have a winning record. That could change if LAFC is forced to make up last week’s game at Colorado, which was postponed by a COVID-19 outbreak that saw 13 staff members and five players test positive.

The Rapids currently hold the eighth and final playoff berth in the Western Conference.

Pandemic postponements leave Colorado with a rocky mountain to climb

As for the Galaxy, last weekend was the fifth in a row in which the team didn’t win a game, something that qualifies as good and bad news.

Or great news if you want to compare it to what has happened recently in Colorado.

The Galaxy didn’t win because they didn’t play after their scheduled match in Colorado was also postponed. The postponement was the fourth straight for Colorado, which hasn’t played since Sept. 23. And that situation got a lot worse late Monday when MLS announced the Rapids’ next three games – Oct. 14 at Seattle, Oct. 18 vs Real Salt Lake and Oct. 21 vs. Sporting Kansas City --will also be postponed, leaving Colorado with at least seven matches to make up before the end of the regular season Nov. 8.

That’s the bad news – for the Galaxy and the rest of the league.

There’s little chance the Rapids, who have trained just four times in the last 20 days, will be able to play more than a handful of those games in that time, leaving the league with a series of undesirable options to complete its schedule.

The first would be to push any unplayed games into the gap between the end of the regular season and the start of the playoffs, which could mean pushing the postseason back from its scheduled start on Nov. 20. That would hurt not only Colorado but teams like the Galaxy, Seattle and LAFC who, if they qualified for the playoffs, would have to make-up games at altitude while their postseason opponents are resting.

The second option would be setting the conference standings – and playoff seeding – based on points per game rather than total points. But that option is also problematic. If the season ended today, for example, the Rapids would finish fifth and qualify for the playoffs despite have played four fewer games than four other teams in the conference.

That disparity will only grow with the more games the Rapids miss.

But then forcing Colorado to make up seven games in two weeks wouldn’t be fair either and would probably lead to injury

There is one final poison-pill option MLS is likely to keep in its back pocket for now: The league could simply force Colorado to forfeit any games it is unable to make up. That may ultimately prove the most just option because it punishes the Rapids, the team whose players and staff contracted COVID, but doesn’t put the players’ physical health in danger.

In addition to the recent Colorado matches, COVID-19 infections also forced the postponement of Columbus’ game at Orlando City and Minnesota’s visit to FC Dallas last weekend.

In the short term, however, last weekend’s postponement may prove to be good news for the Galaxy because after last Wednesday’s embarrassing 6-3 loss to Portland, one which extended the team’s losing streak to five games and its unbeaten streak to six, players talked about the need to get back on the practice field to find a solution. The postponement allowed them to do that.

“We’re going to have to train and figure these things out on the field,” defender Daniel Steres said. “I don’t think we are going to drive ourselves crazy but we need to get it right. We can’t waste any time not getting it right anymore.”

One thing they have to figure out is how to not give up six goals. The last-place Galaxy (4-8-3) have allowed that many scores in a game five times in franchise history and David Bingham has been in goal for three of those games, two this year and one in 2018.

“Of course everyone’s head is down a little bit but we’ve got to find a way to claw ourselves out of this hole that we’re in a little bit right now,” veteran midfielder Sacha Kljestan said.

“I don’t think we’re the best team in MLS and I don’t think we’re the worst team in MLS. We’ve got to find a way to get something done and get results. Whatever way possible, however it takes for us, we have to do it. I don’t have all the answers right now. I wish I did.”

Help may come by way of the schedule, which has the Galaxy playing their next three games in Southern California, against San Jose and Vancouver at Dignity Health Sports Park and then against LAFC at Banc of California Stadium.

Wednesday’s match against San Jose will be a good measuring stick since the Galaxy played the Earthquakes twice in the last month, battling them to a scoreless draw and then losing on a late penalty kick. Both games were in San Jose.

Podcast

Don’t miss my weekly podcast on the Corner of the Galaxy site as co-host Josh Guesman and I discuss the Galaxy each Monday. You can listen to the most recent podcast here.

Quotebook

“There is still a ways to go to play for the USA but I am filled with love and eternal gratitude for my family, my teammates, my coaches and trainers and so many others who have been part of my journey. I know there’s still so much work to come to accomplish my goals and dreams. But I lay my head on my pillow tonight for the first time as a U.S. citizen … and soon to be a registered voter.”

Stanford star Catarina Macario, a Brazilian, after securing U.S. citizenship and being called into camp with the U.S. national team

Until next time...

Stay tuned for future newsletters. Subscribe here, and I’ll come right to your inbox. Something else you’d like to see? Email me. Or follow me on Twitter: @kbaxter11.


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