COLUMBUS, Ohio – A spectator at a men’s soccer game in the United States might have a reasonably good time just staring at Sergiño Dest as he busies himself playing back.
20-year-old Dest’s performance of simple acts on a soccer field – running, trapping a ball, fiddling with it at his feet, pointing it at his teammates – exudes style. He has a bottomless toolbox of stuff. He has the ball control of a puppeteer – and sometimes he has crazy ideas about what to do with it.
For all his skills, the question about Dest – raised by the coaches of the national team and his club, Barcelona – was whether he could pull all of these gifts and tools together and express them in a coherent way as efficient performance, if he could avoid mental failures. and maintain his focus on the pitch, if he could change the game on his own.
For an extremely entertaining night, Dest did just that, scoring a brilliant equalizer, coldly creating the winner and generally delighting the crowd to help the United States secure a 2-1 victory over Costa Rica in a qualification for the World Cup. Wednesday night in Columbus, Ohio.
After being substituted in the second half, Dest made one last enchanting move: stepping out of the pitch at the distant touchline, he took his time walking around the perimeter of the playing area, waving his arms to annoy the team. crowd as play continued behind him. . When he got to the sideline near the benches he greeted all the fans he could and a few security guards, with a huge smile on his face.
Fans spoiled him all along with loud cheers.
The welcoming surroundings and a sold-out crowd of 20,165 seemed to invigorate the entire United States squad, which was looking to bounce back from a lackluster 1-0 loss in Panama on Sunday.
The team has come to view Columbus as something of an unofficial national home because of the reliable and large crowds it tends to draw here, and because it has been the site of a model of positive results: of 10 previous World Cup qualifiers in Columbus since 2000, the United States had won seven on Wednesday.
The fans – their voices amplified in the stadium by a comfortable seating arrangement and a partial roof – were always working through a “USA!” »Theatrical and slow. vocals, timed every game for the opening whistle, when Costa Rica took a stunning lead.
Flying towards the American goal in the first minute, Costa Rican defenseman Keysher Fuller leapt into the air to strike a cross with his right foot. Although contact was not clear, the ball jumped erratically from the grass, through a small crowd, and into the net in front of USA goalkeeper Zack Steffen, who had remained frozen on the line due to the creeping threat of Costa Rican striker Jonathan Moya in the box. Steffen immediately ran to the sidelines to claim Moya was offside, but it appeared that Dest, who had been shot from across the baseline away from the game, had kept the Costa Rican forwards in play.
Dest would redeem himself in spectacular fashion in the 25th minute. Receiving the ball on the right wing, he dribbled menacingly towards the box, stroking the ball with his right foot, before quickly cutting it to his left and launching a shot with his weaker foot in the upper left corner. of the goal. The flight of the ball into the net set off an eruption of noise from the home crowd and sent Dest sprinting to the sidelines, where he was mobbed by teammates and coaches.
As much as the goal itself, Gregg Berhalter, the American coach, might have been delighted with the build-up of it, a sweeping 13-pass move involving nine American players who started in midfield, came back to Steffen in the goal, charged the left side of the field and finished on the right. Before Dest’s shot, the United States had gone 428 minutes without a goal in the first half.
A few days ago, Berhalter joked with reporters that they were probably tired of hearing him use the word “verticality,” a reference to a tactical concept of a straight-up approach that he had repeatedly invoked during of a series of press conferences.
Imagine how many times the players had heard it. The United States has looked lackluster on offense at times over the past two months, but the concept seemed to resonate on Wednesday night. Dest’s goal highlighted one of the best halves of Americans’ offensive play in recent memory, one that featured all the offensive tenets Berhalter had preached, publicly and behind closed doors, for weeks: persistent and determined movement without ball, quick rallies, a general sense of urgency pushing towards and behind an opponent’s backline.
The goal of the green light came in the 66th minute. Bad play from a Costa Rican defender left the ball bouncing at the feet of Dest, who retrieved it, looked up at his surroundings and grazed a perfectly weighted pass in the path of Timothy Weah, who circled him. to the goal.
The game was later ruled as an own own goal by Costa Rica goalkeeper Leonel Moreira, but Weah celebrated it as his own, sprinting to kiss a pocket of fans in the corner.
Dest joined him there, getting his head patted by fans, reveling in a performance where he used all his tantalizing skills to devastating use.