Sunday, June 23, 2024
Sport News

Dest, Tillman and Pepi: The American trio aiming to become ‘invincible’ at PSV

They are the American trio playing their part in what could become one of European football’s most memorable campaigns.

PSV Eindhoven want to emulate Arsenal’s Invincibles and the 2011-12 Juventus team by going a whole domestic season without losing a league match.

They are unbeaten after 22 of PSV’s 34 games in the Netherlands’ Eredivisie top flight, which they lead by 10 points. Peter Bosz’s side also face Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League round of 16, with the first leg at home tonight (Tuesday).

In Sergino Dest, Malik Tillman and Ricardo Pepi, PSV have three bright young talents who have also captured the imagination of USMNT fans in a year when the Copa America will take place on home soil, a warm-up of sorts before the 2026 World Cup being co-hosted with Canada and Mexico.

The Athletic visited the Netherlands to speak to them…


It’s carnival time in Eindhoven; everyone dons fancy dress, from dinosaurs to hippies to fairies and even the odd PSV kit, then gathers together.

The city’s football team won again and there is an understandably upbeat atmosphere around their impressive training ground on its rural outskirts.

At 23 years old, Dest is the elder statesman of the club’s USMNT contingent (Tillman and Pepi are both 21). The defender is enjoying being a mainstay of the team following two difficult seasons at his Spanish parent club Barcelona — who he joined for €21million ($22.5m) from Amsterdam’s Ajax in October 2020 — and then Italy’s AC Milan on loan.

His contract at Camp Nou runs until 2025 but in the summer he was offered the chance to return to the Netherlands.

He has started all but three of PSV’s league games this season (he missed one through injury and for the other two he was on the bench), scoring one memorable goal and contributing four assists, while at the same time helping the team into the knockout rounds of the Champions League.

For Dest, a large part of his comfort in Eindhoven is based around something he has perhaps lacked in recent years — honesty.


Dest is thriving after a couple of tough seasons (Broer van den Boom/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

It is a theme he keeps returning to in conversation as he recovers following yet another victory just before The Athletic’s visit, a 5-1 away trouncing of Volendam which kept PSV’s formidable run going.

“That’s what makes this club so special; you can have normal conversations with people and they’re upfront, even if sometimes you don’t like to hear some things,” Dest says. “They respect you and treat you well, and for me that’s very important. If people respect you, you will feel better and play better. The same goes the other way round.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Xavi’s Barcelona resignation: The full story behind his decision to step down in June

“The coach (Bosz) is usually very calm with us and he’s confident in us. Even if we have a game where we don’t play as well as we can, he still believes in us. We have a lot of quality and we are always able to turn things around. That’s important.”

PSV won once again on Friday, in their most recent match, beating visitors Heracles 2-0, but Dest says it’s important nobody allows themselves to believe the title and that undefeated tag are already in the bag.

Ajax’s 1994-95 team went an entire Eredivisie season unbeaten, winning 27 times and drawing seven under Louis van Gaal, and also won the Champions League that year. This term, PSV have won 20 league matches and drawn the other two, and although the odds are long that they can replicate Ajax’s European glory, they want to make Dutch top-flight history.

“We can’t enjoy it fully yet,” says Dest. “We have to concentrate. We’re confident we’re going to be champions but… there is still a lot that can change. We want to break records and if you want to do that you have to stay focused.”

The challenge for Bosz is to keep his players’ eyes on the prize, while also ensuring young talents such as Tillman and Pepi can flourish despite not being starting regulars. Up front, club icon Luuk de Jong has retired from international duty to dedicate himself to his domestic dreams in his second spell at PSV, with the 33-year-old scoring 19 goals and assisting eight more in the 22 league games. In midfield, various talents jostle to play behind him.

Dest is a strong personality — not one to follow the herd. He is unsure if he would ever want the job of leading a club from the technical area, though.

“I don’t think I’ll ever want to be a coach,” he says. “Maybe I would like to be one of the assistants. Perhaps the technical skills coach or whatever. I’d maybe consider that one day, but as for head coach? No, I don’t think so. I like to be a little bit in the background, not talking all the time and explaining myself.”

In 2022, Dest’s father Kenneth explained to The Athletic how not being front and centre is nothing new for his son.

“They (his schoolteachers) always noticed that whenever the students had to do things together, he always was outside the circle a bit, observing the people, not really in the middle of it,” said Kenneth Dest. “That was his nature, seeing what type of individuals they were; not always jumping in, a bit quiet.”

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

‘He’s different’: How Sergiño Dest’s upbringing in the Netherlands led him to the USMNT

Dest was also attracted when this potential move to the Philips Stadium came up by the presence at the club of Earnie Stewart as technical director. The 54-year-old was formerly sporting director at the United States Soccer Federation, where he played a part in nurturing Dest’s progress to the senior team; and like the defender, he was born here in the Netherlands and played for USMNT.

“We have always had a really nice and honest connection,” says Dest of Stewart. “I don’t see him every day but he’s always there for me. I feel comfortable around him. But I’m also not that person that, if I know someone, I’ll take advantage. Again, I like to be in the background and just observe.

“I can rely on myself. Even if the coach was my dad, I wouldn’t do it.”

Dest may be of the media-schooled generation but he is comfortable speaking his mind.

Take this summer’s Copa America. He knows the easy soundbite would be to say he is thrilled for the competition — effectively the South American federation’s championship, like the Euros or Africa Cup of Nations, but with some invited guest nations involved too — to take place on home soil, and that the USMNT can go all the way. Likewise at the World Cup in 2026.

“We are a young team, and when we went to the 2022 World Cup we were on an upward curve but we also had some setbacks,” explains Dest, who started all four of his country’s games in Qatar, and assisted Christian Pulisic’s goal in the 1-0 win over Iran.

“The line isn’t always rising though, it can go down. We need to get back to our shape now, get back together. At this moment I think if we were to play the World Cup tomorrow, we would not be ready.”

Will this summer, then, provide a better indication of the USMNT’s ability to challenge for major honours?

“Yes. The Copa can have a great effect and we will also see where we stand, but even that is (four) months from now,” Dest says. “In that time, a lot can still happen.

“The warm-up game against Colombia (in June, two weeks before the tournament) will be amazing. A great opponent we can test ourselves against.

“I would love to have had it (Copa America) in South America. The future is the most important in my opinion, over money and everything, so I’m kind of disappointed in some ways that it’s not in one of those nations. That’s where it started and where it should be.

“It’s like you’re playing the Euros in Africa. It doesn’t make sense to me. But nowadays everything is about the money. I’d love to have seen it in Brazil or Colombia and seen that passion for football. It should be a culture thing; for the fans it is, but for others it’s business, unfortunately.”

SERGINO-DEST


Dest says USMNT are not yet ready for the World Cup (Doug Zimmerman/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

If that sounds like Dest is not desperate to be part of the action in the summer, he is. He remains in love with football; which is why being ostracised at Milan hurt. It may also have deepened his determination to succeed.

“I was doing double sessions, extra work on the training ground and then I had personal trainers outside,” he explains. “I was working on my passes, fitness and strength. I had the time to do it and do it without factoring in getting sore after games and that recovery.

“It was even looking at my diet. Obviously, if you don’t play that much, you still burn a lot (of energy) in training but I cut down my carbs. I didn’t feel the need for them to be as high. After a couple of days it was hard, but I got used to it.”


If Dest is one of PSV’s main men, sitting in the canteen at De Herdgang, the club’s training ground, are two of the club’s young contenders.

Tillman and Pepi are fresh from a post-training strength and conditioning session in the gym, and ready to unwind after a busy 24 hours. The previous evening, they made their usual impact from the bench as PSV swept aside Volendam. Pepi had only been on the field for two minutes when he confidently scored their fourth goal, and Tillman created two chances during his 18-minute cameo.

They are two of the USMNT’s most exciting young talents, and featuring in this all-conquering club side is providing them a platform to show their ability — even if a little patience is required.

Pepi’s five league goals have all come as a substitute, though he was in the starting XI against Heracles on Friday. That has given him one of the division’s best goals per 90 minutes figures (1.34, albeit having not played a lot compared to regular starters).


Tillman has been on the fringes of the PSV team (Broer van den Boom/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

Tillman and Pepi both arrived at PSV last summer. Striker Pepi, formerly of FC Dallas in MLS, arrived in a €9million ($9.8m) July deal from German top-flight club Augsburg; Tillman joined on loan from Bayern Munich the following month, after spending the previous season on loan at Glasgow side Rangers in Scotland.

El Paso, Texas-born Pepi would probably walk into most other teams in the Eredivisie, but at PSV he faces the task of getting into the game ahead of De Jong.

Tillman, who has started eight league matches and come on as a substitute in the same number this season, must edge out either experienced central midfielder Jerdy Schouten or explosive Belgium international winger Johan Bakayoko (who has eight assists). Such is the way at a team competing for glory on multiple fronts.

But as Pepi sips a coffee across from his friend, it seems neither is letting the lack of starts weigh too heavily on them.

“He hasn’t been sitting on the bench as much as I have but when we do, we normally sit next to each other,” says Pepi. “We’re usually watching the game and talking about stuff. We have a good relationship.

“I knew something about him before I came, but we didn’t have this special connection then.”

Tillman, who was born in the German city of Nuremberg to a German mother and American father, understands enough Dutch to be the pair’s main translator, while Pepi picked some up last season during a spell on loan at Groningen, another Eredivisie team.

The duo, who are tied on five league goals each, have featured in PSV’s Champions League campaign too, with Pepi scoring the header that secured a 3-2 away win against Spain’s Sevilla in November, and with it progress into the knockout stage.

“I was pleased for him because normally this guy can’t head a ball, man,” laughs Tillman.

Pepi pretends to be offended, before they both laugh.

“It was a dream come true,” he says. “I remember leaving school to watch these games (in the Champions League, which kick off during weekday afternoons in the States because of the time difference to Europe) as a kid, so to actually score in one was indescribable. It was more about scoring in such an important game that we had to win.

“I’ve watched it back. It’s a thing where, in the moment, you don’t really focus on it because you’ve got so much adrenaline, but it hits later.”

Pepi, though, is no stranger to performing when it matters.

On his USMNT senior debut in September 2021, he scored and provided an assist to help beat Honduras 4-1 and lift the side’s World Cup qualification hopes.

His knack for getting on target when it counts has produced rave reviews since his days in MLS and explains his Spanish-language nickname, ‘El tren’. “When I broke through at Dallas I scored a few goals and people started talking about a hype-train,” he explains. “So in Spanish it was, ‘El tren’.”

Tillman has also been talked up a lot since joining Bayern in 2015 along with his brother Timothy (who now plays for LAFC in MLS).

Last season, he scored 10 goals (with four assists) for Rangers, and experienced a whole new level of intensity via their Old Firm derby games.


Pepi tackles Jetro Willems of Heracles (Broer van den Boom/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

“Wow,” he says reflecting on those games against fellow Glasgow side Celtic. “A lot of tension. Unfortunately, we didn’t win any of them while I was there, but it was a good experience.

“After the first game against Celtic, I remember we weren’t allowed any away fans any more in the stadium, so it was just the whole stadium against you. If you score, nobody is going to cheer. It was crazy… completely different.

“Here, we have a big rivalry with Feyenoord (the reigning champions, from Rotterdam). In Glasgow, it’s more the stuff around other things like religion when the fans fight and go a bit crazy.”

Pepi picks up the theme. “When it comes to Feyenoord here, you can feel that every duel you make on the pitch is way more intense,” he says. “It’s kind of fierce.”

Both players stand at over 6ft (183cm). Tillman is quieter but quick to smile, with Pepi more confident in conversation.

Both are likeable and club staff speak of them in high regard, as does manager Bosz — even if he chose a dose of tough love for Tillman in September when he was dropped from the squad for an away game after missing a morning meeting before the team made the 80-minute drive north to face Almere City.

“I overslept,” he says, still bashful at the memory. “I didn’t make it to the training ground and when I knew I wouldn’t get there in time I called the team manager and told him. At first, he said OK come straight to the hotel but then he called again and said he’s spoken to the coach (Bosz) and I should stay home. So, yeah, I stayed home. I apologised to the team and afterwards I showed I have learned from it.

“I need to show it will never happen again.”

Pepi winces.

“It’s the worst feeling,” he says, as we expand on the topic of being late when you’re in elite sport.

“I guess I can laugh about it now. Or the team can,” adds Tillman. “The worst was coming in the next day and everyone knew what happened and they’re going to look at you. It’s part of it.”

Both understood why Bosz responded how he did. “We’re winning every weekend and want to be champions so we have got to keep each other on our toes,” says Pepi.

They have had to learn from other bumps in the road too. Neither made the U.S. squad for Qatar 2022, with Pepi’s omission a particular surprise.

“Every time I think about it I’m like, ‘It really happened’,” he says of receiving the call from Gregg Berhalter in which the coach explained he wasn’t taking him to the World Cup. “It caught me off-guard. Speaking to my family and my agent at the time, I felt I had a good opportunity to go, so it definitely hurt but I have used that pain as fuel to spur me onto better things.

“I remember calling my agent. I swear, for the first 10 minutes I had to convince him I wasn’t joking with him. It was the same with my father, they were like, ‘OK, are you done playing now?’.

“It was difficult but, in a way, I’m grateful for everything that happened. You’ve just got to turn everything into energy.”

Tillman nods.

“I had a similar experience,” he says. “It was hard, but I feel I’ve also bounced back pretty quickly and became a better player.”

In their downtime, the pair play video games, watch Twitch, and Tillman likes to follow his brother playing for LAFC — especially in September, when they felt the full force of a Lionel Messi-inspired Inter Miami.


Timmy Tillman has faced Messi in MLS (Omar Vega/Getty Images)

“He said you can’t get close to Messi,” says Tillman. “He’s amazing. Even if you get close, he always has an idea or knows what he’s going to do. It’s always a good move.

“For me, he’s the best. I’m not surprised he did well, but I’ve never played MLS.”

To totally switch off from the game, Pepi has another hobby.

“Most of the time I’m just watching Anime,” he says about days off. “I love Naruto. It’s my go-to. I grew up with an uncle and brother who enjoyed it and about three years ago I really got into it.

“Sometimes I will play video games with my friends back home. Most of them go to school (university), so they have some free time in the middle of the day and we get some spare time to play FIFA.”

Both are hoping for fewer days off this summer if their club form can convince Berhalter to pick them in his Copa America squad. The USMNT’s recent experiments with a traditional No 10 role have encouraged Tillman in particular.

“I’d prefer to play as a real No 10,” he says. “But obviously we also have Gio (Reyna), who is a great player. We have a good squad with strong competition in every area.”

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

What kind of player can Gio Reyna become? It’s time to find out

That includes up front. “We have different profiles of strikers,” says Pepi. “We have (Folarin) Balogun for starters, who is very good, a strong runner, and then maybe I’m more of a physical profile.”

Pepi already has 22 call-ups under his belt. Tillman is eager to build on his eight.

“It’s going to be good for the U.S. if we do well, it’ll put a different eye on us,” Tillman says. “Then we’re going to see what the future brings. I think we have a lot of potential and we can do great things but the same as here we have to do our best first of all.”

Both know they can turn to Dest for advice on how to become USMNT regulars. So what do they make of their star full-back?

“He is crazy in some ways,” says Tillman, laughing. “Well maybe not crazy but different from other guys. For example, the red card after Trinidad (in November’s CONCACAF Nations League defeat). He’s not like that at all off the pitch. He’s a good guy. He’s calm.”

Pepi sees elements of both of them in their more experienced team-mate. “I’d say he’s a mixture of both of us,” he says. “He can be very chill and sometimes he comes in and he’s really serious and doing his own thing. Other days, he’ll clown about a little. It just depends on what side of the bed he wakes up. He’s a mix. A good guy.”

And what about each other?

Pepi goes first, with a comprehensive verdict on his friend. “I knew he was a good player before he came here,” he says. “But just watching him on the pitch; some of the turns he makes and how aware he is of players around him, his technique, it’s great. He’s great in between the lines and can really give that final ball. Some of the moves he makes it’s like, ‘Woah, I didn’t see that coming’.”

Tillman warms to the task, with a twinkle in his eyes. “Amazing finishing,” he starts, then giggles. “Brilliant heading… No, if you watch training, you would see his heading. Sometimes it’s a bit off but he switches it on in games…”

At this, the big striker interrupts. “That’s true, but that’s where it counts!”

“I would say he’s a good player to combine with,” continues Tillman. “I like linking up on the pitch. He makes good runs in behind and he’s really strong off the ball in terms of pressing. He’s quick too.

“I think he’s a really good striker with loads of potential.”

Potential is one quality both possess in abundance: the No 10 and the striker combining well in the Netherlands with their sights set on doing the same back home in a few months on the big stage.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

USMNT goalkeeper tiers: Who is in the picture for Copa America and the Olympics

(Top photos: Getty Images; design: Daniel Goldfarb)


Leave a Response