How can the USMNT replace Sergiño Dest at Copa América?

Injuries are a staple of the run-up to any major international tournament. In just about every such competition, be it a World Cup or confederation championship, there seem to be players who end up missing out.

The ripple effects are considerable, too. Fans are denied seeing a favorite player or rising star. Players spend their entire careers preparing for such moments, and to have one snatched away at the last second is especially cruel. The impact is felt within the team as well, as managers try to compensate as best they can by making the needed personnel and tactical adjustments.

The U.S. men’s national team isn’t immune to such blows. Defenders Chris Richards and Miles Robinson were among those who missed out on the 2022 World Cup due to injury. On that occasion, the likes of Tim Ream and Cameron Carter-Vickers stepped in and performed well.

But as the USMNT prepares for this summer’s Copa América, an even bigger blow has hit the squad, that being the ACL tear sustained by right-back Sergiño Dest.

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Dest’s strengths lie more on the attacking side of the ball than in defense. It’s not just the Amsterdam native’s ability to get forward, but what he does once he gets there. He can deliver accurate crosses from the flank, yes, but he also has the ability to cut inside and strike at goal, much like he did in scoring in the home 2022 World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica. His dynamism on the dribble is something opponents have to respect, and that adds an air of unpredictability to the U.S. attack.

His absence leaves U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter with a puzzle to solve heading into the Copa América, which kicks off on June 20. Does he simply swap in another right-back? Does he try to convert a center-back or midfielder to the outside? Or does he really think outside the box and play with three in the back and employ wing-backs? On a recent conference call with reporters, Berhalter added that he will look at all possible solutions in the coming weeks.

“We just wanted the ability in this training camp to have options, to have flexibility,” he said. “Some of it may revolve around a back three, but the first objective is to see how we’re going to fulfill that right-back position because we know that we’re going to be missing Sergiño.”

The like-for-like options are Borussia Monchengladbach defender Joe Scally and Nashville SC‘s Shaq Moore. Scally would appear to be the frontrunner given his Bundesliga experience, where he made 35 league and cup appearances this year, 28 of them starts. He also provides a solid two-way presence.

Reading the tea leaves, Berhalter looks at Moore as more of a defensive specialist, especially when it comes to closing down opposition wingers.

“When we are looking at our matchups this summer, a lot of these wingers are very good one-vs.-one,” Berhalter said. “We think that’s a strength of [Moore’s]; defensive work against good one-vs.-one players, so that’s something just that we took into consideration.”

No two players are exactly alike, of course, and for that reason, both Moore and Scally are taking an approach of giving Dest as much support as they can, but also thinking about what they bring to the field as opposed to what Dest does.

“I’m not trying to replace him. I’m just trying to be the best Shaq that I can be,” Moore told ESPN about possibly filling in for Dest. “I believe in myself and my abilities to be able to perform when called on, and hopefully that’s what I do when I get the opportunity.

“Sometimes when you try to do too much, you can try hard and then nothing really comes of it. I know my abilities, so kind of do my thing, kind of do what I’ve always done that got me to this point. I’m sure that’ll be enough.”

Scally is thinking along similar lines. “I’m just going to play the way I always play,” he said. “Of course we have a different style, [I’m] more of a defensive full-back. … So yeah, it’s just about helping the team with whatever they need.”

Scally has an advantage in that he filled multiple positions along the back line for Gladbach this season, including a spell at left wing-back over the last several weeks of the league campaign.

“Wherever I’m playing, I don’t care, as long as I’m on the field, which has been going good so far,” Scally said.

Converting a center-back or midfielder to right-back has an “In Case of Emergency: Break Glass” feel to it. That was the case in the Concacaf Nations League semifinal against Jamaica when, with the U.S. trailing 1-0 at halftime and in need of some attacking punch, Scally was substituted for Gio Reyna with Weston McKennie moving into what turned out to be a hybrid right-back role, where his duties tilted more in the attacking direction.

Berhalter also mentioned Yunus Musah as an option. It’s an intriguing one, too, given that he spent some time there for AC Milan this season, including an 82-minute stint in a 0-0 draw against Juventus in April; however, that small sample size makes him arguably a suboptimal deputy given he’s less familiar with the role than Scally or Moore. (Also, he’s shown a lot more comfort in midfield for both club and country.)

A more realistic option would involve playing with wing-backs. While Tim Weah didn’t get a ton of playing time with Juventus this season — just 1,381 minutes across all competitions — the time he did get saw him often play as a right wing-back. Given Weah’s ability to contribute offensively, it’s a move that could mitigate the absence of Dest when the USMNT is in possession, and he’s an honest-enough defensive player to be effective in the role. It also gets another attack-minded playmaker into the lineup, and the U.S. boasts three center-backs in Ream, Richards and Robinson who are adept enough on the ball to make the system work.

Berhalter has some time to see which approach might work best. The two upcoming friendlies against Colombia (June 8, FedEx Field) and Brazil (June 12, Camping World Stadium) should allow for some experimentation against top competition. The U.S. figures to have most of the ball in its first two Copa América games against Bolívia and Panama, giving Berhalter a chance to see how much a like-for-like approach with one of Scally or Moore might work.

Either way, someone will need to step up to fill the considerable hole created by Dest’s absence.

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