It stood to reason that the United States men's national team would have cause to celebrate Monday. With qualification for the Copa America and the Concacaf Nations League all but sealed after a 3-0 home win in Thursday's first leg of its Nations League quarterfinal against Trinidad and Tobago, the second leg figured to be mostly ceremonial.
The desired result did, indeed, come -- the U.S. officially punched both tickets -- but only after a 2-1 loss in Port of Spain in which right-back Sergiño Dest earned one of the more bizarre red cards one will ever see. It was anything but celebratory.
"It's obviously bittersweet because every single game -- similar to the Costa Rica game in the last game of [World Cup] qualifying -- we want to win, and we're aware that our away games in Concacaf are tough," left-back Antonee Robinson said. "We by no means turned up thinking it's going to be easy, taking anything for granted and it stings a bit more because we were comfortable in the game until we go down to 10 men. So, it's disappointing."
Before the game started, Trinidad and Tobago had a decision to make. Did it want to go for the miracle and try to erase the 3-0 deficit to advance? Or did it want to limit the damage and go for a respectable scoreline in front of its home fans? The first option meant abandoning its style from Thursday's first leg in Austin when it sat in a low block -- even before going down to 10 men when Noah Powder was sent off -- and refused to send numbers forward even in the rare moments of transition. Sticking with that approach Monday would have represented a wave of the white flag.
For the first 20 minutes or so, Trinidad and Tobago clearly harbored some hope it could get back into it. The U.S. still dominated possession and controlled everything about the match, but Trinidad and Tobago was willing to take the transition moments when they came to try to steal a goal against the run of play.
With the game a little more open than on Thursday, it was only a matter of time before the U.S. broke through. That came in the 25th minute, when Robinson headed in a cross from Dest. With the away goals rule in place, Robinson's goal should have made the final 65 minutes an exercise in winding down the clock for both teams. Trinidad and Tobago would have needed to outscore the U.S. by five goals the rest of the way to advance, a scenario so implausible the only conceivable way back would be for the U.S. to receive multiple red cards and play a few men down.
Which brings us the embarrassing barrage of immaturity from Dest. Seemingly upset with a call from moments earlier, the PSV Eindhoven player punted a ball into the stands out of frustration. Upon receiving a yellow card he continued jawing with the referee -- covering his mouth to stave off the lip readers -- to pick up a second in quick succession. Based on the reactions from the likes of teammates Giovanni Reyna, Tim Ream, Robinson and Matt Turner, whatever Dest said was completely out of line. Ream, in particular, was visibly irate with Dest, having words with him on the field.
"I think 'words with him' would be putting it nicely, to be completely honest with you," Ream said. "And 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. There's not too many things that I can say here publicly that we said privately."
It was such a blatant sequence of selfishness and lack of basic understanding of the moment that it appeared like Dest was trying to get sent off.
"There was no explanation," Ream added. "The best guess that we have is he thought there was a foul down in the attacking half and then maybe he felt that the ball didn't go out of play on the ball that I played over to him. But I don't think either one of those really warrant the reaction that came."
Reyna, who it was planned would be substituted at halftime, came off for right-back Joe Scally in the 42nd minute, leaving the U.S. with an uncomfortable two-striker, three-midfielder combination in front of a back four. A minute later came an equalizing goal from Trinidad and Tobago and while the goal, nor the one that followed early in the second half, did not have an impact on qualification, the tenor of the game was completely different with the U.S. down a man.
For a team made up almost entirely of Europe-based players, the last thing it needed after traveling thousands of miles was to exert unnecessary energy in a hot, muggy atmosphere in the Caribbean. That's where Ream drilled down further.
"It's a complete lack of respect for the guys that are playing, for the guys that are on the bench, feeling of a lack of respect for the game itself, for the referees," Ream said. "We knew, and we talk about it every time we come down here, every time you're in a Concacaf game that anything can happen.
"It's just a feeling of disrespect, to be completely honest with you. And that's something that, hey, he needs to understand because it completely changes the game, but then it completely changes any type of potential plan of guys coming in and subs off the bench, throws that completely out of whack."
Dest said he was sorry in a post on Instagram following the game, saying, "I want to apologize to my Teammates, Staff, Fans and whole nation for my behaviour it was unacceptable, Selfish and immature I let my team down! It's something I have to learn from and it won't happen again!"
Coach Gregg Berhalter voiced his displeasure, too. He called Dest's action "concerning," "dumb," and "surreal." It's clear he knows Dest needs to be held accountable for his actions, but he stopped short of entertaining the idea he could face additional internal discipline. (Dest will be unavailable for the Nations League semifinal in March through suspension.) If Dest's behavior came from a fringe player, it was the type of thing that could have led to ostracization. But he's not. He is by far the team's best option at right-back and should be a key player at next summer's Copa America and beyond.
"Serg has done a great job of maturing and growing over the years that he's been with the group, and for him, this has to be a learning experience," Berhalter said. "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, so we will do the same with Sergiño.
"He's a talented player, an important part of our team and we need to have good conversations with him to make sure we get him on the right track."
Robinson echoed that sentiment when he said: "I do like to think that the team, we are a pretty forgiving group. We understand that we're a young group. I mean, people can make mistakes, and it's just a big mistake.
"It's not really any excuse -- the only thing I think Sergiño can do is hold his hand up, hold himself accountable. And when he is inevitably called upon again to be a part of this group, he's got to show, not just the word saying sorry, but show with his actions that we can trust him to be someone we can rely on, on and off the pitch, and be professional."
Whether that next involvement comes in March, despite his looming suspension, or June, ahead of Copa America, remains to be seen. Regardless, this was the last thing the team needed to end an already chaotic 2023.