How PSV Eindhoven, with their U.S. contingent, returned to the top of the Eredivisie

EINDHOVEN, Netherlands -- It's Monday, March 4, the morning after PSV's 2-2 draw with Feyenoord, and De Herdgang is quiet.

PSV's training complex on the outskirts of Eindhoven is deep in the heart of the Landgoed de Wielewaal forest. The first team are in for the postmatch debrief; the result meant they maintained their 10-point lead at the top of the Eredivisie. The crisp air is punctuated by the sound of boots pounding the training surface on one of the pitches, while a spray of laughter sporadically emanates from the confines of the building overlooking the first-team pitch.

This is also where U.S. men's internationals Sergiño Dest, Malik Tillman and Ricardo Pepi call home this season. They've landed in the Netherlands from Barcelona, Munich and Augsburg, respectively, with their own goals within this history-making campaign for the unbeaten Eredivisie leaders, who are seeking their first league title since 2017-18.

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On the pitch in front of the main building, a few players -- the unused, or barely used, substitutes from the Feyenoord game -- are going through a rigorous training session. Pepi is among them, doing shuttle runs alongside the others. They're soon joined by the rest of the first-team squad, those who faced second-placed Feyenoord the afternoon previous in front of a sold-out Philips Stadion. Tillman and Dest are among them, going through their drills and contemplating a chance missed for PSV to go 13 points clear with 10 matches left.

Watching is manager Peter Bosz, while director of football Earnest Stewart takes an occasional glance from behind the vast glass windows overlooking the pitch. It's content and peaceful; the sort of feeling you get before a party, waiting for the guests to arrive. In this case, the guest is the 25th league title.

Barring the most monumental bottle job since Gerard Adriaan Heineken got a thirst in 1864, PSV will win the Eredivisie this year. Pepi, Dest and Tillman might all be USMNT internationals, but they came to PSV looking for different things, each on his own journey in this quiet corner of the Netherlands.

Luuk de Jong has 22 league goals and is a big reason why PSV Eindhoven have such a dominant lead atop the Eredivisie. Photo Prestige/Soccrates/Getty Images

PSV have had an incredible year. While they were knocked out of the Dutch Cup at the semifinal stage by Feyenoord, they have dominated the league. They went on a 17-match winning run until a 1-1 draw with Utrecht on Jan. 21 stopped that relentless flood of victories. "It's like you're riding on a wave," Tillman tells ESPN when asked what it feels like to be unbeaten. "It just feels so smooth."

PSV were a tough opponent in the Champions League too, qualifying from Group B behind Arsenal only to bow out in the round of 16 after Wednesday's 1-0 defeat at Borussia Dortmund. "We're focused, you know in everything we do," Dest tells ESPN. "We have a good coach, we are focused and sharp every game, again and again and again."

That "good coach" is Bosz, the experienced Dutch manager who took over from Ruud van Nistelrooy in June and was Stewart's first appointment as PSV's director of football.

Stewart started in his role at PSV last March. His professional career spanned 17 years -- 15 of them in Dutch football -- and he earned 101 USMNT caps in the process. His post-playing career saw him start in the backroom at VVV-Venlo before taking technical director roles at NAC Breda, AZ Alkmaar, Philadelphia Union and then shifting into the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) setup as GM in 2018 and sporting director in 2019. But after five years away, it was time to come home. His departure was announced in January 2023; he took up the PSV role shortly after.

Within a couple of months of taking the job, Stewart had to manage the departure of then-coach Van Nistelrooy, who quit on the eve of their final match last season despite leading the club to the Dutch Cup, citing a lack of management support and amid reports of a player revolt. "I started in March and that gives you a really good runway towards the new season, except the unfortunate piece where Ruud stepped down," Stewart says. "It was a bit turbulent, I can say. But at the same time, the next day you have to go at it again and you have to make sure you correct it."


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Once things calmed, Stewart turned to ex-Bayer Leverkusen, Borussia Dortmund, Ajax and Lyon manager Bosz and they started piecing together what he hoped would be a team capable of challenging for the Eredivisie and also making a Champions League run. Having sanctioned winger Cody Gakpo's move to Liverpool in January 2023, playmaker Noni Madueke's move to Chelsea in January 2024 and midfielder Ibrahim Sangaré's exit for Nottingham Forest for €35m in the summer, Stewart made a handful of astute signings, prioritising creativity and difference-makers in the final third.

The first piece was striker Pepi, who arrived for €11m from Augsburg. Netherlands forward Noa Lang arrived a day later for €12.5m from Club Brugge. PSV also brought in Jerdy Schouten (from Bologna for €12m) and Hirving Lozano for €15m from Napoli alongside loan deals for Tillman from Bayern Munich, Dest from Barcelona and Armel Bella-Kotchap from Southampton.

"I remember these conversations I had with [USMNT head coach] Gregg Berhalter," Stewart says. "If you ever want to become world champion, you have to be able to play through the lines. You have to be able to be dominant, and that fits the thought process that we had here as well. You have to be good on the ball, and bring your game upon the opponent if you ever want to hit those levels of success."

Tillman, left, and Dest are two of the three U.S. players anchoring PSV's season. Yet that's about where the similarities with the trio end, as they're all looking for something different from the experience. Photo Prestige/Soccrates/Getty Images

Dest, Pepi and Tillman came to PSV with the trifecta of wanting game time, continuing their development and winning games. Each arrived at PSV off the back of different seasons with points to prove not only to themselves, but also to previous clubs and those picking the USMNT squads for this summer's Copa America and Olympic tournament.

Of the two loan signings, Tillman arrived first. It was his second loan in as many seasons, following on from a campaign with Rangers in the Scottish Premier League where he experienced the fire and brimstone of the Old Firm derby, one of the highest-octane matches of his young career.

Tillman, 21, grew up in Germany with his older brother Timothy, who's at LAFC. The two cut their teeth at lower division side Greuther Fürth but ended up in Bayern Munich's academy. Tillman's face lights up when reminiscing about training alongside Joshua Kimmich, Thomas Müller and Leon Goretzka. "I learned so much there, from playing on the right foot, playing passing games, possession games, playing against low block and then what's it like to play against a pressing defence. And then yeah, when I stepped into the first team, that winning mentality: wow."

Mentality is a word Tillman frequently references. He remembers one conversation he had with former boss Julian Nagelsmann, who saw a hugely promising No. 10 in Tillman but advised him to learn from Kimmich's approach to a match. "He's a great player, but his mentality is just different," Tillman says. "It's at the highest level and everyone can learn from him."


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They love Tillman at PSV. The day before we talk, Tillman scored a brilliant goal against Feyenoord, collecting the ball off striker Luuk de Jong, jabbing it through the legs of David Hancko, surging it into the heart of the Feyenoord defence and hitting a low shot across Timon Wellenreuther and into the corner. "It was just a natural feeling," Tillman says. Later in the half, he had an effort turned onto the post, but finished up with the man of the match award.

"I think he is absolutely a fantastic footballer," PSV striker Luuk de Jong told ESPN after that match. "He is technical, and he is so strong. He puts his body between [the opposition] and turns away. But you also must pay attention to his defence and how easily he takes the ball off the opposition. He also provides so much energy, so at a certain point you can see that it runs out a bit. And that makes sense because he is a young player. But he is a fantastic player."

Tillman acknowledges he's still learning, but he's proud of his development this season. "I would say my defence has got way better than it was before. And yeah, in general, my fitness level has improved, playing on the ball, playing in between the lines, coming into the box, stuff like that."

"When he first got here, I don't think [Malik] was as confident as he is now," Pepi says. "[Tillman's] a special player," Stewart says. "His development has been fantastic and he's grown as a person. He can be quiet at times, and that was how he was when he came in, but if I see him now downstairs with the group, his personality's really growing and you can see that on the field as well."

Tillman has started 11 matches in the Eredivisie, making nine sub appearances, scoring six goals overall and chipping in with five assists. "I'm still a young player, I would say," Tillman says. "I can improve in everything. I'm just building on my fitness, on my strength and then finishing, finishing outside the box, on my weak foot and also the counter-press when you lose the ball. So just everything."

Dest, 23, has started the most matches out of the trio this season: 20 of PSV's 25 in Eredivisie and seven of PSV's eight in the Champions League. He has known Stewart for years, going back to when Dest was weighing whether to play for the USMNT or the Netherlands when he was at Ajax. Having kept in touch, Stewart planted the seed with Dest of a possible stint at PSV last April, back when Dest was on loan at AC Milan.


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Dest's CV is one most players would envy: he started at Ajax, moved to Barcelona in 2020 for €21m and spent last term on loan at AC Milan. But it hasn't been straightforward. After playing prominently under Ronald Koeman at Barcelona, he fell out of favour with Xavi when he took over. At AC Milan, he featured in the first half of last season but barely played in the second half, often leaving training on his own.

"What have I learned? I mean, mentally, I've made some great steps. It's been difficult, everything that happened to me," Dest tells ESPN. "You know, these things, they hurt me a bit, but I'm not the type of person that's going to say, 'OK, it's done, I'm not playing anymore.' Instead I'm going to work on something. If something ever like that happens again in the future, I know how to handle it. I felt like I handled it well because sometimes, these moments are out of your control. So it's about staying and making sure I get the chance, to improve and show what I can do. But I'm happy I am playing again."

Dest has been playing predominantly at left-back this season and has been an integral part of PSV's system thanks to his ability to link up with Noa Lang and Mexico's Hirving Lozano down that side of the pitch. He feels his left-foot crossing has improved and he is happy with his defensive work.


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"I always try to play the way I want to play, and sometimes coaches give you a lot of instructions and some coaches can give you freedom, you know? And I think that's, that's what I need: freedom and I can play the best."

He says he feels "really important for the team," but when he came to PSV, his goal was simple: "The priority was to play. I needed to get minutes, I needed to show myself again."

He also has been key to the mood and morale around the squad. "He's probably one of the funniest people I know," Pepi says of Dest. "You know, he's always joking around with me and around with some of the other players."

"I remember the first day that he came in toward the end of the window, and we were playing Rangers," Stewart says. "And Peter [Bosz] said, 'Sergino has already said he can play ... is this even possible?' And I said, yes, he is capable of that. Knock on wood, his body is built for high-performance sports and he can just do the most amazing things. He's an offensive full-back, which helps us in the way that we want to play, getting up and down the sideline as he does.

"I think it's important for him to be at a club for a longer period and, and then, you know, make sure he gets better and better and better. And then once he goes to those bigger clubs that he's already been part of, he goes there as a mainstay."

While Dest and Tillman are on loan at PSV, Pepi, 21, signed a permanent deal back in June. It's been a tricky couple of seasons for the striker. In January 2022 he left Dallas for Bundesliga side Augsburg for €16m. He arrived at the club amid a relegation scrap, and while he made 16 appearances for the club across the end of the '21-22 season and the start of the '22-23 campaign, he didn't score. At the end of the summer transfer window, Augsburg loaned him to Eredivisie side FC Groningen, where he rediscovered his form with 13 goals in 31 appearances.


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"When you're in a big hole, you always think about ways of getting out that hole," Pepi says. "And sometimes it seems impossible, but you know, at the end of the day, things can only go so bad before they eventually start going well. I've been in situations like that like of course missing out on things like the World Cup, you know? I think I can dig myself out of a pretty big hole.

"I'm a strong person mentally, and anytime that something goes wrong, I know I can always come out of it. I think that's the biggest lesson I've learned myself."

Stewart kept a close eye on him throughout and saw how he managed the heartbreak of not making the USMNT squad for the 2022 World Cup. All the while, Pepi persevered.


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By his own admission, this season hasn't quite panned out as Pepi would have hoped. Have a look at the expected goals (xG) per 90 minute numbers and you'll see Pepi's name leading the way on 1.65. But the 21-year-old has been used as an impact sub this season with his only start in the Eredivisie coming at home to Heracles last month -- out of position on the left wing. His spot on the bench is down to sole striker and club captain Luuk de Jong leading the Eredivisie with 22 goals and 11 assists.

"I wasn't looking for this season to be one of those seasons," Pepi says. "I came into the team to compete and earn a starting spot. I think this is the season where I get to learn. I don't get to start, but I get to come off the bench, I get to score goals, so it's still a positive season so far. But yeah, this is a learning season. I'm still a young player and I'm learning from someone who's a club legend.

"I just look at the way he heads the ball and his movement in the box. And also the way he works as like a buildup player, little details like this that maybe I need to work on, you know? We're different players but there's a lot to learn. But I've always learned that, you know, I got to stay patient. You got to be ready for when your opportunity comes."

Stewart has been impressed by Pepi and retains the belief he will continue developing at the club. "Ricardo's a player that has a certain grit, and he's lethal in the 18-yard box," Stewart says. "It's amazing how well he can strike that ball and for him, his development lies in the playing piece of the way that we want to play. His progression has been fantastic and it's just unfortunate that he's playing with one of the best centre forwards in Europe right now. He's been an outstanding teammate."

Pepi's moment of the season was his late winner at Sevilla in the group stages of the Champions League in November. "It's all about being patient and trusting the process," he says. That 92nd-minute header to earn a 3-2 win in Sevilla was enough to qualify PSV for the knockouts, where the trio made their slice of American history.


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When Pepi came off the bench against Borussia Dortmund in February, Tillman and Dest were already on the field and his introduction meant it was the first time three USMNT players lined up in a Champions League knockout tie at the same time. "It's a good feeling and I think it's an amazing thing for the U.S." Tillman says.

Collectively, they have an appreciation for what they're achieving and they do help each other, but when it comes to drawing parallels between them on account of them all being U.S. internationals, those in and around PSV are reluctant to group them. "They're not a boy band," says one source. "I feel like we all have different paths in our lives and we're in different situations and moments in our careers, of course," Pepi says.

"I don't know if those three have a joint mentality, but at the same time, if you have struggled in life -- no matter what it is -- it makes you think about things a lot more," Stewart says. "I'm pretty sure if there's a connection there, those players have all gone through that in some sort of way, which then helps them in their further career.

"All three are separate individuals, as people and players, and the qualities they bring. But what they share is they have struggled here and there, but that has made them the players they are today."

Stewart hopes both Tillman and Dest stay at PSV for the long term. The club have options on both, but the duo will not be short of suitors. It's a familiar predicament for Dutch clubs: Stewart is already braced for winger/forward Bakayoko to leave the club in the summer, while midfielder Joey Veerman is also a potential transfer target should he continue his impressive season.

"Holland is known for developing talent," Stewart says. "We develop players at our level, and then hopefully they're here for two, three years and then they take the next step because it's also part of the business model that we have here.

"Obviously once you have success, everybody wants to profit from success. So, you know, we're going to try to keep as many players here as possible, but also knowing that there's going to be a player that goes and we just need to be ready for that and have the right player to come in and replace them."

Pepi is playing his part off the PSV bench given De Jong's remarkable form, but he's seeing the dividends of playing for this team after two difficult seasons elsewhere. Broer van den Boom/BSR Agency/Getty Images

Regardless of who comes to Eindhoven, PSV will stick resolutely to their attacking philosophy. "If you do things right [off the field], you should be able to play in a certain style and certain way," Stewart says. "Success is probably becoming a champion every year and playing Champions League every single year, bringing players in that take the next step in their career here and go to even bigger and better things, while ensuring the finances of the club are in a really good position. But our goal first and foremost is we want every seat taken in Philips Stadion, and that people come to the stadium believing their team is going to win."

All of that has contributed to this remarkable, unbeaten season. In the summer, Dest, Tillman and Pepi all want to be part of the USMNT squad competing at Copa America. Berhalter visited PSV in November, and assistant coach B.J. Callaghan was at their draw with Feyenoord. "I think it is good for these three boys to be at PSV," Berhalter told De Telegraaf. "They have each other, they are at a good club and play the Champions League. They are still young and at an age where you are still developing. I'm happy with it. I know that Earnie does not get American players because they are Americans, but because they are the right players."

But before thoughts turn to Copa America, the trio want to get the title sewn up. In a month or so, expect to hear celebrations breaking out in that quiet sanctuary just outside Eindhoven as PSV welcome their 25th Dutch title. "We have scored in every single game, and if we continue until the end of the season and we win or draw, we will write history," Dest says. "We've come so far already, now we just need to finish it. We can only lose to ourselves.

"It'll mean so much to this group because people will remember this team forever."


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