You’ve probably heard less about Josh Sargent than several other young United States men’s national team players since the squad started undergoing its post-Trinidad & Tobago overhaul. Sargent has six caps and a pair of USMNT goals, but unlike Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie, he hasn’t been installed as a first-choice starter for club or country. Yet.
All signs point to the 18-year-old Sargent being the USMNT’s breakout star over the next year. He looks more polished with each passing month, and he has a set of skills that no American male has ever shown before. He’s much more likely to become his country’s best ever center forward than he is to fail at making an impact with the national team.
But before I go any further, I have to ask myself: should I even be saying this?
American soccer fans have been scarred for life by Freddy Adu, who failed to maximize his potential after becoming the youngest American ever signed to a professional contract at 14 years old. Whenever a young male American player shows exceptional talent, a large contingent of USMNT fans do a strange thing where they warn others not to get too excited because he might never get good. This is a bonkers exercise given that players like Pulisic and McKennie have already proven that they are good enough to play in the Champions League, and thus are definitively Not Freddy Adu.
Still, Sargent by comparison has only played 56 minutes for Werder Bremen in the Bundesliga, so hyping him up as the next big thing is a bit more ... let’s say, emotionally risky. We don’t have a body of hard evidence that Sargent can consistently perform at the top professional level. Getting attached to the idea of him as the USMNT’s star striker for the next decade could end in serious heartbreak for you, the USMNT fan.
I am here to advocate for you doing that anyway, because holy shit y’all, Josh Sargent rules. I invite you to watch a seven-minute and 28-second highlight video to get you excited about him. I understand that is a pretty long time out here on the 2019 Internet, but I respect you, and I swear I wouldn’t present such a thing if I didn’t think it was worthwhile.
There are some nice goals in these clips, but more impressive are the turns and first-touch passes. The USMNT has never had a striker with this kind of brain and touch as a teenager. Hell, they might not have had a grown adult striker this good.
Sargent hails from St. Louis, where he was a dominant player in the Development Academy and on youth national teams before he started his professional career. After a three-year stint with the Under-17 national squad, culminating in a three-goal performance in the U-17 World Cup, he got an early promotion to the Under-20s. Sargent hit the ground running there too, scoring four goals in five games and becoming the youngest American man to score in a U-20 World Cup. He had the opportunity to sign a homegrown deal with Sporting Kansas City, but turned it down to sign for Werder Bremen on his 18th birthday.
And admittedly, there has been a bit of a learning curve for Sargent at Werder. “They’re very strict and when they want it one way, they want it that way,” Sargent told me in October. “You definitely have to come ready for training every day. And the speed of play, of course, is very fast, so you have to be ready for that, too.”
He wasn’t placed in the first team right away, but was instead asked to prove himself with Werder Bremen II, in the fourth division of German soccer. However, it only took him 12 games and just over 1000 minutes — a short time period in which he scored seven goals — to convince the club he was ready for the senior team.
And in four substitute appearances with the big-boy squad, Sargent has scored twice. His equalizer against RB Leipzig was particularly impressive. Sargent got involved in the build-up before arriving late in the box to finish.
That play in particular highlights something Sargent can bring to the USMNT that has been missing for its entire history. Managers have always been forced to choose between two different kinds of limited strikers:
1. Guys who offered up excellent non-scoring skills like work rate, hold-up play, and passing vision, but lacked explosiveness.
2. Strikers who were a threat to score a goal from nothing, but didn’t offer much else to the team.
All of the top strikers in USMNT history have been severely limited in some way. Eric Wynalda busted his ass and had good finishing instincts, but he was squeezing every last goal he could out of limited physical talents and the inadequate technical instruction of his time. Brian McBride, beloved for his toughness and unselfishness, couldn’t create chances for himself against top opposition. Jozy Altidore is maligned by fans for his inability to play without a strike partner, his poor stints in England, and his role in the 2017 USMNT’s collapse, but he is, despite those things, by far the most efficient scoring striker in USMNT history.
The two best scorers that the USMNT has ever had, Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan, weren’t true center forwards. Donovan never played up top on his own, and Dempsey played limited minutes in that role. Both were always utilized out wide or underneath a bigger target man.
Sargent is a different animal than all of these guys. He has the physical ability, work rate, and movement off the ball to play up top on his own, creating chances for others and himself at an equal clip. He has displayed the saucy skills of Dempsey, the hold-up play of McBride, and the poaching instincts of Wynalda in one player.
The big “what if” questions about Sargent are the same we have about every teenager: Can he get a little bit better in all aspects of his game? And, can he adjust to the speed of top level pro soccer? But that’s it. With Altidore (and all of the other top striker prospects to come out of the U.S. youth ranks), coaches were praying he’d develop entire new skillsets as an adult. Sargent is already adequate, at the very least, at everything you look for in a striker.
There’s no precedent for a player like him in the USMNT, which puts more pressure on him than his peers. Who can we even compare him to?
Pulisic will be expected to live up to the production of Donovan, and he’s already better at the club level than Donovan ever was. McKennie will be expected to match or surpass the career of Michael Bradley, and he’s already reached a similar status at club level. Sargent will be a bitter disappointment if he ends up matching the career of McBride or Altidore. To be considered someone who lived up to his potential, Sargent will need to be the best striker to ever play for the United States.
I’m betting on him to pull it off because beyond his skill, Sargent also has the right mentality. He has been deliberate about putting himself in the right situations to develop.
“MLS was definitely an option for me at first,” Sargent told American Soccer Now in 2017. “It would have been nice. Everyone speaks English and it’s only three hours away. But I believe in life you have to do what is hard for you in order to build yourself as a person.”
Sargent also talks about creating chances for other people as much as scoring goals. “I want to score goals for them and create as many chances as I can,” he told me when I asked about his short-term goals with Werder. “It would be an amazing feeling to get a start. But to start contributing to the team, assisting, scoring, would be the best feeling.”
When asked about what skills he brings to the table, he reiterated: “When people watch me and see me play, they know I create chances. When I get to know players and play more and more with them, they see I can contribute assists and score goals.”
Sargent says all of these things in a very serious tone. This is entirely subjective analysis, of course, but he has a different look in his eye and expression in his voice than other young players. While his peers come off as either nervous or excited during their early senior national team call-ups, Sargent comes off as focused and determined.
It seems really obvious that the USMNT’s top striker prospect is the player worth getting most excited about — he’s the one that scores all the goals, after all. But Sargent can be an unprecedented player in the history of the program. And as such, he could be the key to all of the other young stars truly reaching their potentials, too.
And if you feel I’m going too far, stop worrying. I promise you that he isn’t listening, and if someone brings the hype to his attention, he won’t care. He will have zero reaction, then promptly spend the next day trying to get better at soccer.
So yes, it’s OK to get excited about Josh Sargent. You’ve been burnt before, but you shouldn’t distrust your eyes. And you should never let the past ruin your fantasies.