Free to Read: Josh Sargent Picked a Good Time to Heat Up
We're on the ground in Germany with the USMNT.
COLOGNE, Germany — I always like hitting the ground running when I land in Europe, so it was nice to see U.S. striker Josh Sargent with a small group of reporters at the team hotel just after I arrived in town following an overnight flight and train trip up from Frankfurt. Somehow I’ve never been to Cologne before, even though it was a World Cup 2006 host city and is known as the coolest city in Germany other than Berlin. But we’re here now!
Sargent, now 22, went through a rough two years in which he got relegated twice (first at Werder Bremen, then at Norwich City), was moved out from the No. 9 spot to the wing and saw his club production slip enough that he lost his position in the national team. But the red-headed St. Louisan has rebounded so far this season, playing more at center-forward and producing six goals and one assist for Norwich, currently in second place in the Championship.
U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter rewarded Sargent with a recall, where he has joined likely starter Jesús Ferreira and Ricardo Pepi as the No. 9s. (Omitted from the roster, somewhat bewilderingly, was Jordan Pefok, who starts for Bundesliga leader Union Berlin.)
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“I spoke with Gregg [last season], and his point was I wasn't getting many minutes at striker, I was playing on the wing a lot and just wasn't scoring goals,” Sargent said. “So if I wanted to be called back in, I think the biggest thing was to get minutes at striker and start scoring again, which obviously I have been doing so far this season.”
With Norwich’s usual center-forward, Teemu Pukki, sidelined, Sargent got the start there against Millwall on August 19 and took full advantage of it, scoring both goals in a 2-0 win. The forward position is so much about confidence, and Sargent admits he had become more unsure of himself. But he also knew the Millwall game presented a big chance.
“In my mind, I wanted to be playing striker, so when I got that opportunity I knew I had to take it,” he said. “And just thinking, you know, do I still have my touch? I don't know. I haven't played there in a while. So it felt amazing to score that first game I got the chance. And then it started just coming back to me, the goal-scoring touch.”
And even though Pukki has returned to his No. 9 spot at Norwich, Sargent feels like his role has changed too. He’s not entirely back on the wing, where he said he doesn’t feel totally comfortable, but rather playing sort of a hybrid role.
“It’s a little bit of a different situation,” he said. “Pukki obviously is a great striker and a legend there. So I think even if I'm playing on the wing now, there's an understanding between me and the coach and the team also that I'll be playing a little bit more as a second striker and tucking more on the inside and not playing kind of a true winger role.”
With Berhalter’s omission of Pefok, there has naturally been a lot of discussion about what exactly Berhalter wants from his center-forwards. And if Pefok is banging in goals atop the Bundesliga, should it even matter if he’s not a perfect fit for Berhalter’s system? So I wanted to ask Sargent what it is that Berhalter is asking from his No. 9s.
“As a striker, you need to be scoring goals, but at the same time I know it's very important for him that our nines can drop down and get on the ball and connect with the team,” Sargent said. “And defensively also with pressing, I think you need to have a high workrate along with the team and have everybody on the same page. You're kind of that front-line beginning of the press. So it's very important for him that you're switched on in regards to that.”
A couple other intriguing things emerged from Sargent’s roundtable session:
• He has put on some muscle since the end of last season. “I don't want to brag or anything,” he said to some laughs. “During my injury at the end of the season in the Prem, I kind of made it a goal for myself and with the athletic department at Norwich that I realize these guys are pretty big and strong in the Prem. So I made it a goal of mine to hit the gym a bit more and try to work on that.”
• Being married and having a young child has been good for him to have some time away from focusing on soccer. “It definitely helps you just shut off and forget about football for a little bit,” he said. “As a single guy, when you come home and you're just stuck in your thoughts, thinking about training or whatever it was, it can benefit you to learn from it. But also it can be damaging for you if you're thinking too much about it. So it helps me out a lot with kind of just unwinding and forgetting about football for a bit.”
Now a World Cup roster spot is there for the taking. “My confidence,” Sargent says, “is at an all-time high at the moment.”
Some really interesting insights into Josh Sargent's development and what is expected of the USMNT's No. 9s. I appreciate that you're on the ground for these, Grant. There's really no substitute for being at matches in person and talking to people face-to-face.
Excellent report. Glad to see that the USMNT has strikers who will force Gregg Berhalter to make some tough decisions for the final roster. Is striker the biggest worry, or is center back?