The striker went a year between call-ups, but he’s in form at the right time and could wind up leading the line for the U.S. at the World Cup.
AL RAYYAN, Qatar — The door is never completely closed, Gregg Berhalter likes to say.
Rejection is just about that particular roster, and time away from the U.S. national team could always wind up being temporary. Out of sight doesn’t mean out of mind.
Josh Sargent’s absence probably felt more permanent as the months dragged by, as the goals dried up and as Norwich City plummeted toward relegation last spring. He seemed to be very much a part of Berhalter’s immediate plans back in the summer of 2021. Sargent started both the Concacaf Nations League semifinal and final that June and then appeared in each of the three World Cup qualifiers contested three months later. But his dream move to England quickly soured, and the promising St. Louis product soon had little choice but to hope the international door would remain ajar.
“That was obviously a very tough time when I wasn't being called in. I felt like I was doing everything I could,” Sargent said Tuesday. “But as a player, that's all you can really do—is just work as hard as you can at your club, do what you can and it's [Berhalter’s] decision. And so if you're doing everything you can, you don't really have any time to hang your head about anything. I definitely felt like the whole time that there was still a chance to get called in.”
The fact that Sargent was speaking here in Qatar following a pre-World Cup training session at the Thani bin Jassim Stadium is ironclad evidence that there was still a chance. It surely felt slim at times, and it may have been boosted by variables beyond Sargent’s control. But the 22-year-old persevered, which positioned him to benefit from a transfer that started out looking like a poisoned chalice.
Fortunes can fluctuate quickly amid the turbulence of soccer at the highest level, especially for young men trying to find their footing abroad. The roulette wheel spins and then spins again. Sargent was in Berhalter’s favor, then he fell out of it. Shortly after the U.S. secured World Cup qualification in March, the manager discussed his effort to nail down a starting striker. He’d fielded five across 14 qualifiers, and they combined to score just four times. Ricardo Pepi had three goals early in the Octagonal campaign, and Jesús Ferreira connected in the 5-1 demolition of Panama last March.
Berhalter was waiting for someone, anyone, to step up and seize the role.
“The last thing would be just a No. 9, hoping that the No.. 9 gets in good form and continues to push,” he said just before the draw. “Whether that’s Ricardo or Daryl [Dike] or Gyasi [Zardes] or Jordan [Pefok] or Jesús, whoever that may be—or Josh Sargent, even—we’re hoping that one of our 9s gets into good form by the time the World Cup comes around.”
“Or Josh Sargent, even.”
At that point, Sargent was the afterthought. He’d been forced to Norwich’s right wing by a system that left Finland’s Teemu Pukki as the Canaries’ lone frontrunner. Sargent had tallied just four goals since arriving from Werder Bremen in August 2021 (his two Premier League goals came in one game at Watford), and before injuring his ankle in March ‘22. Norwich’s relegation was sealed with four games to go in the Premier League campaign.
“We were in a league that we knew we were going to struggle in,” Sargent said. “It wasn't going to be easy. I was playing right wing the whole season, so it was just kind of keeping my head down and working hard. But it wasn't a season where I really had the opportunity to get [going].”
But the drop, plus the World Cup draw at the end of March, helped set the stage for his international rebirth.
England and Wales landed in the Americans’ group. Among the 52 men on those two World Cup squads, 46 play in the English system. Sargent had spent a year going up against players like those, and he’d have an additional three months experience this fall. None of the other potential U.S. No. 9s had that sort of sustained exposure or opportunity. He’d also be competing in the Championship, where the quality of opposition was lower. The chance to find an attacking groove, and to do it against players similar to those the Americans might see in Qatar, gave Sargent a crack he could climb through.
“Going down a league to the Championship obviously helps. I'm not going to act like that doesn't have anything to do with it. But at the same time, being able to get off to a good start with a couple of goals and get my confidence going, I think my mentality has definitely changed a lot,” he explained.
“Playing against these type of players every three days in the Championship definitely helps give me a little bit of knowledge of how those type of players like to play,” Sargent continued. “It’s a very physical league. The defenders especially—big guys, very physical.”
Sargent seized his chance this August. With Pukki sidelined briefly, the American scored four goals in three Championship games up front, then two more in early September from the wing. He told reporters later that month that Norwich manager Dean Smith had tweaked the setup to allow Sargent to play “a little bit more as a second striker and tucking more on the inside,” when he was deployed on the right. That got Berhalter’s attention, and for the first time in a year, Sargent was invited to national team camp. The U.S. played their final pre-World Cup friendlies in Europe against Japan and Saudi Arabia.
The long year away sort of dissolved once Sargent reunited with his compatriots.
“I remember going into [September’s] camp and being like, ‘Oh, it's been a year already,’” he recalled. “I was surprised that it was so long. It didn't feel like that. But getting back into camp, I knew all the guys really well. So it wasn't hard to get back into the group.”
Sargent got just one half of playing time in the 2-0 loss to Japan, but it was clear that he had his foot back in the door. And the roulette wheel continued to spin. Pefok, who started the 2022-23 Bundesliga season so brightly at Union Berlin, stopped scoring in mid September. Pepi left Augsburg on loan to Groningen and rediscovered his scoring touch, but Berhalter took notice of the drop in level. The likes of Zardes, Dike, Matthew Hoppe and others had long since fallen out of contention. And Sargent did his part, scoring twice more in October (and then again, for good measure, last weekend).
“You definitely want to see what your competition is doing,” Sargent said of the race for World Cup roster spots. "Obviously, I'm focusing on myself and trying to score goals. But it's always there in the back of your mind, of course, what the other guys are doing.”
He’d done enough. When the wheel stopped and the 26-man World Cup squad was announced last week, Sargent was in, joined by fellow strikers Ferreira and Haji Wright, who had hit a vein of form with Turkey’s Antalyaspor.
“Josh is an example of—he does a lot of things well. He’s also competing against these guys from England and Wales every single week. He’ll have familiarity with the opponent, which we think will be valuable, and I think he gives a physical presence with his aerial duels and his competitive nature that's going to help this group,” Berhalter said following the roster reveal.
“With [Pepi], we were judging him against Josh and Jesús, And we felt it was valuable that Josh was playing in that competition where two out of our three opponents are coming from,” the manager continued. “We think that brings value—the physicality of the league. The Dutch league I think is a great league, but it doesn't bring the same physicality that the Premier League brings and the Championship brings, and that was something that went into our decision.”
England looked like it might be the obstacle that would bar Sargent from the World Cup. Then he turned it into his launch pad to Qatar. Ferreira has been out of action since FC Dallas’s season ended on Oct. 23 (about a month before the U.S. meets Wales next Monday). Wright has only three senior caps and will be far less familiar with the opposition. So it’s quite possible that Sargent overcomes a year-long international exile to become a World Cup starter (assuming he’s fully healed from a recent calf strain). That’s a dizzying journey. But he’s confident in his form (Sargent is tied atop the Championship golden boot race), his grasp of Berhalter’s system and his ability to thrive there.
“I think being able to drop down and combine with the team, as a false nine almost, is important to [Berhalter] as well as scoring goals, obviously, for any striker.” Sargent said. “So it’s just picking the right moments to do either one, and then defensively at the same time, I think you have a big role in being the front line of the press and winning the ball back. I feel like I have all those qualities and I've been doing the same things with Norwich.”
Sargent has spoken recently about how important his family has been to his ability to navigate the early ups and downs of his career, from his parents back in St. Louis to his wife, who he’s known since they were each 14, and their baby. Family won’t be joining him in Qatar. He said Tuesday that his wife, Kirsten, would take their daughter back to the U.S. to spend time with family there.
“She's been having a hard time I think in Norwich just by herself a lot,” he said.
It’s difficult to adjust to life abroad, and appealing to imagine returning to familiar surroundings. This young U.S. national team fills that role for many of its members, and it can remain welcoming even after some time apart. Sargent was smiling plenty on Tuesday, lauding even the small details that make a World Cup special, from the welcome the U.S. got from hotel staff when they arrived to the cityscape in Doha. A goal that looked like it was going to be deferred had been realized.
“It’s what any kid dreams of, so it's pretty amazing,” he said.