Welcome to What Is This USMNT Guy’s Deal, a regular series in which Defector selects a name from the myriad number of exciting young American soccer men playing in Europe and answers the question: What is this USMNT guy’s deal?
Sacrifice your weekend sleeping-in hours and parse grainy footage of goals on the training ground long enough, and you will come to conclude that the English second division is actually a good league by world standards. The money and attendance rival or outdo most European leagues outside the big five, and the gravity-altering heft of the Premier League makes for an incredible incentive to perform well in the league. The best teams are stocked with former EPL players, because, well, most of the best teams there were just recently punted out of the EPL. The dynamic of a chastened Watford or Burnley picking itself up out of the mud after getting their shit kicked in by Manchester City, refocusing their mental, and gearing up for the exact opposite challenge of winning the league instead of surviving it, all while attempting to maintain their place in a hierarchy they just took a year off from, is fascinating.
This polarization is a dynamic that Josh Sargent is now acutely familiar with. He made his English debut last season for a Norwich City team that surrendered 84 goals on its way to a minus-61 goal difference. That very same team is now tied for first in the Championship. Sarginho was the first American player this series took a look at, and though he plays for the same team he did in August 2021, it’s remarkable how much has changed for the young forward. Sargent spent the bulk of last season running around in his own half playing emergency defense; he has spent this entire season scoring goals and clowning defenders. Since the World Cup is one month away, this series has no time for fringe players. Though we have covered the basic outlines of Sargent’s deal before, enough has changed that it’s worth re-centering him.
Who Does He Play For?
After just 13 games, Norwich has already scored 20 goals, only three fewer than the 23 they managed in the entirety of their ignoble 2021–22 season in the Premier League. When Sargent made his big EPL move last summer, many in the USMNT space were concerned that he was making a bad career move. Young strikers—Sargent is still just 22 despite playing five seasons of top-flight soccer in Europe—tend to need situations where they can score goals, or at least kick the ball in the opposing half, or at the very least not spend so much of their time on the pitch chasing Kevin De Bruyne around. Norwich is one of the very best candidates for promotion, as they are every year they’re in the Championship. Life at such a club must be strange, as each alternating year brings with it such an odd swing of expectations. Sargent was pushed to the fringes of the USMNT last season, because forward play is such a confidence game. Why bring in a guy to play striker when he’s not, you know, playing striker?
Sargent is not the only USMNTer to whom this maxim applies. Ricardo Pepi, famous for not scoring goals for like a full calendar year, has started scoring goals again. Given a loan to the defense-averse Eredivisie, Pepi has begun to look like the player Augsburg bought last year, scoring a team-high four goals for FC Groningen. The context obviously matters here, since the Eredivisie and Championship are worse leagues than the Bundesliga and EPL, but for the USMNT’s present purposes, form and swagger matter way more than the quality of center backs dunked upon.
The Weston McKennie Mamma Mia Test refers to the following foolproof heuristic for determining whether or not a U.S. player is actually good or just good by our rosy American standards: Do fans tweet lovingly about them in their local language?
How Does He Play?
Up the middle. Sargent’s gifts as a forward are, to his occasional detriment, quite well-rounded. He’s great at running back in defense or building an attack from a wide position or doing anything that requires running away from his opponent’s goal. Norwich has played him out wide a good amount, though this year, he’s spent more time in the middle, where he’s thrived. Sargent is second in the Championship with seven goals, and his two assists have him tied for most goal involvements in the league. His seven goals are also the most he’s scored in a league season in his career, which means he’ll definitely set a personal record this season unless he fails to score over the course of his next 33 outings.
His second goal against Millwall in Norwich’s 2–0 win earlier this season is a prototypical Sargent goal. After his teammate boots a clearance from Norwich’s six-yard box, Sargent helps tie up two defenders long enough for another teammate to swoop in and nab possession. Sargent then runs into the space and hits a far-post finish with his first touch. Nothing about it is technically dazzling, but it’s an impressive goal nonetheless.
The Wonderteen Index is a holistic, objective metric that analyzes a player’s full array of skills and talents, distilling it all into a single number that corresponds to their ultimate potential and the likelihood that they will assume the title of Wonderteen.
We awarded him 12 out of 19 last time around, ahead of his EPL debut. That score now feels low, even after a two-goal season for an awful Norwich team in the Premier League. Sargent is still very young, and while he didn’t do much for the Canaries last season, basically nobody did. That team stunk, even compared to the past few years worth of recently promoted cannon fodder.
It is hard to make definitive judgments on any single player for an overmatched team, especially so for forwards who don’t ever get many real opportunities to score. Now that he’s playing for one of the best teams in his league, he’s showing his potential, though the question remains: Is Sargent a Championship player, or does he have a higher level? I think the latter can be true, and I still like him better than any other USMNT forward in the pool. 14 out of 19.
Can He Play Right Back?
The U.S.’s European corps is absolutely silly with right backs, enough to stock a full XI. And so it is important to determine whether or not the USMNT guy of the week can play the position.
He played so much de facto right back for Norwich last season! Call them the USMNT of the EPL because all their attackers did was run right back to their own goal!!!
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How Does He Fit In With The U.S. Team?
Very well! For a team that wants its non-forward players to run around and do stuff, a facilitative striker is useful.
How Close Is He To The Hypothetical Best XI?
Further than he should be. Pepi has continued to get every opportunity to tighten his slippery grip on the No. 9 spot, and though he’s mostly not taken them well, Gregg Berhalter clearly believes in him. The USMNT center forward pool is famously odd—for a while it was all I wrote about in this series until I got tired of posing and answering Will this guy finally be the one to score the ball? Who knows!—though Pepi, Jesus Ferreira, Sargent, and Jordan Pefok all have legitimate claims to start in Qatar.
It’s worth remembering that Sargent was in the wilderness for a long time while he struggled last season. After appearing in the USMNT’s first qualification window, he was exiled for the remainder of qualifying. His 45-minute appearance in the shameful loss to Japan was his first outing in a USMNT shirt in more than a year. So I don’t expect him to start in Qatar, though I think he’ll play.