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?
Across the pond over in Europe, most of the biggest soccer leagues in the world will kick off this weekend. Many of them will feature several American players, who racked up an impressive list of trophies last season, including a Premier League crown and a Champions League title. The size of the wave of American men making careers for themselves on some of the biggest clubs in the world is stunning, especially when compared to the state of affairs a decade ago when Jurgen Klinsmann took over the national team. Back then there were but a handful of players abroad, few of them on Champions League–level teams, all of them veterans, and the bulk of them goalkeepers.
The change since then has been dramatic. Top European academies are replete with American teenagers, and last year’s successful campaign has only accelerated the pace of transatlantic movement. For the first time in its history, young MLS talent is being aggressively scouted and harvested, and as such, the group of American players plying their craft in Europe is too large to credibly cover in any single roundup. There are simply too many guys!
Qualification for the 2022 World Cup starts next month, which means this new generation will play meaningful games as a group for the first time (with all due respect to the Nations League) very soon. This cycle represents the first serious test for this generation. So for this forthcoming season, Defector is proud to introduce a new column taking a look at a different American player each week and trying to inform you what their deal is, called, fittingly, What Is This USMNT Guy’s Deal. We will start today with Josh Sargent, who’s already established himself as a first-choice USMNT player, yet faces an important season as he takes a big step up in competition.
Who Does He Play For?
After three Bundesliga seasons and two 2.Bundesliga games with Werder Bremen, Sargent made a big move to the Premier League this month, signing with freshly promoted Norwich City.
Like Christian Pulisic, Sargent is another high-profile American player who never spent any real time in MLS. He came up through the U.S. Soccer Development Academy and briefly trained with Sporting Kansas City as a teenager, before having one of the most impressive years in U.S. Youth National Team history and vaulting out of MLS’s orbit all the way to Germany. Sargent’s 2017 breakout year included three goals in the U.S. U-17 team’s impressive quarterfinal run at the U-17 World Cup, four goals after a surprise call-up the U.S. U-20 team for that level’s youth World Cup, and then winning his first senior call-up that November. He turned down the two biggest clubs in Germany to sign with Werder. There, he scored a middling 15 goals in 83 appearances.
Werder was relegated last season for the first time in over 40 years, which immediately put Sargent on the transfer block. He could very well have stuck around, as Werder is one of the most well-supported clubs in the country and is favored to bounce right back into the top flight. Indeed, Klinsmann publicly lobbied Sargent to stay. Instead, Norwich paid $11 million for the 21-year-old, which means U.S. fans will have a lot easier of a time watching the national team’s likely starting striker. He’ll probably play alongside Finnish trickster Teemu Pukki and his fellow Werder-to-Norwich transfer-getter Milot Rashica. Norwich relied heavily on a 4-2-3-1 last year, and Sargent is capable of playing any of the four most advanced positions in that setup. Though Norwich has experimented with a few different formations coming into this season, there should be enough room for him somewhere for him to rack up some serious minutes. By virtue of talent, versatility, and, well, price tag, Sargent is comfortably second in the forward pecking order for the Canaries (bird joke) ahead of Adam Idah and Jordan Hugill.
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?
Sargent typically plays at center forward, though he’s been deployed as a second striker and occasionally out on the wing during his time at Werder. While he’s shown an impressive versatility, his goal scoring has simply not been all that impressive. An average of one goal roughly every seven Bundesliga games over two-plus seasons is not great, even for a player who does so much other stuff on a team that consistently found itself towards the bottom of the table. Sargent has the profile of a complete forward, and his talent is clearest to see when he’s winning the ball back, dropping deep to unlock passes out to the wing, or fighting in the air. He’s an intelligent and speedy runner who opens up opportunities for others more than himself, which seems like a skill whose utility will scale with the talent level of whatever team he’s on.
Towards the end of last season, he spent the majority of his playing time on the right wing. Given Pukki’s hold on the center forward spot, Sargent will probably support him from out wide, at least at the start of the season. You pretty much always want your striker to, you know, score, though Sargent really does seem to be good at everything else. “Josh’s absence really hurt us and it’s the biggest compliment you can pay him, that you could really notice that he wasn’t there,” his coach said last year after he missed a loss to Wolfsburg. “Josh is extremely important for our team,” another senior Werder employee said. “The amount of work he puts in, the stability he gives us in terms of defense – I’ve been really impressed by the way he’s executing all that. We need that intensity. Josh is such an unbelievable team player.”
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.
Sargent is 21, and is therefore receives a failing grade in one key category of the WI. However, being younger than 20 is not the only criteria we must consider. Sargent’s move to the biggest league in the world means he has a chance to break out into popular consciousness in a way he never could in the Bundesliga, so if he develops his finishing in front of goal and Norwich surprises, everyone will be like, “Check out this guy.” Imagine if he scores a cool goal against Manchester City or something; that’d be rad.
He’ll almost certainly never become a legit star at the club level, but he could very well carve out a totally credible career as a solid mid-to-lower-table stalwart in Europe’s best leagues. Because of all that, he receives a 12 out of 19 on the Wonderteen Index.
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.
Sargent has spent some time on the right wing, so therefore we must rule the following: He can indeed play right back if needed.
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How Does He Fit In With The U.S. Team?
The striker pool is, famously, the U.S.’s thinnest position group. Where we have a dozen or so right backs, Sargent has more European top-flight experience than the rest of the forward pool combined. However, the U.S.’s best players are wide attackers (Christian Pulisic, Gio Reyna, etc.), so having a striker who excels at holding up the ball, setting up runners, and winning balls in the air is extremely useful. There really is no legit striker who’s nearly as good at him at the little things. So Sargent fits well, even taking into account his limitations as a goal-scorer.
How Close Is He To The Hypothetical Best XI?
Sargent is an easy choice to start at striker, probably alone up top with the midfield corps running past him.