I want you to think about where Josh Sargent was exactly 15 days before the Ecuadorian U20 team etched a line in the sand and Sargent kicked it back in their faces.
And, more specifically, who he was with.
Sargent spent the latter part of April and the first week of May in Panama with the U17 MNT, the captain’s armband cinched to his bicep and the scoring load dropped firmly on his shoulders with the help of an industrial strength crane. In Panama, Sargent had the full burden of responsibility as the center forward, and he delivered. Again. And again. And again. Sargent scored five times in six games and hit his penalty in the finale shootout against Mexico that ultimately ended a missed take shy of a title. If that part stung, it didn’t really matter. With an immense amount of help from Sargent, the U17 MNT qualified for the World Cup later this year.
Now imagine Sargent’s two weeks in the days that followed. He’d only been called into a U20 MNT camp once, back in January as an exploratory measure in case he might be ready for the U20 World Cup. U20 MNT coach Tab Ramos had discussed bringing Sargent into U20 qualifying in February, but that plan was dashed to keep Sargent with his 17s. Still, the idea gnawed at Ramos, and it became even more stark after Sargent dynamited CONCACAF in Panama.
Two days after the U17 MNT lost to Mexico in the U17 final, Ramos announced his U20 roster. Sargent was on it, now the youngest player on Ramos’ roster. From captain to competing against two center forwards who’d spent the better part of the year in professional systems. Sargent would have precious little time to shift his cone of vision, from carrying the bulk of the emotional weight for the U17 team to finding a way to fit in with older players, most of them full-fledged professionals, he scarcely knew. And he’d have to fly around the world to South Korea on a few days’ notice.
Sargent’s role was immediately of the highest interest. The U.S. hadn’t struggled defensively this cycle – in truth it rarely does under Ramos’ watch – but the finishing was objectively poor in qualifying. Had Ramos had better options available, Jeremy Ebobisse probably would’ve lost his job even sooner than he did. But would he really start Sargent in the opener on May 22 against Ecuador literally 15 days after competing in a high-intensity U17 tournament? That jump is stark, as any youth player can tell you. But doing it directly into a U20 World Cup, against South America’s second-best U20 team at the moment, might be borderline mad.
Or might it not be?
Sargent, it would seem, is cut from different cloth. Sargent scored twice against Ecuador, punctuating a wild series of comebacks from 2-0 down and then 3-2 down with seconds left to play. The U.S. earned the point with a 3-3 result, and Sargent’s role in that was as pivotal as anyone’s.
Sargent’s first was a deceptively difficult finish. His first touch ran the ball up his leg a bit, which meant Sargent had to wait for it to drop to his feet before striking through. He let it bounce, while still in motion, stilled his body shape and dropped the hammer at the near post. Watch Sargent’s eyes through this whole thing. He never lifts them. This sort of instinctual feel for his positioning is almost impossible to teach.
The second was another deceptively difficult finish on a somewhat awkwardly-heighted but otherwise quality cross from Brooks Lennon. Sargent broke open in the box, and Lennon lined him up in his crosshairs, but his cross was slightly back and low. Sargent never broke his stride and adjusted mid-air to Lennon’s ball, smartly pushing it low to use the trajectory to bounce it past the keeper.
A lesser striker attempts to air this ball out, but that’d have killed the chance. His body plane is too low, and any attempt to pick out a top corner without the help of the ground would’ve sent this thing careening into the 10th row. Sargent knew better.
Again, remind yourself where Sargent was 15 days ago.
Allow me to redirect you to a comment Ramos made about Sargent before the tournament, featuring a fairly lofty, if oblique, reference.
“In the end, whether he plays at the U17 World Cup after this or not, I think the possibility will be there, but it’s sort of the same scenario with Christian (Pulisic), obviously at a different level. Some players sometimes outgrow an age group, and if they have to move on we have to remember here the youth national teams are here to provide a good experience internationally, and I think Josh will get that with us hopefully and let’s see what the future brings.”
Sargent was fast-tracked to this tournament because his talent demanded it, and Ramos duly started him because he’s the hottest USYNT player on form in the entire pool regardless of position. All he did was score twice, on the biggest YNT stage in the world, 13 days after finding out he’d even be included in the first place. So yes, Josh Sargent is a fairly big deal.
Sargent will almost certainly be decamping for Europe soon, and it would seem that Germany is his most likely destination after a tour through that country earlier this year brought training opportunities with several Bundesliga teams. One presumes he’ll have his pick after blasting a top South American defense in his first game as the youngest player on the field. For now, we simply get to revel in one of the most rapid ascendances in recent U.S. Soccer history.