CHESTER, Pa. >> Josh Sargent’s parents were in the stands along with a bunch of friends. Three months after his 18th birthday, the red-haired forward scored in his international debut as he became the latest teenager to join a transforming U.S. national team.
“It’s going very fast, to be honest, so I haven’t really had a lot of time to just process everything,” he said ahead of today’s exhibition against Bolivia. “It’s just one thing to next, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I like staying busy and playing soccer all the time.”
Sargent scored in the 52nd minute when, with his back to the goal, he intercepted a pass from goalkeeper Carlos Lampe, played the ball to himself as he turned and put a shot off the keeper from about 11 yards.
Sargent left St. Dominic High School in O’Fallon, Missouri, in the middle of 10th grade to join the U.S. Under-17 team’s residency camp in Bradenton, Florida. He scored five goals last spring in the CONCACAF Under-17 Championship, then was a surprise selection for the Under-20 World Cup roster and scored four goals as the U.S. reached the quarterfinals in South Korea. He agreed to sign a professional contract with Werder Bremen when he turned 18 on Feb. 20, then scored three more goals as the Americans reached the Under-17 World Cup quarterfinals in India.
He joined Freddy Adu in 2007 as the only Americans to play in both FIFA youth tournaments in the same year. He was in position to become the first to play for the U-17s, U-20s and full national team in the same year but strained his right quadriceps on the first day of training ahead of November’s exhibition at Portugal.
“It’s unique,” U.S. Under-17 coach John Hackworth said. “That’s also part of the circumstance that the U.S. national team is in right now.”
Sargent’s dad, Jeff, was a defender at St. Louis Community College-Florissant Valley and Sangamon State, now the University of Illinois at Springfield. His mom, the former Liane Deetman, was a forward at SIU Edwardsville.
Josh played baseball (shortstop), basketball (point guard), football (lots of positions), ice hockey (center) and golf growing up, but excelled in soccer and joined the St. Louis Scott Gallagher Soccer Club.
“St. Louis is such a hotbed for soccer in the first place,” Sargent said. “My family, they were really supportive about letting me choose what I wanted to do, and in the end I just felt most comfortable with soccer.”
Kevin Kalish, his coach at Scott Gallagher and now coach at Saint Louis University, said Sargent stood out for his graceful movement and mentality to score and dominate games, and for a humble demeanor.
“Even as a youth player, when he was going in and out of the national team camp, you never felt like he was big-timing you,” Kalish said.
Sporting Kansas City claimed homegrown player rights and hoped to sign Sargent, but he decided against Major League Soccer and moved to Germany in January.
“Obviously it’s really tempting wanting to play close to home, so you can be close to family and everything, but I think that would have been the easy way out,” he said. “Just wanting to stay close to home isn’t really what I want to do in my career. I want to go to a place where I can develop and become the best player I can become.”
He didn’t speak any German when he flew from St. Louis to Washington, D.C., and onto Frankfurt and then Bremen — it wasn’t offered at St. Dominic. Sargent moved into a player dormitory located adjacent to Weser-Stadion, but because he didn’t turn 18 until after the January transfer window closed, he was ineligible to play for Bremen or even its reserve team in the third division until the 2018-19 season.
“You want to play games and be able to prove to the players that you belong there, but it’s difficult when you can’t play games and show them that,” he said. “At the same time it was good to just help me settle in and get used to the guys first.”
Sargent arrived in a country that has become a key cog in the U.S. player development system. Christian Pulisic, a midfielder from Hershey, Pennsylvania, made his debut for Borussia Dortmund at 17 two years ago, scored 12 goals in 97 matches and already is the top player on the national team. Weston McKennie, a midfielder from Little Elm, Texas, made his debut for Schalke at 18 on the final day of the 2016-17 season, appeared in 25 matches this season and scored in his American debut at Portugal.
“I think Christian kind of leads the way, because he’s shown that he can be successful there. And then Weston comes in and does it,” Hackworth said. “That belief and having a player that inspires you, but also allows you to look at something tangible and say it can be done, it absolutely can be done, is so powerful.”
Several of the Americans in Germany met up at Pulisic’s place recently. The group, which includes prospects Nick Taitague, Haji Wright, Isaiah Young and Zyen Jones, provides a support system for each other.
“They’re only about an hour-and-a-half drive away, so it’s good knowing if something’s going wrong or if I’m ever really homesick or something, I can just go see these guys, and we’re all really close,” Sargent said. “It’s a good feeling.”
Dave Sarachan gave nine players debuts in his first three matches after becoming interim national team coach last fall, and Sargent was among four more in Monday night’s starting lineup. He followed Tm Weah as the second player born in the 2000s to appear for the national team.
“I think he’s already shown he’s a battler and he’s physically there,” Sarachan said. “It’s like any player that goes from a level of 20 miles an hour to now jumping into 30 miles an hour and 40. How do they handle the speed and how do they handle playing up against better defenders? And so far I think Josh, even in the few days we’ve been here, has shown he’s in the mix.”