EARTH CITY, MO — It would’ve been kind of satisfying, at least from a non-Mexican perspective, if Josh Sargent had converted that penalty kick in the dying moments of Friday’s friendly loss to El Tri.
A goal obviously would not have changed the end result. Mexico had an insurmountable and deserved 3-0 lead. But a successful conversion would’ve allowed the U.S. men's national team to avoid the ignominy of getting blanked on home soil. And it would’ve been a nice moment for Sargent, a young striker with boundless potential who’s aiming to bounce back from a frustrating summer.
But he missed. Sargent’s shot was well within reach of Mexico’s Jonathan Orozco. There would be no slight satisfaction at the Meadowlands. Instead, there was narrative consistency. On an evening when a young U.S. team tried, failed and then vowed to try again, Sargent experienced the same in microcosm.
Coach Gregg Berhalter and the Americans asserted Friday night that they won’t abandon their long-term goal to build out, possess and “disorganize the opponent with the ball” just because they were unable to handle the Mexican press at MetLife Stadium. Likewise, Sargent is increasingly undeterred by adversity. He experienced a rare sort of setback in June when he was axed from the Concacaf Gold Cup roster. Failure fueled his rise at Werder Bremen. And he said Sunday that he doesn’t regret accepting Christian Pulisic’s offer to take the penalty against Mexico. And he won’t hesitate to take the next one, either.
“It was definitely an intense situation I think, but I’ve been doing it since I was little kid and I’ll do it again,” Sargent said following U.S. training here in the St. Louis suburbs. “I’m not going to shy away now that I missed a penalty. It happens in football, and you move on.”
Both Sargent and the USA have to move on, toward Tuesday’s game against Uruguay at Busch Stadium and then on to the Concacaf Nations League next month. It’s a national team committed to a specific and ambitious approach and style of play, and one whose future stars are present-day linchpins. Success is going to require patience and the ability to bounce back. Berhalter will have to hope that the rest of his squad is as resilient as Sargent.
Sargent, 19, seems like a good bet to start against Uruguay. Thanks to several departures following the Mexico match—including Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie—in addition to pre-camp injuries and absences, it’s a game that’ll be a real-time exploration of Berhalter’s depth chart. Tuesday is as good a time as any to offer Sargent his fifth senior start. And the place couldn’t be more perfect. Sargent was born and raised in the St. Louis area, and said Sunday he’s “excited to play in front of my hometown.”
It would be a celebration. The last time he was home, it was under different circumstances. He was here because Berhalter declined to take Sargent to the Gold Cup. The striker had played only seven minutes for Werder Bremen since the start of March, and the coaching staff felt he wasn’t in continental championship form. Sargent already had starred in the U-17 and U-20 World Cups. Now there was a bump in the road, and it was a shock to the system.
“That’s the thing—I was used to always being the best player and stuff, so it was pretty rough for me,” Sargent said Sunday. “[But] there will probably be more [setbacks] to come, to be honest. Football goes up and down, and it’s how you overcome the adversities that really kind of proves the person you are.”
Berhalter took note. Sargent got to work, ensuring he was running and touching a ball during his break and then reporting to Bremen with a clear head and ready to compete for a place. He’s appeared in three of Werder’s four games this season, starting two and scoring a beautiful goal against Augsburg on Sept. 1.
Berhalter has complimented Sargent several times in recent days.
“We talked about how he used a negative event and turned it positive, and it gave him motivation to go back to Bremen and really work for an opportunity. There’s nothing better than when players take advantage of that, and he did. He’s hung in there,” the manager said in New Jersey.
“It’s not us making these decisions that can change the course of history. It’s completely up to the player and how he responds,” Berhalter added before the Mexico game. “Josh responded in the fashion we’d expect, or how we’d want. He was very motivated. … He went out there and earned himself playing time. And that’s all you can ask from a player, that he takes a situation that doesn’t go his way, flips it and can gain from it.”
Sargent, who played 23 minutes against Mexico, said he was unaware of Berhalter’s praise. That’s not what motivates him, anyway.
“I didn’t really have a mindset to do it for anybody else,” Sargent said. “It was for my own head, I think—my personality. It’s just how I am. I don’t pay attention to social media much. But it was a good break over the summer, obviously, and I came back fresh with a new look on things, and I felt very good going into preseason and I still feel very good.
“I’ve always been a very competitive person, and I don’t like losing or not making rosters, so it definitely fired me up and got me ready for the new season,” he continued.
The U.S. will have to take a similar approach to the Mexico defeat. If they’re committed to this style and system, then no enemy is worse than doubt. Pulisic said Friday that there were moments when fear got the best of the Americans against Mexico. They’ll have to power through those moments and that defeat and continue to believe they have the quality to play the way Berhalter wants.
The oldest player in camp is goalkeeper Brad Guzan, who turned 35 on Monday. A start against Uruguay, which seems likely, would be his first under Berhalter, and it would come more than 13 years after his senior U.S. debut. He’s about to play for his fifth national team manager (or sixth, if you count Bruce Arena’s tenures separately). He’s seen it all and said he hopes to be able to “give everything I have to the game, my teammates, my coaches,” as his international career draws to a close.
So he’s befriended Sargent. That two have become “crossword pals,” Guzan said, teaming up during the team’s informal lunchtime crossword contest.
“He gets all the trendy clues,” the veteran said of the forward more than 15 years his junior.
“You tip your hat to these kids. They go over there [to Europe] with an idea and a goal, and there was a period before some of these guys—that are now starting to play regularly—when there weren’t too many who were over there,” Guzan said, referring to players of his generation who often started in MLS before heading abroad.
That hopefully builds the sort of character and focus that will enable them to work through the issues they faced against Mexico.
“If you’re good enough, you’re old enough. The question becomes then, are we able to grasp the concepts that are being passed down?” Guzan said. “That’s when we're maximizing the time when we’re at the hotel and we’re watching film of past games, of training sessions, and asking for the little details that have to be better and more precise.
“We understand what’s being asked of us. But how do we accomplish that?” Guzan asked.
His answer was one that Sargent appears to have grasped.
“That's down to players going through those experiences, good and bad,” the goalkeeper said. "We ultimately know that you learn more from bad experiences and failures than success stories. It’s not going to happen overnight. We understand that as a group. But the conversations on the inside are real conversations, productive conversations, about how we’re going to get better.”