Josh Sargent calls next on United States striker of the future role

WASHINGTON -- In Friday night's 7-0 victory against Cuba to open the United States' CONCACAF Nations League campaign, Josh Sargent earned his 10th cap. He became just the 10th male American teenager to do so, joining a list of U.S. soccer luminaries including Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley and Christian Pulisic, as well as a few players who had, shall we say, slightly less decorated careers (Juan Agudelo and, yes, Freddy Adu).

Sargent's career remains in the early stages. That's the whole point, really. But the Werder Bremen teenager looks more and more like he's trending toward the former group as opposed to the latter. At the very least, he's close to cementing his spot as a first-choice starter on Gregg Berhalter's U.S. squad.

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While Sargent had only one goal in the U.S. domination of the visitors, his presence was felt all over the attacking half of the field (and even occasionally in the defensive third). In the opening seconds, his smart run drew two Cuban defenders, leaving Weston McKennie alone to receive Jordan Morris' cross for the game's first goal.

"It's my job to go to the first post, and if he comes with me, then [McKennie] is going to be open every time," he said of the tally.

Sargent started the sequence that led to the third goal, checking to midfield, calling for the ball, turning beautifully, and delivering a pass to McKennie that the Schalke midfielder then gave to Morris in stride.

"His link-up play tonight was very good," said U.S. goalkeeper Brad Guzan, who was mostly a spectator on the night.

Sargent just missed connecting on the fourth goal -- McKennie would latch onto a ball just out of the forward's slide at the near post -- while his 24th-minute header off Reggie Cannon's free kick went inches wide. He smartly pulled off his run and was wide open for a Morris pass on the fifth goal. (The Seattle Sounders winger shot instead, forcing an own goal.) And Sargent's pressing also resulted in dangerous giveaways from goalkeeper Nelson Johnston and center-back Dario Ramos on the few occasions when Cuba possessed the ball.

The 19-year-old finally got his late in the first half. While Morris did the work of controlling a ball over the top, Sargent's run and one-time curling finish with his off foot were beautiful. Seconds later, there was nearly a second, on a similar play from the opposite side, but Johnston saved the right-footed blast.

"I thought Josh did well as a point of the attack, as someone you can play into," Berhalter said after the game. "I think his movement inside the penalty box was OK. On his goal it was good. He had a chance right after that which was good as well. We want to continue to work with him on making dynamic runs in the penalty box, beating their defenders and making space for other players. But the kid is 20 years old. To me, he's a real bright spot."

Which isn't to say that his rise has been simple and straightforward. Berhalter left the teenager off the Gold Cup roster, a shocking decision meant to send a message. "We have to remember that he's 19 years old and he has a bright future ahead of him," the coach said at the time. "When I talked to him and gave him the news, I mentioned that he is the striker for the national team in the future. We're sure of that."

Berhalter wants his charge to push harder, to work for everything, to gain a little edge. These are qualities many young players need, but Berhalter hasn't been shy about vocalizing his instructions to his young forward. Sargent's teammates see his ability, and his need to improve as well.

"There's a reason why he's playing in the Bundesliga," Guzan said. "There's certainly quality there. There's a talent there. And now it's about him finding confidence when he's in this group, when he's on the field for the national team that allows him to go and be successful. He's got loads of talent. His mentality, his work rate, is very good. It's just about finding that little bit where he feels the most comfortable playing for our team."

With a goal and some strong Bundesliga performances up top and on the wing to start the season, Sargent played his way into his national-team coach's starting lineup. It's not a spot he's likely to give up soon. Sure, Jozy Altidore, another member of the "Teenage 10-Cap Club," could earn time if he can stay healthy, but that grows increasingly unlikely. Gyasi Zardes, another forward option, is a known quantity. It's Sargent's job to take, and hold. He's nearly there, getting ever closer.

Just as important, there's a growing connection among him, Morris, Pulisic, McKennie and the other attackers as well.

"Every camp we come into we try to build off of our chemistry," Sargent said. "Obviously, there are very talented players around me, and combining that with chemistry every time we come into camp will only help us."

He can also do it himself. In the 90th minute, Sargent stole the ball near midfield and sprinted toward goal. He easily outpaced two trailing defenders, leaving himself in alone with Johnston. A goal would have tied the American record for the largest margin of victory, a perfect cap on a near-perfect evening.

It wasn't to be. Sargent skied his shot over the crossbar, then buried his face in his hands. "I missed," he said simply afterward.

"On another night, he could have had a few more goals," Guzan said. "It's certainly something that he can look back on and build from."

He got one. It could have been more. It won't be his last.