You probably wouldn't think that Tim Weah and Josh Sargent would have gotten nervous making their first U.S. national team starts on Monday night against Bolivia. After all, it was just two weeks ago that Weah made his first start for Paris Saint-Germain, while Sargent had impressed at the Under-20 and Under-17 World Cups in the past year.
Monday was very different though, and the two 18-year-olds admitted to feeling a different level of jitters as they took the field against Bolivia. Weah's early touches and shots were shaky, and when he felt a sharp pain in his right knee after being fouled he motioned to the bench for a substitution in a bit of a panic. The pain and the jitters eventually subsided and the PSG forward found his footing in the second half, scoring the goal of the night on a volley that flashed the impressive skill that has made him a highly-regarded prospect.
The same applied to Sargent, who made his national team debut on Monday. He too shook off first-half nerves to pounce on a goalkeeper blunder and score on his USMNT debut, becoming the second youngest player to do so (second only to Juan Agudelo), helping the U.S. post a 3-0 victory.
"I was very nervous, to be honest," Sargent said. "It was my first professional game ever. It was a pretty big deal to me and I was proud to net one."
"I’m always nervous coming into these games because obviously it’s my first start, and it’s Josh's first start, and we’ve come such a long way, we just want to impress our fans," Weah said. "We just want to play with our hearts and play for our fans, and I think we did that today, but there’s always going to be a little nervousness coming out here. We’re still young, and we played in front of about 11,267 fans, so that’s insane for a young guy."
While Sargent may have done a better job of hiding his nerves, he also struggled with finishing chances and sequences in the first half. Weah's shakiness was easier to note as he sent crosses and shots well wide of the mark in the first half.
"He was all over the shop," caretaker U.S. coach Dave Sarachan said of Weah's first-half struggles. "He looked like a kid that has never played at a higher level, to a guy who was looking to come out of a game where he wasn’t sure if he was even hurt, to flying and beating guys.
"He was the prototypical young nervous guy, and he’s a good example of what you describe. He plays for a club that’s pretty well known, and so everyone assumes because he’s on the books at a place like PSG that he’s going to be at such a certain level," Sarachan said. "I think he can get there, but he’s not there, and what you saw tonight was a nervous kid, and yet the goal he scored was a great goal. He’s going to be a good player, but he’s got some growing to do, and maturing to do as a player. What you saw is kind of where he’s at."
Asked whether he felt more nervousness on Monday or when he started for PSG, Weah didn't hesitate.
"I think I was more nervous here, because with PSG I’ve already played two games," Weah said. "It was my first start, but it’s also the end of the season, you’re kind of just relaxing. I wasn’t that nervous, but here, I was nervous on my debut, and I was nervous here because now I’ve got the chance and I’m on the stage to start the game and show the United States what I can really do. That was going through my mind at the moment even though it’s just a friendly. but I take pride in games like this and I just wanted to do well.
Sargent was handed the starting role on Monday despite having yet to make his professional debut with Werder Bremen, which he joined in February when he turned 18. Since his contract with the Bundesliga club didn't become active until after the close of the winter transfer window, Sargent was unable to play for Bremen, and was limited to training with the first team.
"You look around the world there’s plenty of 18-year-old and 19-year-olds that are getting games at a high level," Sarachan said. "Josh was a victim of his birth year at Werder Bremen, where he wasn’t allowed to get first-team minutes with Werder Bremen this year. And we’re very thin at the number nine position in American soccer in my opinion.
"And so here’s a kid that has progressed through the age groups and World Cup settings, and I’m not projecting Josh to be a starter from here on in with the men’s team, but he possesses a certain mentality and frame and why not look at him at a time when you can?" Sarachan asked. "Because as I say, we need goal-scorers, we need to give them opportunities. And so, for me, I didn’t think twice about it. I thought this was the perfect time to give him a little introduction."
Both Sargent and Weah are expected to stay with the U.S. team for the friendlies against Ireland and France in June, and while they each left Talen Energy Stadium happy with their first USMNT starts , they know it's just the beginning.
"I’m super happy, but I don’t want to get too ahead of myself and too happy because I know there’s other games that we have to play," Weah said. "Tomorrow’s a new day and I have to go back in the lab and just keep working and keep working to hopefully have a great performance against Ireland and France. That’s my goal, scoring against (France) would be great. I have some teammates on France so that would be great, scoring against them."
The two teenagers were already generating plenty of hype among U.S. fans hungry for another young talent to break through the way Christian Pulisic has, and Monday's performances will only multiply the amount of hype around the two. Sarachan voiced his concern about that reality, but Weah and Sargent both sound like players who have no intention of letting themselves get caught up in the building hype.
"Obviously everybody wants to be the star, the big talent or whatever. I try not to pay attention to it really," Sargent said. "People can say whatever they want, but, at the end of the day, I'm going to just put my head down and work hard."