Gregg Berhalter's selections for the U.S. national team's Gold Cup roster didn't figure to offer many surprises, but Josh Sargent's exclusion definitely caught USMNT fans off guard.
After all, Sargent was eligible to play at the Under-20 World Cup, and when he was left off that team it seemed like a sign that Berhalter was fast-tracking him to the senior national team. Sargent did take part in his first USMNT camp and had his first opportunity to work with Berhalter.
But, having played very little for Werder Bremen in 2019, he failed to make enough of an impression to convince Berhalter he was worth including in the 23-man Gold Cup roster.
“This was the most difficult decision we had to make, involving Josh,” Berhalter said on Thursday. “When I talked to him and gave him the news, one thing I mentioned was that he is going to be the striker for the national team in the future. We’re sure of that. He wasn’t able to play as much as he could have. And he lacked a little sharpness.”
Sargent took part in the training camp prior to the Jamaica friendly and played the full 90 minutes, generating the only shot on goal for the Americans. It wasn't enough to convince Berhalter to include him in the Gold Cup squad, settling on veteran strikers Jozy Altidore and Gyasi Zardes in order to devote roster spots to replace the versatility of injured LA Galaxy midfielder Sebastian Lletget, who was ruled out of the Gold Cup this week.
“When Sebastian Lletget went down, it tossed a wrench into the plans and we didn’t think we could carry three strikers at that point,” Berhalter said. “Josh will have more chances, but he wasn’t able to carry over his early-season momentum with Werder Bremen into the second half. We think Jozy and Gyasi are ahead of him right now."
That evaluation won't sit well with those who see Sargent as the future of the U.S. striker position, but there's no denying the reality that Sargent hasn't been playing regular minutes at Werder Bremen. Not with the first team, and not with the reserve teams.
Berhalter still saw him as someone worth bringing in to camp to see if he could play his way onto the team, but Sargent fell short, and there's no reason to think U.S. boss wouldn't have brought him if what he saw in camp was worthy of inclusion. Altidore is the clear-cut top choice at striker, while Zardes is familiar with Berhalter's system and is a regular starter and goal-scorer for the Columbus Crew.
The real argument isn't whether Sargent was worthy of being one of Berhalter's top two strikers, but rather if Berhalter was wrong for not making room for Sargent at the expense of one of his many wing options, most notably Jordan Morris and Jonathan Lewis. The argument for Morris is that he has Gold Cup experience, scoring the tournament winner in the 2017 edition, and he has enjoyed a successful 2019 season when he has been healthy. The knocks against him are that he has been injured in recent weeks and wasn't particularly impressive playing in a wing role in Berhalter's system in the March friendlies.
Lewis is the most suspect choice, but also not a surprising one given the fact Berhalter has grown fond of his ability to make an impact off the bench. To his credit, Lewis has made the most of his national team opportunities, but his inclusion still felt like a luxury pick given the wealth of wing options on the roster, including Christian Pulisic, Paul Arriola, newcomer Tyler Boyd and Morris.
Did Berhalter make a mistake not allowing Sargent to go to the Under-20 World Cup? Hindsight suggests he did, but Berhalter clearly intended to give Sargent every opportunity to play himself onto the Gold Cup squad and felt that opportunity was more important than having youngster play in another Under-20 World Cup after he starred in the 2017 edition of the tournament.
It is also easy to forget that Sargent wasn't a part of the Under-20 national team's recent cycle, whereas Sebastian Soto had been the group's lead striker and earned the right to lead the U-20 attack at the World Cup. That isn't to say Sargent wasn't familiar with the group, but he hadn't been with them for two years.
It is also easy to ignore the reality that Soto played in more Bundesliga games than Sargent. That doesn't mean he's ahead of Sargent in the overall pecking order, but was Berhalter really wrong for feeling the U-20 strike force was in safe hands with Soto and Tim Weah, and that Sargent would be better served with some time with the senior team?
Sargent took part in his first USMNT camp with Berhalter, and had the experience of a 90-minute run in a friendly against a respectable opponent in Jamaica. He faced the challenge of competing for a senior team roster spot. He fell short, but that experience is valuable, and the disappointment of missing out should provide some fuel for a player who didn't face a ton of adversity in 2017 and 2018, when he enjoyed success at multiple youth World Cups and broke into the USMNT and Werder Bremen first team.
It is that success, and the meteoric trajectory Sargent had been on before 2019, that surely left U.S. fans upset at the realization he won't be in a U.S. uniform this summer. Some of the fan backlash feels a bit hyperbolic because, while it is more than fair to question whether or not Berhalter could have found room for him on the Gold Cup roster, suggestions that missing out on three weeks riding the bench at the Gold Cup will somehow stunt Sargent's growth or damage his confidence ring hollow.
Yes, Berhalter could have found a way to squeeze him onto the roster, but that wouldn't have changed the fact he wasn't going to have a major role to play in the tournament.
Though he's just 19, Sargent has shown himself to be a tough kid, a fierce competitor who will use this Gold Cup snub as motivation to continue building the type of successful career that will eventually make him missing the 2019 Gold Cup a forgotten footnote.