Interviews

The making of Josh Sargent: A father's view of his son's USMNT rise, farewell for Europe

The joy of seeing his son thrive is met with the reality of a child about to leave for Werder Bremen.

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The U.S. men’s national team kicked off its rebuilding era with talented teenagers Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams in the starting lineup for a 1-1 draw with European champions Portugal, providing a glimpse of a brighter future for a program humbled by a disastrous World Cup qualifying campaign.

But McKennie and Adams weren’t even the youngest players in camp. That title belongs to Josh Sargent, the 17-year-old St. Louis product and Werder Bremen capture who didn’t dress for the friendly in Leiria, Portugal, but made history by becoming the first U.S. player to receive call-ups to the U-17, U-20 and senior squads in the same year.

I know some parents push their kids a lot, and I never had to push him. He was always getting me off the couch and making me go out and play with him. He was just that kind of kid. That’s something that was in Josh. I didn’t give that to him. He had that.

An instinctive, well-rounded striker, Sargent starred at both the U-20 and U-17 World Cups this year, tying Freddy Adu as the nation’s all-time leading scorer in youth World Cups with seven goals. An injury limited his training time in Portugal, but this invite was always intended as an introduction to the senior level ahead of Sargent’s upcoming move to Bremen. That move will be officially completed on his 18th birthday, in February.

Few prospects have shot into the American soccer consciousness as dramatically as Sargent has in 2017, so FourFourTwo got in touch with his father, Jeff, to learn more about Josh’s path.

Those looking for magic bullets in Sargent’s upbringing may be disappointed, but similar to Christian Pulisic’s, his story contains noteworthy kernels for the wider debate about U.S. player development – starting with the fateful confluence of a soccer-centric household and a self-motivated dreamer.

“I wish there was a recipe to make a pro soccer player, but I don’t know,” says Jeff Sargent, with a laugh, when asked what he tells others eager to know how his son honed his gifts. “Honestly, what I tell them is, it was Josh. Josh did it. He was born with a lot of talent and developed it. He worked very hard.

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“Probably more than I would even want him to – I know some parents push their kids a lot, and I never had to push him. He was always getting me off the couch and making me go out and play with him. He was just that kind of kid. That’s something that was in Josh. I didn’t give that to him. He had that.”

It’s an old argument: Are goalscorers born, or made? Jeff says he noticed his son, the middle child between two sisters now aged 20 and seven who are also soccer players, showing athleticism early in life. But even after Josh climbed the ranks in Development Academy and earned an invite to U.S. Soccer’s Bradenton residency program, Jeff didn’t see his son as a pro-level prospect until major European clubs began calling in the fall of 2016.

“It’s funny, when he was two years old,” the elder Sargent remembers, “he’s got a cousin that’s a couple years older than him that was riding a two-wheeler, and Josh just hopped on it and started riding it, because no one told him he wasn’t supposed to know how, you know?”

“I could always tell he was very coordinated, athletic. He kind of had a gift. But as far as when did I think he’d play in Europe? I didn’t know until I started getting offers.”

Both Jeff and his wife, Liane, grew up in and around the famed soccer hotbed that is greater St. Louis. Liane played at SIU-Edwardsville and Jeff at Sangamon State, now the University of Illinois-Springfield.

“We’ve got a bunch of churches in our North County area, and we always played against each other. It was always battles and it was fun,” said Jeff of his own adolescence. “So I played there, won a state championship in high school, went on and played at college, and my wife did, also. So we just always played, and enjoy it.”

With soccer an ever-present around the house and on the television, it was perhaps no great surprise that Josh set his sights on a serious career early in life.

“He was about three or four when he started saying he wanted to play soccer over in Europe, because I’d always have the games on,” recalls Jeff. “Wanted to play for the national team. Obviously, the odds are against you, but I never said no, you can’t or you won’t. I just kept letting him do what he wanted to do.

“Maybe it’s a Midwest thing, but I knew he was good, and I knew he was good around here. But you never know how he stacks up,” he adds. “I don’t get to see kids from the East Coast, West Coast that much … I’m kind of a realist, and when you look at the numbers, it’s not likely that you’ll [make it]. There’s not a lot of American kids playing over there.

“He’s not the flashiest player in the world. But I think he grows on people because he wins, he does the right thing for the right reasons. He really does want to win more than he wants to get personal goals.”

Even with other activities – Josh was the starting point guard on his high-school basketball team as a freshman – he always found time to do extra work on his own outside of his training sessions for his club, Scott Gallagher.

“He worked. He would practice all the time, but when he wasn’t practicing [with the team], he was out in the backyard practicing,” says his dad. “He has a work ethic that’s beyond reproach.”

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