soccer

Sargent riding Norwich confidence to claim USMNT’s No. 9

COLOGNE, Germany — Among a striker’s more prized attributes is a sense of timing. A forward needs to know when to make runs to try to shake off a defender and arrive at the best moment to have a shot at goal.

Since the start of the season in the English Championship, United States international and Norwich City forward Josh Sargent has taken that trait to a different level. Not only is he scoring goals at a regular clip — tallying six times in 10 league encounters — but with just a little less than two months to go until the Americans’ World Cup campaign begins, his run has put him peaking at the perfect time to make manager Gregg Berhalter’s final roster and perhaps log heavy minutes in Qatar.

“I haven’t really had a season like this,” Sargent said during a roundtable with reporters on Wednesday. “I would say in terms of getting a lot of scoring chances, getting minutes at striker like I have, this season so far, yeah, confidence is at an all-time high at the moment. I’m just trying to keep that momentum going as long as possible, keeping scoring goals.”

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It has been little more than a year since Sargent last suited up for the US, that being the 4-1 World Cup qualifying win over Honduras in which he was subbed at halftime, and thus played no part in the second-half comeback that was critical to the US team’s qualification effort. His form at club level was no better. As Norwich slogged through a season that ended in relegation, Sargent was cast oftentimes as a winger, which took him well out of his comfort zone despite having occasionally played the position at previous club Werder Bremen, and he struggled to contribute offensively. A pair of injuries at the end of the season meant the campaign finished on an even more disappointing note.

“I would just say it was a frustrating time,” he said. But the US forward doesn’t begrudge the time he spent out wide, even as he admitted it didn’t play to his strengths.

“I think I’m a team player. I’m not one to say, ‘No, I’m not gonna play winger if a coach wants me to play there,” he said. “I definitely learned a new position. It’s not where I feel the most comfortable, but at the same time, I was getting playing time in the [Premier League] and the best league in the world. So I wasn’t gonna complain too much. But I think I feel most free and I feel most confident when I get to play striker.”

As the minutes at the No. 9 position continued to be hard to come by, it led Berhalter to look elsewhere for a solution, with Ricardo Pepi and Jesus Ferreira getting most of the reps during the rest of qualifying. It meant that player who was once thought to be The Next Big Thing at striker for the US became something of an afterthought.

Fast-forward to this season, and Sargent’s patience and willingness to do the dirty work for the team paid off. Time spent in the weight room meant he entered the season stronger and fitter than he’s ever been.

“I don’t want to brag or anything, but during my injury at the end of the season, I kind of made it a goal for myself and with the athletic department at Norwich,” he said. “I realize these guys are pretty big and strong in the Prem, so I made it a goal of mine to hit the gym a bit more and try to work on that.”

Sargent spent more time in his natural position thanks to an injury to Teemu Pukki, and the American has found himself among the goals again, even if the return to his favorite position felt a little unfamiliar.

“I mean, of course in my mind, I wanted to be playing striker,” he said. “So when I got that opportunity, I knew I had to take it and just thinking, ‘Do I still have my touch?’ So it felt amazing to score that first game.

Now that Pukki is healthy again, Sargent has been moved back to the wing, but his run of goals has seen him used in a different manner than before. Rather than playing predominantly near the touchline, he’s been allowed to tuck inside and play as a second striker. That has allowed him to keep contributing offensively.

Sargent also has additional experience in terms of how to ride out a difficult period, and finding ways to manufacture confidence in those moments. He revealed that two factors helped him in this regard; the first was focusing on the small details.

“I think just taking little things from the games, having things going into the game that you want to accomplish, not necessarily just win the game in general, but little things throughout the game that you set benchmarks for yourself,” he said. “And if you’re those little tasks, you’ll keep getting better and better and keep trying to improve yourself.”

The second was time spent with his wife and daughter, the better to unplug from a sport that can be all-consuming.

“It definitely helps you just shut off and forget about football for a little bit,” Sargent said about family time. “As a single guy, when you come home and you’re just stuck in your thoughts, thinking about training or whatever it was, it can benefit to learn from it. But also it can be damaging for you if you’re thinking too much about it. So it helps me out a lot with kind of just unwinding and forgetting about football for a bit.”

At the moment, Sargent’s focus is on cementing his spot on the final roster. By now, Berhalter’s preferences in the position are well known. Mobility is key, as the US manager expects his central striker is expected to lead the press, while also dropping back into midfield to help build the attack. And oh yeah, score goals — although given that the red-hot Jordan Pefok was left off the roster, that might not be as important as the first two. But Sargent’s size and improved strength give him the ability to perhaps score a brute-force goal in a way that other forwards in the US pool can’t. Sargent’s self-belief isn’t wavering either.

“I think one of the biggest things in football is to stay as confident as you can, to still believe in yourself when things aren’t going right,” Sargent said. “And when things are going right, you’re scoring, to ride that wave out and continue with that momentum as long as you can.”

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