About this time last year, Cameron Carter Vickers didn’t know what to think about Josh Sargent upon his surprise addition to the Under-20 Men’s National Team. The 17-year-old forward arrived at the U-20 MNT’s pre-World Cup training camp in Korea Republic just a few days after leading the U-17 MNT to a runner-up finish at the Concacaf U-17 Championship.
Sargent went from captain to new kid on the block. From a veteran U-17 presence to interloper in a well-established U-20 squad. As a defender, Carter-Vickers went against the young striker every day in camp. He still had questions about the mop-topped redhead from St. Louis.
“I wasn’t too sure about him,” Carter-Vickers said. “I wasn’t too sure that he was that good of a player, or if he was going to be what we needed.”
Game day brought an end to any uncertainty. After suffering an early 2-0 deficit to open the
U-20 World Cup, the team desperately needed a goal in their opening match against Ecuador. Sargent delivered. His poised 36th-minute strike put the USA on the board. When the U-20s needed an equalizer, Sargent answered once again 18 minutes later. The performance cleared the air of any lingering doubt.
“As soon as that first game, I could see that he could strike a ball well,” Carter-Vickers said. “Obviously, he scored two goals and I thought, yeah, I can see why he’s here.”
Almost a year to the date of his debut with the U-20 MNT, Sargent earned his first appearance for the senior squad on May 28 against Bolivia in Philadelphia. Like his debut with the 20s, the now-18-year-old made an instant impression. In the 52nd minute, the 18-year-old swooped in on a poorly played ball by Bolivia goalkeeper Carlos Lampe, took it out of the air, turned and stuffed home his first international goal. Aged 18 years, 102 days, the strike make Sargent the second-young MNT player to score in his debut.
“There’s a great generation coming through,” Sargent said after the game. “I think the fans have a lot to look forward to. It’s all gone by so fast. It’s really cool to be able to score at each level, and now proving that I can score at the professional level as well.”
One year after the U-20 MNT reached the quarterfinals at the U-20 World Cup in Korea Republic, a quintet of that team’s young talent has reached the senior MNT, the highest number yet in a single camp from last summer’s tournament roster. The U-20 alumni have begun to make an impact as part of the young MNT’s next generation.
“It's really nice to be here together now and look back on the Under-20 cycle. We've come pretty far,” said midfielder Tyler Adams. “When I got my first call-up, it was an exciting time period because there were a lot of young faces. It’s refreshing to see a lot of young talent that we have graduated and come through the Youth National Teams. For these guys now, you're going to see their faces a lot."
The five players now in camp from last year’s U-20 World Cup-- Adams, Carter-Vickers, Luca de la Torre, Erik Palmer-Brown and Sargent—all climbed up the Youth National Team ladder. All but Carter-Vickers spent time at the U-17 level before they made a jump to the next World Cup age group, while the England-based defender logged minutes with the U-18s. Sargent pulled double duty with the 17s and 20s last year as a key player in each team’s World Cup run. He made one appearance with the U-20 squad earlier this year before his current MNT call-up.
Carter-Vickers and Palmer-Brown got a head start on their YNT development when they made the 2015 U-20 World Cup roster as underage players. In New Zealand, Carter-Vickers established a partnership with fellow center back Matt Miazga, one which has already taken the field three times for the senior team since last November in Portugal.
“Having been part of a World Cup, going into the second one you kind of know what to expect.” Carter-Vickers said. “You can pass some bits and bobs to your teammates and just try to help the team do well. In both 2015 and 2017, everyone got on really well on and off the pitch. There was good team chemistry. I think we performed at both of them.”
That 2015 World Cup in New Zealand has provided a similar pipeline of talent for the current MNT. Several players from that squad have advanced to the full team since November, and have already begun to make an impression at the senior level. In the current camp, Miazga, Zack Steffen and Rubio Rubin have all made multiple MNT appearances, while Shaq Moore earned his debut on Saturday against Ireland.
Midfielders Kellyn Acosta and Paul Arriola played big roles for the MNT in the past year, while Marky Delgado and Emerson Hyndman have also picked up their first caps, meaning that a staggering half of the 2015 roster has enjoyed senior team debuts.
Erik Palmer-Brown played only 90 minutes in New Zealand, but the experiences he gleaned as a part of the World Cup roster proved invaluable. He entered the new U-20 cycle as the team’s captain, and last spring led the USA to its first-ever Concacaf U-20 Championship.
That run forged the team together, and while six new players joined the U-20 ranks for Korea Republic, Sargent stood as the biggest curveball. The O’Fallon, Mo., product had appeared in just one U-20 MNT camp before the forward was thrust into the mix. As the captain, Lee’s Summit native Palmer-Brown dealt with task to integrate him into the team. Their shared Missouri roots provided plenty of ammo for banter
“As a team, we were open. I think we trust in the coaches and the system that they're going to choose the best players to be at the camp,” Palmer-Brown said. “For us, I think it was very seamless for Josh to come to the group. He’s from Missouri so I had to pick on him quite a bit. When he came in the group we had a lot of fun. I think in general he did well and he only helped our team.”
Performance served as the prime proving ground. Sargent’s showing in the opener turned heads, and his tear continued the rest of the team’s time in Korea. He followed up his standout debut with the game-winner in a 1-0 win against Senegal and another in a 6-0 rout of New Zealand. His four goals earned him Silver Boot honors at the tournament and an eventual professional contract with Bundesliga side Werder Bremen.
After another strong performance at last October’s FIFA U-17 World Cup in India, Sargent earned his first call-up to the senior team in Portugal a month later. U-20 teammates Tyler Adams and Cameron Carter-Vickers joined him. At the MNT’s annual January camp, U-20 MNT Real Salt Lake products Danny Acosta, Justen Glad and Brooks Lennon earned their first senior invites. Palmer-Brown made his MNT camp debut in March and his first appearance on May 28 against Bolivia.
The recent U-20 graduates sit near the center of the MNT’s refreshed roster. The squad’s average age came in just over 23 years, while 10 players stood age-eligible for last year’s competition. While they have represented the USA at the world’s highest level of youth competition, the senior level stage presents a new challenge.
Like the World Cup, moments like Sargent’s goal in Philadelphia will help to establish their place with the senior team, while defeats like the last-minute loss to Ireland will provide educational lumps to take. As they begin to forge the MNT’s future, the core of familiar faces has facilitated their jumps to the full international ranks.
“It's a lot more fun to grow up with all the guys that you started with and see how they've progressed over time and developed and able to make the next step together,” Adams said. “It's fairly easy to come into camp when you know you're going to have guys that you're really close with in camp with you. It makes it very seamless.
“You take those youth World Cup experiences and you’re ready to make the next step. When you recognize how important it is that you've really made it to the senior national team, it really keeps you hungry. You want more if you want to keep getting called in, you want to establish yourself and continue to represent the country.”