Sargent’s Gold Cup exclusion is Berhalter’s first truly baffling USMNT decision

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If this was Jurgen Klinsmann, he’s be absolutely skewered.

Gregg Berhalter made his first true Klinsmann-esque head-scratcher when he released the final 23-man Gold Cup roster, leaving Josh Sargent at home in favor of fellow strikers Gyasi Zardes and Jordan Morris.

It’s an absolutely baffling decision with little upside, foresight, or thought put in the process. If this was Klinsmann at the helm, the pitchforks and torches would be out en masse.

The 19-year-old Werder Bremen frontman was brought into the preliminary Gold Cup squad at the expense of a position with the likes of Timothy Weah and Paxton Pomykal at the U-20 World Cup group, where Sargent would have likely been the first-choice striker ahead of Sebastian Soto. To be fair, Soto is having an excellent U-20 World Cup, with his brace helping topple the favorites France in their Round of 16 meeting.

Yet still, had Sargent been in Poland, he would have received gobs of playing time and been a first-team regular racking up meaningful minutes on the pitch. Berhalter sacrificed that to bring Sargent into the Gold Cup fold, a clear indication that the Missouri-born teen was firmly in the mix for a first-team role. This highlights the first of many reasons Sargent’s exclusion is a massive mistake by Berhalter and his USMNT front office…as a 19-year-old, what Sargent needs most is game time. If the decision-makers wished to sacrifice valuable minutes in a high-leverage tournament with Tab Ramos and company, it should have been to get Sargent time with the senior squad. That doesn’t mean he necessarily had to play a bunch at the Gold Cup; being with the senior squad alone is valuable enough for a player of his age to make a fair trade-off from U-20 World Cup time.

Consider what Tab Ramos said a month ago when the U-20 World Cup preliminary roster was announced, with Sargent’s inclusion. “We weren’t 100% sure because of the playing time situation, so I did put him on the 50-man roster, but it’s clear that he’s going into the summer with the senior national team. So it’s best that he continues to move in that direction.”

Clearly the intent was to have Sargent be with the senior squad for the long-term. Instead, the striker is now sitting on his couch this summer, neither racking up high-leverage minutes in Poland or gaining valuable experience with the senior squad. How does that make any sense? The potential successor to Jozy Altidore‘s throne is simply cast aside.

The above quotes from Berhalter after the loss to Jamaica Wednesday night provide the perfect transition to the second reason this is flat out wrong. Berhalter said Sargent is “the striker for the national team in the future,” yet the new head man would willingly sacrifice his development to include Jordan Morris and Gyasi Zardes on the Gold Cup roster, like the Gold Cup is some win-at-all-costs trophy that needs even backups and third-stringers to be tip-top game-ready. With the unceremonious death of the Confederations Cup, the Gold Cup is almost entirely meaningless. Yes, it still counts as the confederation’s main continental tournament, and it certainly provides a competitive bridge between four-year cycles to be taken seriously, but the ultimate goal of the USMNT is undoubtedly a successful end to World Cup qualification. Yet Berhalter is treating the Gold Cup like the World Cup itself, taking the very best 23 players instead of building for the future by making sure the team is as prepared as possible to qualify for Qatar 2022.

The Gold Cup should be taken for what it is: a meaningful tournament that gives the team a chance to gain minutes on the field together and prepare the future of the squad for the truly important World Cup qualifiers. Leaving Sargent at home for the likes of Zardes and Morris completely contradicts that. Even if Berhalter sacrificed a wide player like Tyler Boyd or Jonathan Lewis to keep four strikers just so Sargent could be with the team, it would have made more sense…there’s enough width on the roster between Paul Arriola and versatile players like Zardes, Christian Roldan, and Christian Pulisic that the team makeup would remain healthy.

Finally, for Berhalter to suggest that Sargent’s play on the field is far enough behind the likes of Zardes and Morris that it warrants his total exclusion from the squad – after he was kept home from Poland specifically for senior squad experience – is just flat out insulting to U.S. fans who know he could do the job against the likes of Panama and Trinidad & Tobago if necessitated. Surely the staff didn’t decide Sargent’s Gold Cup squad-readiness based on one B-team friendly against Jamaica where the entire attack was bogged down?

At 19 years old, Sargent is a bright talent and clearly Berhalter and company see him as the future of the USMNT attack. He doesn’t need rest after playing just 1,267 professional minutes this past season, including just 205 with the senior Werder Bremen squad. His development is still progressing, and for the kid to reach his full potential, he needs to be treated as the player the national team sees him becoming. Leaving him at home this summer because he’s not a first-team option – which in and of itself is debatable – is incredibly short-sighted and calls the true direction of Berhalter’s staff into serious question. This isn’t yet a fireable offense by any means, but after what fans were put through under Klinsmann, it harkens back to the German’s tenure full of baffling personnel decisions and questionable lineup choices that fans do not wish to be put through again. Recalling the previous incumbency by putting the Gold Cup on such a pedestal that it sacrifices the future of the national team in any way is enough to unearth bad memories and make any U.S. fan groan in disgust.