Werder Bremen striker Josh Sargent has had some highs and lows in his first full season as a Bundesliga regular. But the experience he has gained in a difficult time for his club can only help the United States international for the rest of his career.
bundesliga.com assesses what the 20-year-old has learned during Bremen’s eventful 2019/20 campaign…
Sargent signed a professional contract with Bremen when he turned 18 in February 2018, and would soon earn a first-team call-up after scoring seven goals in 12 matches for the reserve side in the first half of the 2018/19 season.
A dream debut followed when the Missouri native netted with his first touch after coming off the bench in a 3-1 win over Fortuna Düsseldorf in December 2018. Sargent swiftly followed that up with another goal, in a 3-2 defeat at RB Leipzig, and by February the Green-Whites had seen enough to offer him a long-term contract extension in February 2019.
Watch: Josh Sargent on life at Bremen and scoring on his Bundesliga debut
"If you see Josh in the dressing room, in training or on a matchday, you see someone who wants to watch and learn – not just a very talented young footballer," said Bremen head coach Florian Kohfeldt at the time.
Sargent ended the season with one start, nine substitute appearances, and 205 minutes to his name and – with Bremen finishing eighth – he would have had high hopes for 2019/20.
On a personal level the new season started well. It only took Sargent until Matchday 11 to equal his appearance tally from the year before, recording two goals and two assists in 539 minutes. His first goal – in the Matchday 3 win over Augsburg – was sublime, as the youngster deftly scooped the ball over the keeper before tapping home. The second, a deflected effort against Hertha Berlin, earned his side another point on Matchday 8.
"Josh is now at a level where other clubs are looking at him," Kohfeldt said of the extra attention the American was commanding.
Watch: Sargent's Bergkamp-esque stunner against Augsburg
However, the Bremen coach also warned that the next challenge for the 2017 US Soccer Young Male Player of the Year would be to perform on a consistent basis. "That means not just having one, two or three good moments in a game, but ideally seven to ten," Kohfeldt explained.
Despite Bremen’s struggle for results on the pitch, Sargent was still getting a great education. Shortly after turning 41 in October, veteran striker Claudio Pizarro – a six-time Bundesliga champion with over 200 league goals to his name – was there to offer advice in training.
"I try to help him out with my experience," former Bayern Munich striker Pizarro told Deutsche Welle. "I try to guide him so he can avoid the mistakes I made. That way, he doesn't use up much time to develop in the best way he can."
Other role models to keep an eye on weren’t too far way. Former Borussia Dortmund attacker Christian Pulisic had blazed a trail for Americans in the Bundesliga, and Sargent said it was a "dream situation" to be playing in the German top flight with fellow US internationals Weston McKennie (Schalke), Tyler Adams (Leipzig) and Gio Reyna (Dortmund).
"We can all grow up and develop together and see where it goes," Sargent told ESPN in April.
Sargent took his tally for his country to five goals in 12 caps before 2019 was out, but his progress at club and international level would soon be checked. Hampered by injury from the middle of November, the 20-year-old ultimately had to sit out the final four Bundesliga games of the year.
Bremen dropped from 13th to second bottom in that time, and when Sargent got his third goal of the campaign – in a 2-2 draw at Hertha Berlin in March – they were still in the relegation zone.
The Hertha result ended a run of five defeats in a row and, if it was hard enough for a young striker to develop in a struggling team, it would get even more difficult. The trip to the capital was the last game before the coronavirus pandemic interrupted the season.
"It's a time for us to kind of calm down a bit," Sargent said during the lengthy layoff that followed. "It's a good time for a lot of injured players to come back and regroup… Everyone's focus is on staying in the Bundesliga. We'll all fight to the end until that happens."
In and out of the side in the second half of the campaign, Sargent would eventually help his side avoid automatic relegation.
He came off the bench to get Bremen’s final goal – his fourth of the season – in a 6-1 win over Cologne on the last day of the season. The victory was enough for Bremen to climb to third from bottom – and into the relegation/promotion play-off place – thanks to Union Berlin’s 3-0 victory against relegation rivals Fortuna Düsseldorf.
"I've worked for this," Sargent said after getting on the scoresheet for the first time since the league resumed. "Finally I've scored the goal."
A better feeling came, however, when news of Union's win came through after the final whistle – it brought with it confirmation that Bremen had earned a second chance of survival.
"I had goosebumps," Sargent told Werder TV. "I think everyone felt the same: I can't believe what just happened. We always said we will fight until the end. That was a very proud moment for the team."
The job wasn’t done, however. To secure their top-flight status, the Green-Whites would have to overcome Heidenheim, who had finished third in Bundesliga 2, in a two-legged playoff.
Having only been relegated once and with more Bundesliga games (1,900) than any other club, the weight of history seemed to be a heavy burden for Werder in the first leg, and they never truly hit their stride in the 0-0 draw at home. Sargent came off the bench on the 84th minute, and although he was only on the pitch for a short while, he was still involved in two half-chances late on.
That was evidently enough to convince Kohfeldt to start him in the second leg, in what was surely the most high-pressure game of the youngster's career to date.
The forward repaid that faith almost instantly, forcing Norman Theuerkauf into an own goal after just three minutes in what was a mature display full of running and excellent hold-up play. By the time he was taken off in the 88th minute Bremen were almost safe, and the eventual 2-2 draw guaranteed them a spot in the Bundesliga for 2020/21.
Bremen may have flirted with relegation a bit too intensely for comfort, but the rich variety of experience Sargent was exposed to, plus the increasing levels of responsibility he was given, mean it will still be a season full of positives on his upward trajectory.