On 20 February 2018, Josh Sargent put pen to paper on his first professional contract with four-time Bundesliga champions Werder Bremen. But what is it about the 18-year-old American striker that prompted the Green-Whites to secure his services ahead of a number of top European sides?
Sargent had already agreed a deal with Bremen by the time he was named U.S. Soccer's Young Male Player of the Year for 2017, after a remarkable 12 months which saw him represent the Stars and Stripes at the FIFA U-20 World Cup and the FIFA U-17 World Cup, as well as earning his first call-up to the senior Men's National Team.
As he prepares to dive in at the deep end in the German top flight, bundesliga.com shines the spotlight on the man from Missouri, who's been plotting his path to professional football since the age of three...
Soccer in the blood... and on TV
Sargent's parents, Jeff and Liane, both played soccer in college after growing up in greater St. Louis, which has long been established as one of the major hotbeds for the sport in the United States. Young Josh and his sisters were therefore exposed to the game growing up, and it wasn't long before the former started picturing his name in lights.
"He told everyone who would listen that he was going to be a professional soccer player one day," Liane recalled. "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," Jeff added.
"I was real little and people would just smile and say, 'That's nice,'" Sargent himself reminisced. "I'm not sure anyone took me seriously."
Encouraged by his parents and inspired by the soccer greats he watched hungrily on television, the naturally athletic Sargent continued to blossom, eventually joining the highly-rated Development Academy at the St. Louis Scott Gallagher Soccer Club. His father believes his success was as much down to his determination as his increasingly recognisable talent.
"I know some parents push their kids a lot, but I never had to push him," Jeff explained. "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."
Sargent made his first appearance for the U.S. national youth teams in 2013, before travelling to England with the U-15s for an international training camp two years later. He really began to show up on the radar in 2016, as he captained the U-17s to victory at the Nike International Friendlies tournament, chipping in with four goals and two assists in three games.
It quickly became apparent that this was no ordinary striker, and the O'Fallon native continued to go from strength to strength in a breakout 2017. He scored five goals at the CONCACAF U-17 Championship as the U.S. finished as runners-up to Mexico, thereby qualifying for the World Cup in October. Before that, he jumped up to U-20 level for the World Cup in South Korea, where he scored another four goals - including a brace on his debut against Ecuador - to earn himself the Silver Boot as Tab Ramos's side reached the quarter-finals.
"World Cups are huge," Sargent said at the time. "Being able to go with an older age group is really good for me - it'll push me and help me realise just how good the competition is around the world. Playing with these older guys will push me every day, and I think I can take that back with the U-17s to help make us more successful in October."
By the time he travelled to India for the U-17 World Cup, Sargent had already been snapped up by Bremen, one of a host of clubs in Germany and beyond who had been keeping an eye on the latest prodigy from across the pond.
"We've been keeping tabs on Josh for a while now, so it was no surprise for us that he's been attracting more and more attention for his performances with the national team," admitted Bremen's chief scout, Tim Steidten. "It makes it all the more satisfying that we've been able to convince him about Bremen's philosophy, despite the interest from many of Europe's top clubs."
"I think it was just that gut feeling that Bremen felt like home," Sargent explained. "I think they're going to be a great fit for me."
Buoyed by his imminent switch to the Bundesliga, Sargent rounded out 2017 on a high note, netting another three goals at the U-17 World Cup - where the U.S. were again knocked out in the quarter-finals, by eventual champions England - before earning his first call-up to the senior USMNT squad in November. Having matched Freddy Adu's all-time national record of seven goals in youth World Cups, the 17-year-old was then named U.S. Soccer Young Male Player of the Year in December.
"He has a ton of talent for his age," enthused U.S. U-17 coach John Hackworth. "And he has a tremendous work ethic. He trains the way he plays - all out. At this point, he's doing all the right things and proving that he belongs."
Sargent minor to Sargent major
Sargent officially made the step up to professional football on 20 February 2018, the day of his 18th birthday, finally accomplishing a dream that was 15 years in the making. While he has played with the Bremen U-23s since the start of the year, the Bundesliga's latest American import will only be eligible to play for the first team squad at the start of the 2018/19 campaign.
"All the formalities have been completed and Josh has now signed his professional contract with us," Bremen sporting director Frank Baumann confirmed. "We're really happy that he's decided to take this next step in his career at Bremen. He has really impressed us since the beginning of this year and has gathered experience in first team training, as well as some games with the U-23s."
Happy eighteenth birthday, @joshsargent! 💚— SV Werder Bremen EN (@werderbremen_en) February 20, 2018
And you know what that means - he's also signed his professional contract with the Green-Whites! ✍️
📰 https://t.co/r7vaNaWLol #werder pic.twitter.com/rSFEnWleNg
Bremen's new recruit isn't the only American in town - 19-year-old Isaiah Young has been on the club's books since January 2017, while Aron Johannsson has been plying his trade at the Weser Stadion for nearly three seasons. They should help Sargent find his feet as he looks to follow in the footsteps of fellow compatriots Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie, who have been lighting up the Bundesliga with Borussia Dortmund and Schalke respectively.
"He's not the flashiest player in the world," his father acknowledged. "But I think he grows on people because he's a winner. He does the right thing for the right reasons. He really wants to win, more than he wants to achieve any personal goals."
Watch: The Top 10 American goals in the Bundesliga!
A certified goal-getter with a healthy sense of team spirit - not to mention a natural leader - Sargent should be the perfect fit for a Bremen side who are currently flirting with relegation ahead of a crunch Matchday 24 clash with fellow strugglers and bitter northern rivals Hamburg. Provided that they avoid the drop, Florian Kohfeldt's all-new Sargent Major could be just the secret weapon the Green-Whites need to return to their glory days of the past.