When the U.S. Under-20 national team lifted the CONCACAF Championship for the first time earlier this year, it was easy to get caught up in the significance of the accomplishment and not dwell on the team's one glaring flaw: the lack of a reliable goal-scorer.
The U.S. had a rock-solid defense, good goalkeeper and lively midfield, so the fact none of the team's forwards had emerged was easy to ignore at the time — but it was pretty clear that void could wind up costing the Americans at the World Cup.
Josh Sargent has stepped in and filled that void like few could have imagined.
The 17-year-old striker followed up his two-goal performance in the World Cup-opening draw against Ecuador by scoring in a 1-0 triumph over a tough Senegal team Thursday. Sargent collected a Luca de la Torre pass with a perfect touch, spun with the grace of Michael Jackson, and belted home a left-footed shot that gave the goalkeeper no chance. It was the confident finish of a player much older than Sargent, but we are learning quickly that there's something special about the Missouri native.
Sargent's goal will be what is remembered, but his presence was a constant threat Thursday, keeping Senegal's defense on its heels and giving his teammates an outlet. With some luck, Sargent could have finished with two or three goals, but his work rate and smart runs were still a generous side dish to serve with his gem of a goal.
Thursday's win was about much more than Sargent. We saw the American defense work out the issues it faced in the opener, with Cameron Carter-Vickers stepping in and providing a presence that made his teammates feel much more secure. The midfield, with Derrick Jones as the defensive anchor in place of the injured Gedion Zelalem, outplayed Senegal for much of the day, with Tyler Adams covering ground like a young N'Golo Kante and Brooks Lennon turning in another strong effort from the right wing.
The star of the show, though, was Sargent. He has captured the imagination of American fans, who have already begun to wonder if he might follow Christian Pulisic's footsteps in resetting the limits for reasonable expectations for American teenagers.
It is much easier now to fantasize about just what Sargent could do in the coming years after watching Pulisic's meteoric rise. What used to be the time to pump the brakes on hyping a young player now feels more like a time to consider that we're seeing a new breed of fearless American prospect that is much more fundamentally prepared to deal with climbing the ladder.
We watched a 17-year-old Sargent and 18-year-old Adams shine Thursday, and now the U.S. U-20 team finds itself in control of a tough World Cup group, looking more than capable of winning it. That scenario isn't one many would have predicted just two months ago, but back then few could have imagined that Sargent would be ready to jump in and fill the team's biggest need.
Here are some other thoughts on the Americans' win against Senegal:
ADAMS DOMINATES THE MIDFIELD
New York Red Bulls midfielder Tyler Adams was a box-to-box revelation against Senegal, covering ground like a herd of buffalo, and providing both defensive bite and an attacking element that kept Senegal from being able to grab hold of the game.
Those who have only just become familiar with Adams during his recent run as a starting defensive midfielder for the Red Bulls may have already known that he has an impressive engine, and mean streak that belies his baby-face facade.
But Adams has shown at the U-20 World Cup that he's more than just a tenacious No. 6. His clever pass on the sequence leading to Sargent's goal was sublime, and he nearly topped that with a defense-splitting ball that almost sprung the striker free.
Scouts are surely noticing Adams' well-rounded game, as well as the leadership he exudes, which is made even more impressive when considering he's one of the team's youngest players.
You will pardon Cameron Carter-Vickers if he almost looked bored at times, swatting away Senegal attacking forays like a mule's tale beating away flies. The Tottenham defender erased any doubts about his fitness after a recent knee injury with as thoroughly dominant a display as we have seen from a young American defender since, well, the 2015 U-20 World Cup, when Carter-Vickers also impressed.
It shouldn't really be a surprise that Carter-Vickers looked as sharp as he did. Mauricio Pochettino didn't include him in Tottenham's 18-man squad repeatedly because he likes his company. It was impressive to see how Carter-Vickers' presence made the rest of the defense better, more comfortable, and, ultimately, more secure.
Right back Aaron Herrera, who struggled mightily in the opener against Ecuador, rebounded with a steady effort. You can chalk at least part of that up to the presence of Carter-Vickers. Erik Palmer-Brown was the best American defender against Ecuador, and is a force in his own right, but having Carter-Vickers next to him meant not having to scramble to put out other people's fires. That let him focus on shutting down Senegal's strikers, who were largely rendered invisible.
With Carter-Vickers leading the defense, and Palmer-Brown serving as his overqualified sidekick, the U.S. has the kind of back line that could help steer a deep World Cup run.
RAMOS SHOULD CONSIDER RESTING SOME PLAYERS
The Americans return to action Sunday against Saudi Arabia, having all but ensured a place in the knockout round with Thursday's win. The U.S. can win the group with a victory against the Saudis, but Ramos will have to consider giving some of his players a rest.
Josh Sargent took a beating from Senegal's defenders, and the Americans might be better served letting him rest, or at least begin on the bench against Saudi Arabia. Tyler Adams also has expended a ton of energy over the first two matches, and could benefit from a rest to help have him recharged for the knockout round.
Ramos has some depth to work with, and it isn't as if playing Justen Glad in place of Palmer-Brown, and inserting a Sebastian Saucedo for Adams or Eryk Williamson, will suddenly mean a loss. What it can do is help instill confidence in some bench options, who could prove highly important in a deep tournament run.