The decision to sacrifice something today for a benefit in the future is one that we all face every day. Should I have that cheeseburger or those brussels sprouts? Should I hit the gym or turn on Xbox? In the sports world, these trade-off decisions come under more scrutiny than perhaps your mother might put to you, but similar dynamics are at play. One way we help make these decisions is to set long term goals for ourselves that help us prioritize our activities. I want to live a long healthy life so I go to the gym and eat those sprouts (no I don’t).
Gregg Berhalter’s decision to send Josh Sargent home before the Gold Cup and keep Jozy Altidore and Gyasi Zardes on the United States Men’s National Team roster is one of those decisions. And it’s one that deserves scrutiny because it offers insight into the mind of Berhalter, and perhaps the Federation.
First let’s throw out some potential US Men’s National Team goals that could be in the consideration set for the powers that be.
- Win the Gold Cup
- Qualify for Qatar
- Reach the Round of 16 in Qatar
- Maximize performance at the 2026 World Cup in the US
- Build a culture where the best players play in competitive matches
Just reading through these it should become obvious that there may be decisions that pit one goal against the other. Winning the Gold Cup might come at the cost of World Cup goals, for example. But a good organization would work through the priority of these goals in case they conflict with the higher ranked goal getting preference for decisions.
Here is what Berhalter had to say about the decision.
Berhalter on why Altidore/Zardes as the two strikers over Sargent: "It’s a simple reason: We think they’re ahead of him right now. We have to do what we felt was best for the team right now and that’s the decision we made."— Paul Tenorio (@PaulTenorio) June 6, 2019
There’s a lot to unpack in this quote. The “right now” combination is very telling. From this perspective, any thought of qualification for Qatar is not a factor. It’s clear that winning the Gold Cup trumps all other objectives. Altidore will be 32 if and when Qatar comes around, and while he’s shown he can score at a high international level, he’s also been injury prone throughout his career and simply can’t be counted on for the next World Cup. Zardes will be 30 in Qatar and while his uses are more varied than Jozy, he also hasn’t shown he can be a difference maker on the big stage.
Sargent is just 19 and scored 2 goals in his inaugural Bundesliga season. He clearly will be in the mix for years to come. Berhalter agrees. He said that Sargent “is the striker for the national team in the future. We’re sure of that.” If this is true, then it’s clear that Sargent would get value, even if he didn’t play, from building relationships with his future teammates, practice time, and gaining experience in a competitive environment, something the USMNT hasn’t experienced since 2017.
It’s clear how Berhalter ranks those goals. A Gold Cup win and installing a pecking order are higher priorities than any World Cup goals. If fans are angry at this decision, it’s because they value the World Cup over any results at the Gold Cup, or because they believe Sargent gives them a better chance of winning.
The idea that Sargent has to actually beat out Altidore and Zardes is tougher to criticize. Assuming that fans accept that Altidore and Zardes are currently in better form than Sargent, there are benefits to building that culture. Establishing a competitive mindset can build motivation and resilience in the team. Under that lens, it’s a setback for Sargent, but one that might bring him back a more determined player for matches with greater importance.
The coaching philosophy is one thing, but there is no denying the short term versus long term decision that was made. Playing Sargent might not give the USMNT the best chance of winning the Gold Cup, but playing him would undoubtedly give him valuable experience as he works to becomes the team’s top striker for years to come.
Berhalter has chosen the near term goal at the expense of the longer term ones. Perhaps the divide isn’t as big as cheeseburgers or brussels sprouts. Perhaps, that competitive culture is more important in his mind. Perhaps, there is pressure internally to perform well in the tournament. Perhaps, Josh Sargent should be on the roster.