USMNT’s Haji Wright returns to US program

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Haji Wright got the call from U.S. national soccer team coach Gregg Berhalter about six weeks ago – a call that, until this spring, was far from warranted.

For years, while many of his peers were excelling abroad, the American striker had drifted onto the European club scene without delivering on the great promise he had shown at national youth team level.

There were spells with clubs in Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark, but without a breakout season he had lost himself in the mix of young American prospects abroad.

Then last year Wright moved to Turkey, and at the end of a 2021-22 campaign in which he finished among the Super Lig’s top scorers, the 24-year-old striker had caught the eye by Berhalter.

In a World Cup year – and needing scoring options as roster decisions approach – Berhalter made the call to invite Wright to a training camp that included four matches this month -this.

“I was hoping for more than I expected,” Wright said of the call, “but I wasn’t surprised.”

He was not surprised as he scores like no other American: 14 goals in 32 appearances (21 starts) for Turkish club Antalyaspor, including eight goals in seven appearances over a six-week period in April and May.

He was also productive the previous season, scoring 11 goals for Danish club Sonderjyske, but his ability to maintain those numbers in a stronger league has put him on Berhalter’s radar this year.

In the American camp for the first time since 2019, Wright made his senior debut on June 1 as a substitute against Morocco in Cincinnati. Late in the game, with the Americans leading by two and the team awarded a penalty, American star Christian Pulisic handed the ball to Wright, whose conversion capped a 3-0 victory.

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“I asked him, and he gave me the opportunity to score my first goal, in my first game, and it’s a really great feeling,” Wright said.

Pulisic said he “just wanted to give him some confidence”.

“I’m happy to see him score,” he said.

It’s been a long road for the Southern California native. As his national youth team career skyrocketed with 27 goals in 34 games, Wright struggled to achieve the club’s ambitions.

“It’s definitely not linear,” he said. “There were a lot of ups and downs. There were a lot of good patches and rough patches. I think I persevered through the tough times and enjoyed the good times.

Wright finds himself in a good pass at the right time. While many places in the World Cup roster are all but set, the striker’s position remains uncertain.

Since last summer Berhalter have used Josh Sargent, Ricardo Pepi, Jesús Ferreira, Jordan Pefok, Gyasi Zardes and Daryl Dike. None seized the role of holder.

In this camp, the penultimate before the team showed up in Qatar in November, Wright and Ferreira, 21, were the only strikers invited. The competition for calls to the two friendlies in September, however, remains wide open.

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For the first two matches this month, Ferreira started and Wright came off the bench. In all likelihood, Wright will receive his first start on Friday against Grenada in a Concacaf Nations League game in Austin.

“I still don’t think there’s enough sample size for Haji,” Berhalter said after Sunday’s 0-0 draw with Uruguay in Kansas City, Kan. “We will continue to work with them, and [with] two Nations League games, we’ll see if Jesús and Haji can hit the back of the net.

Wright’s appeal has been embraced by established players who have known him from his youthful national team days.

“It was the duo back then – me and Haji,” Pulisic said. “We played a lot of games together in national youth teams, and it’s cool to see him again.”

Midfielder Weston McKennie called Wright’s comeback “magnificent”.

“Some players would be knocked down,” McKennie said. “Some players would have lost their morale. But for him, finding his own way back here is definitely inspiring.

Midfielder Tyler Adams said he was delighted to “watch how he has grown, developed and matured as a player”.

Asked about reuniting with these players, Wright smiled and said: “They haven’t changed much. The same clumsy guys when we were 15, 14.

Wright’s journey began at the Los Angeles Galaxy youth academy, then New York Cosmos, then Schalke’s Under-19 team in Germany. After a loan spell at German second division Sandhausen, he made seven Bundesliga appearances and scored once for Schalke’s first unit in 2018-19.

Wright signed with VVV-Venlo in the Dutch top flight but failed to score in 22 league appearances. It was then on Sonderjyske, where he started to find his way in 2020-21. The Danish team decided to loan him to Antalyaspor last season.

“Having moved around a lot in the last two years, it added some life experience and an understanding of life,” Wright said. “When you witness different styles of play, you learn more instead of playing in one country all your life. I understand football a bit better than when I started.

He thanked his coach, former Turkish midfielder Nuri Sahin, for mentoring him.

“He puts me in situations where I can help the team score goals and create goals,” Wright said. “He also taught me a lot about being a striker. He helped me more with my building and linking game, my positioning. He put me in places where I can be in front of goal and the guy who shoots and [getting] bounces.

Wright finished tied for seventh in the Super Lig scoring race, and his club finished on a 16-game unbeaten streak to climb to seventh on the 20-team circuit, nine places clear of the last year.

“He was able to start dominating in games,” Berhalter said, adding that it was the “perfect time” to invite Wright to the American camp.

Pulisic appreciates Wright’s arduous journey, saying, “I really respect people who haven’t necessarily had it easy. He’s had his ups and downs, and to come out the other side and perform as well as he is now is impressive.

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