USMNT’s Hajji Wright returns to the US program

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Haji Wright got the call from US national football team coach Greg Berhalter about six weeks ago — a call that, as of this spring, was unwarranted.

For years, while many of his peers excelled abroad, the American striker has been touring the European club scene without fulfilling the huge promise he made at the youth national team level.

There were spells with clubs in Germany, Holland and Denmark, but without a break season, he was lost amidst a mix of aspiring young Americans abroad.

Wright then moved last year to Turkey, and by the end of the 2021-22 sterling campaign in which he finished as the Premier League’s top scorer, the 24-year-old striker caught Berhalter’s attention.

In a World Cup year – and in need of scoring options as team decisions loom – Berhalter made a call to invite Wright to a four-game training camp this month.

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

He was not surprised because he scored like any other American player: 14 goals in 32 games (21 starts) for Turkish club Antalyaspor, including eight goals in seven matches over six weeks in April and May.

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

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

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“I asked him to, and he gave me the opportunity to score my first goal, in my first game, and that feels really great,” Wright said.

Pulisic said he wanted to “just give him a little bit of confidence”.

“I’m glad to see him score,” he said.

It’s been a long road for a Southern Californian. While his career with the youth national team skyrocketed with 27 goals in 34 appearances, Wright struggled to live up to the club’s ambitions.

“It’s definitely not linear,” he said. “There was a lot of ups and downs. He had a lot of good spots and rough spots. I think I persevered through the tough corrections and enjoyed the good spots.”

Wright finds himself in a good position at a good time. While many of the World Cup roster slots are all set, the striker’s position is still wide open.

Since last summer, Berhalter has used Josh Sargent, Ricardo Pepi, Jesús Ferreira, Jordan Pefok, Gyasi Zardes and Daryl Dike. None of them made the starting role.

In that camp, before the final before the team reports to Qatar in November, Wright and Ferreira, 21, were the only two forwards invited. However, the call-up competition for the two friendlies in September remains wide open.

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In the first two games this month, Ferreira started and Wright came off the bench. In all likelihood, Wright will get his first game Friday against Grenada in the CONCACAF Nations League game in Austin.

“I still don’t think there is enough volume for the Haji sample,” Berhalter said after Sunday’s 0-0 draw with Uruguay in Kansas City, Kansas. [with] Two matches in the Nations League, we will see if Jesus and Hagi can hit the net. “

Wright’s call-up was accepted by well-known players who have known him since the days of the youth national team.

“That was the duo back in the day – me and my Hajj,” Pulisic said. “We’ve played a lot of games together in the youth national teams, and it’s great to have him back.”

Midfielder Weston McKinney described Wright’s return as “beautiful”.

“Some players will be dropped,” McKinney said. “Some players will lose their morale. But for him, finding his way back here is definitely an inspiring path.”

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

When asked about the reunion of these guys, Wright smiled and said, “They haven’t changed much. Same goofy guys when we were 15 and 14.”

Wright’s journey began at the LA Galaxy Youth Academy, moving on to the lower-tier New York Cosmos, and then to Schalke’s Under-19 team in Germany. After being loaned to German second-division club Sandhausen, he participated in seven matches in the German League and scored once for the first team of Schalke 04 in the 2018-2019 season.

Wright signed with VVV-Venlo in the Eredivisie, but failed to score in 22 league matches. Then he made it to Sonderjyske, where he began to work his way up in 2020-21. The Danish side decided to loan him to Antalyaspor last season.

“After moving around a lot in the past two years, he’s added some life experience and understanding of life,” Wright said. “When you experience different styles of play, you will learn more rather than playing in one country your whole life. I understand football a bit more than when I started.”

He credited his manager, former Turkish midfielder Nuri Sahin, for his teaching.

“He put me in situations where I can help the team score goals and make goals,” Wright said. “He has also taught me a lot about being a striker. He has helped me more with developing play and bonding, and positioning. He has put me in places where I can be in front of goal and the man who shoots [getting] rebounds. “

Wright finished tied for seventh in the Super Lig’s scoring race, and his team finished 16-game winning streak unbeaten to fly to seventh in the 20-team circuit, a nine-point increase from the previous year.

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

Pulisic appreciates Wright’s uphill trajectory, saying, “I really respect people for whom it wasn’t necessarily easy. He’s had his ups and downs, going out to the other side and performing as he is now is impressive.”

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