USMNT’s Haji Wright returns to US program

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Haji Wright received the call from US 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 excelled overseas, the American striker had drifted around the European club scene without fulfilling the great promise he had shown at the youth national team level.

There were spells with clubs in Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark, but without a breakout season, he had become lost in the mix of young US hopefuls overseas.

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

In a World Cup year — and in need of scoring options as roster decisions neared — Berhalter placed the call to invite Wright to a training camp that included four matches this month.

“I was hoping more than I was expecting,” Wright said of the call-up, “but I wasn’t surprised.”

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

He was productive the previous season, too, with 11 goals for Danish club Sonderjyske, but his ability to sustain those numbers in a stronger league vaulted him onto Berhalter’s radar this year.

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

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“I asked him for it, 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 wanted to “just give him a bit of confidence.”

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

It has been a long road for the Southern California native. While his youth national team career soared with 27 goals in 34 games, Wright struggled to reach club ambitions.

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

Wright finds himself in a good patch at a good time. While many of the World Cup roster slots are all but set, the striker position remains wide open.

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

In this camp, the next-to-last before the team reports to Qatar in November, Wright and Ferreira, 21, were the only strikers invited. The competition for call-ups to the two friendlies in September, though, 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 Friday against Grenada in a Concaf Nations League game in Austin.

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

Wright’s call-up was embraced by established players who have known him since his youth national team days.

“That was the duo back in the day — me and Haji,” Pulisic said. “We played a lot of games together in the youth national teams, and it’s cool to have him back in.”

Midfielder Weston McKennie called Wright’s return “beautiful.”

“Some players would be knocked down,” McKennie said. “Some players would have their spirits gone. But for him, finding his own path to get back in here is definitely one that is inspirational.”

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

Asked about reuniting with those players, Wright smiled and said: “They haven’t changed much. Same goofy guys when we were 15, 14 years old.”

Wright’s journey began in the Los Angeles Galaxy youth academy, shifted to the lower-tier New York Cosmos, then to Schalke’s under-19 squad in Germany. After a loan to 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 tier, but failed to score in 22 league matches. It was then onto Sonderjyske, where he began to find his way in 2020-21. The Danish side decided to loan him to Antalyaspor this past season.

“Having moved around a lot the last couple years, it has added some life experience and life understanding,” Wright said. “When you witness different styles of play, you learn more instead of playing in one country your whole life. I do understand soccer a little bit more than when I first started off.”

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

“He puts me in situations where I can help the team score goals and create goals,” Wright said. “He has also taught me a lot about being a striker. He helped me more in my build-up play and link-up play, my positioning. He has put me in places where I can be in front of the goal and the guy taking shots and [getting] rebounds.”

Wright finished tied for seventh in the Super Lig scoring race, and his club finished on a 16-game unbeaten streak to soar to seventh on the 20-team circuit, nine spots higher than the previous year.

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

Pulisic appreciates Wright’s arduous path, saying: “I really respect people who haven’t necessarily had it easy. He’s had ups and downs, and to come out the other side and be performing like he is now is impressive.”

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