Sports

Tyler Adams Is the Captain Now

The age of Tyler Adams is a matter of perspective. In a strict, chronological sense, of course, he is 22 years 8 months, but what that means — whether it is young, as it appears to be, or old, as odd as that seems — depends on the context. There are times, in fact, when even Adams finds it hard to date himself with any degree of accuracy.

Sometimes, he is aware of his youth. He shares the locker room at RB Leipzig, for example, with a host of players who joined the club in the lower reaches of German soccer, and remain in place even now that it has become a fixture in the Champions League. “These guys have like 300 appearances,” Adams said. “I look at them and realize how far I have to go.”

Sometimes, his youth catches him unawares. He remembers the night, only four years ago, when the United States lost in Trinidad and Tobago, condemning his nation to the ignominy of missing the World Cup for the first time in 28 years, but purely as a fan, not as a player. “I remember not really knowing what it meant,” he said, the idea of a World Cup without the U.S. too alien to grasp. He had not yet played for his country’s senior team by then. The defeat meant he would be part of a different generation: the one tasked with avenging the failure, not sharing in it.

But then there are the times when he feels much older, when his actual age and what might be thought of as his soccer age begin to diverge. He made his debut early, playing for his first club, New York’s Red Bulls, at only 16. He has been a professional, now, for six years, a milestone others may not reach until their mid-20s. “It’s been longer than it seems,” he said.

In that time, he has also become a senior member of Gregg Berhalter’s U.S. national team, which resumes its current World Cup qualifying campaign with three games over the next week. He has been a regular feature of the coach’s “leadership councils,” despite injuries that have limited the time he has been able to spend with his teammates. Last month, he became the youngest player to captain the U.S. men’s team in a World Cup qualifier in decades.

“When you don’t qualify, everyone is going to have that fear of the worst, that worry that it is going to happen again,” Adams said.Credit…Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

There is a reason Jesse Marsch, not just his coach at the club level but effectively his mentor — “he did everything for me,” as Adams put it — regards him as something of an “old soul.”

Adams would be forgiven for resenting that dissonance, for feeling that his youth has been cut short too quickly, for worrying that too much is being asked of him too young. There are plenty of young players who find that level of expectation stifling. What is striking about Adams is that he is almost exactly the opposite.

Leipzig’s start to the season has been a difficult one. Marsch’s team has been beaten twice in the Champions League, and, before a recent rally, won only one of its opening five Bundesliga games. The club insisted that the newly-installed Marsch was not vulnerable, a surefire sign that he was in fact veering close to vulnerability.

For Adams, it is a new experience. Injuries aside, his career in Europe has been a smooth, exponential curve: a regular in the team as soon as he arrived, a couple of German cup finals, a Champions League semifinal, constantly improving league positions. This is the first time he has ever been in an underperforming team. “Losing this many games has been quite strange,” he said.

Rather than seek inspiration from the players around him, though — the ones who have been at Leipzig almost since the start, the ones embedded in the fabric of the club — his response has been to take more responsibility on himself. “I want to put a lot more weight on my shoulders as a leader,” he said.

In part, of course, that is down to his relationship with Marsch, the coach who persuaded him, and his family, to sign for the Red Bulls in the first place, the coach who laid out a clear road map for his career, the coach who gave him his “first baby steps into the pro game.”

Jesse Marsch gave Adams his start with the Red Bulls and now coaches him again at RB Leipzig.Credit…Annegret Hilse/Reuters

But it is also down to something innate to Adams himself. He is, he said, “never afraid of coming under extra pressure.” He cannot quite put his finger on where that comes from — nature or nurture or a combination of both — because he cannot quite remember a time when he was different.

He suspects, though, that his mother’s willingness to take him out of his comfort zone as a child — “playing basketball and soccer with kids four years above my age group” — had something to do with it. When he started to play alongside and against people his own age, he said, he found that “being a leader” came naturally to him.

The same applies with the national team. Adams does not particularly like the phrase Golden Generation, partly because it is just a little pejorative in a soccer context — golden generations, as a rule, never quite live up to expectations — but also because he feels it does not do justice to the sheer number of young players still emerging from youth systems in the United States.

The current generation, in his mind, does not stop with himself, Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie and Giovanni Reyna. It is constantly morphing and growing. To label it now is to cut that process short prematurely. “Look at Gianluca Busio, playing every game at Venezia,” he said. “There are so many coming through the ranks.”

The excitement that has generated, though, has been tempered by the scars of 2017. This current national team is, potentially, the best that the United States has ever assembled — if that can be gauged, so early, by the number of its members thriving in Europe — and yet its early engagements in qualifying for the World Cup have been characterized by a churning agitation, a sense that everything might be about to fall apart again at any minute.

“From the outside, when you don’t qualify, everyone is going to have that fear of the worst, that worry that it is going to happen again,” Adams said. The Americans’ first two games — ties against El Salvador and Canada — seemed to harden that suspicion to such an extent that even an emphatic victory against Honduras in the third could not quite alleviate it.

That fractiousness has not fazed Adams. He points out, not unreasonably, that Berhalter has not yet been able to name a full-strength team, and that we do not yet know precisely how good this U.S. team could be, seeing as it has barely played together. McKennie was sent home early from the first set of qualifiers for violating team rules, for example, and Pulisic and Reyna are both absent from this week’s flurry of games.

But more than that, he regards those games that seem like obvious traps — road trips to Panama and El Salvador and Honduras, where the fans are hostile and even the wrong sort of victory can be parsed as a defeat — not as calvaries but as actual, genuine “fun.”

“I love them,” he said. “They’re the best games to play in. You’re representing your country, playing for a World Cup, with these guys you grew up with. When we were 15 and we were in camp for a year, Weston would knock on my door every night, Christian was my neighbor. It’s come full circle.”

Gregg Berhalter started Adams in three World Cup qualifiers in September, and will rely on him through the cycle.Credit…Moises Castillo/Associated Press

It is, perhaps, that group of players — the ones he grew up with, the ones who are his childhood friends, the ones who remember him when he wondered if he would ever make it, when he was condemned to play “backup left back” just to have a role — who are best placed to understand the true age of Tyler Adams.

After a year or so in charge, Berhalter decided that he would name a permanent leadership council, one that would see the team through World Cup qualifying; before that, it had changed from camp to camp, depending on who had been called up. Now, though, the players and the staff would have chance to vote for each of the six members who would take up the positions.

Adams had barely been around at that stage: He had missed most of that year’s U.S. engagements through bad luck and bad timing. When Berhalter called to tell him the results of the election, Adams did not even have his number saved in his phone. Patiently, the coach explained the process, how the system worked, what a member of the leadership council would need to do.

And then, as Adams had presumably guessed by that stage, he told him the good news: Adams was in. “It was cool to hear,” Adams said. “To know that my coaches and peers had that sort of confidence in me.”

The players he had grown up with knew him well enough to know that he was a leader. Those players who had not grown up with him had heard enough to reach the same conclusion. Whether Tyler Adams is old or young or in between depends on the perspective. That this is Tyler Adams’s time was crystal clear.

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