Playing With Tyler Adams, USMNT’s World Championship Captain: “He’s a Born Leader”

The first scouting report on Tyler Adams in Leeds United’s system is from January 2020.

Adams had been at Germany’s RB Leipzig for a year and Leeds sent Gaby Ruiz, their head of European recruitment, to keep an eye on him. Leeds were unable to actually sign him as they were only a second division side at the time and Leipzig invested heavily in Adams but so often in football that the first look at a player plants a seed.

Adams was interesting, a player with technical aspirations and personality. He was young, a few weeks short of his 21st birthday, but he couldn’t see it with the naked eye. self-confidence, arrogance, maturity; however it was, the midfielder had and Ruiz offered his thoughts with interest.

The club reviewed their files on Adams last summer when speculative interest turned into a concerted offer to sign him from Leipzig. Another report, penned by another scout, Alberto Cordero, was practically a green light for the deal to go through:

“Dynamic in all his movements…a very fast player in a confined space…perfectly prepared to continuously press in different areas…constantly generates continuity in his passes…can carry the ball into attacking zones with great precision and speed…easily and correctly… generates effort…”

Cordero’s assessment continued in that direction before concluding that Adams was tailor-made for compatriot Jesse Marsch’s Elland Road midfield, the opposite of a shrinking violet.

Tyler Adams

(Photo: Marc Atkins/Getty Images)

At this stage in the transfer market, it was a toss-up for Leeds, who had already paid another German club, Bayern Munich, £10m ($12.1m) for another midfielder, Marc Roca. They could have Adams or they could have Mohamed Camara, the tenacious Malian who played for Red Bull Salzburg.

The price difference wasn’t huge, but Leeds, Marsch and director of football Victor Orta sided with Adams. He and Roca would be a more consistent couple, they believed. And with Adams, they also acquired strong leadership qualities – a backup captain. (Camara went to Monaco in France’s Ligue 1 instead.)

Those qualities were given a vote of confidence last week when Adams was named captain of the USMNT for the World Championship.

He had worn the armband internationally before but this was different, a 23-year-old asked to guide USA through a tournament where expectations of them were higher than ever. Previously, the Americans had rotated the captaincy among members of a “guidance council,” and significantly, the decision to make Adams permanent did not come from the head coach Gregory Berhalter. It came from the team instead – they voted and Adams was the winner.

“Tyler is a guy who just outgrew his age,” Berhalter said when the election was announced.

This call, tells a former US national player the athleteShe is an “absolute child’s play” and aAlmost every conversation about Adams — with current teammates, old teammates, former and current coaches — yields the same affirmation.

He was the boy who broke with the convention that footballers know their place until they’re settled, established and old enough to respond or fight back. Whenever stories are told about his time with the New York Red Bulls in MLS, they inevitably come back to an incident where an attempt to remind him of his lack of seniority ended in a physical altercation, which Adams won.

The USA need that bite, and they’ll need it badly in their second group game against England in the seaside town of Al Khor after drawing 1-1 with Wales in their opener.

Robertson Aaronson Adams

USMNT teammates Adams and Brenden Aaronson show they are ready for a fight against Liverpool (Picture: James Gill – Danehouse/Getty Images)

The “no-brainer” remark came from Sacha Kljestan, who played alongside Adams in New York.

Without exaggerating his vision, Kljestan saw this coming a while ago.

“Considering that (the captaincy) was left to the players, it doesn’t surprise me that it went its way,” he says. “I’ve known him since he was about 16 and I had him as a natural leader from a very young age. It shows in the way he plays, this ultra-confident guy who shocks you a little but then quickly earns your respect.

“I was 20 years old when I turned pro and I was one of those players who always subordinate themselves to their elders. Always. Most players do that. Tyler was nothing like that. He came through at 15, 16 and was confident from day one, never the type to shut up when he had something to say. He speaks well, he plays well and that makes him the ideal captain.”

Adam’s trick, and his way to earning respect from the rest of the dressing room, was to back up his talk in the only way a young player can.

He wanted to see him try his best and although the USA slipped a 1-0 lead late on Monday against Wales, Berhalter got an archetypal Adams performance from his captain, a mix of tackles, interventions and recoveries. He won the most tackles (five) and tackles (eight) of all on both teams and placed third in regaining possession.

Leeds have seen this industry more and more in the Premier League, aided by the stamina that allows Adams to order the area between both boxes and manipulate the ball there. His total distance against Wales, over 13km, was the longest in the World Cup up to that point.

However, he is capable of possession and more than a disruptor in midfield.

On and off the pitch, people around him see two sides of him. Adams is tough when it comes down to it, but people in Leeds described him as “cute and easygoing” in normal life.

He and Brenden Aaronson, the other member of the US World Cup squad in the Leeds books, live close together in the elegant Yorkshire town of Harrogate and play golf together whenever matches and practice sessions permit. According to Aaronson, Adams is the more proficient golfer of the pair, and their competitive spirit is such that both have hired instructors to improve their swings.

“I’ve played enough with Tyler now to see that he’s a completely different person on the field,” says Aaronson. “Sometimes we yell at each other, get involved a bit, but we’re really good friends at it.

“On the pitch he’s just… he puts his game face on and gives it his all. Something that’s really underestimated about Tyler is that not only does he win a lot of tackles and he’s everywhere, but this year he’s been incredible on the ball (at Leeds), switching attacking points and throwing those little 10- or 15-yard passes in the middle. He was fantastic, one of our best players.”

Like the US team, Leeds have a management group of experienced players who work closely with the coaching staff and provide a sounding board.

It was founded by Marsch, the club’s American head coach, when he was appointed in February this year.

Interestingly, Adams is not yet part of this group, but is a member of the council he founded Berhalter, along with others including Christian Pulisic and Walker Zimmerman. The US camp is quite reluctant to go into detail about the advice, but it’s essentially the voice of the team, which aims to keep people on the same page and maintain good channels of communication with Berhalter.

Adams, who turns 24 in February, is the youngest national captain at the tournament and Leeds’ first at a World Cup since Lucas Radebe with South Africa in 2002. He has never been far from the USMNT since Berhalter took charge in 2018. “I can talk endlessly about Tyler’s strengths,” says Berhalter, “but I think the other thing about him is his humility.

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“He’s a guy whose teammates know exactly what they’re getting from him. They know he’s going to go out on the field and compete, they know he’s going to think about the game, they know he’s going to look into the details of the game. Not only is he a competitor, he is also a strategist. That helps the group because he puts people at ease and he’s the guy people get behind.”

Kljestan, a veteran of more than 50 USMNT appearances who is a presenter and analyst on Fox Sports’ FIFA World Cup Now show in Qatar, admits it has taken him getting used to Adams’ outspoken personality.

“When he broke through as a kid, I definitely took the time to warm up to him,” says Kljestan. “He just wasn’t what you’d expect from someone his age. There was nothing malicious in what he did or said. He just didn’t seem afraid of anyone.

“He spoke when he felt like it and he was absolutely honest, so at first part of you was like, ‘I don’t know what to make of this guy.’ But then he plays the way he plays, he’s 100 per cent there for the team and you forget everything except that he’s exactly what you want by your side.”

A few months ago, Mike Grella, another former New York Red Bulls player, shared a story of Adams getting into a fight with and beating up an older teammate who had pushed him too far. Kljestan also remembers this incident, although like Grella, he prefers not to name the recipient of the punches.

“It was someone who played in the same position as him, someone who has been there for much longer,” says Kljestan. “He would put Tyler in a headlock from time to time, give him little jabs – mostly a bit of fun, but maybe a way of showing who’s in charge.

“One day we came out of a team meeting and this guy bumped into Tyler like he did. I don’t know, maybe Tyler just had enough. They started wrestling and wrestling, getting serious all of a sudden and, well, Tyler made this guy tap. After that, he didn’t mess with Tyler again.

“That’s a good way to sum up Tyler. He doesn’t accept anyone.”

England will find out in the biggest probe yet into Adams’ leadership.

Gareth Southgate’s side are desperate to win the game and are among the favorites to win the World Cup.

For the USA, a point or three could depend on the player who will attack the English midfield like a wasp, in his element.

Giving him the national team captaincy required a vote in the dressing room, but anyone with experience of Adams believes that was his destiny.

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(Photos: Getty Images; Design: Sam Richardson)


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