Homegrown American hope: The limitless future of Tyler Adams

Red Bulls' young midfielder vindicated the team's offseason choices, earning his first shot with the USMNT.

The casual MLS fan will have noticed Tyler Adams squaring up to Sebastian Giovinco and shutting down Michael Bradley during the New York Red Bulls playoff exit at the hands of Toronto FC. Red Bulls fans have watched Adams pop up all over the field this year, showing ease on the ball wherever he’s been asked to play, and generally playing with the fearlessness not only of youth, but of a player who knows he’s the real deal.

His club knows, too. The treatment of Adams has been a mixture of barely concealed glee mixed with the necessary caution in keeping his development on track. Perhaps with the Matt Miazga experience in mind, the Red Bulls may be wary of letting him out of the door too early.

Not that the club’s been too coy about Adams. Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch made a point of mentioning him in his year-end remarks in 2016, and even though 2017 ended in another playoff disappointment, Adams had parlayed his experience as a USL champion into a first-team breakout star. Now he’s national team contender.

When Marsch addressed Adams again in 2017’s end-of-season remarks, he was talking about a widely known commodity. Alongside fellow academy product Sean Davis and Red Bulls II alumnus Aaron Long, Adams has been the face of a youth movement in New York that started 2017 as a controversial risk and has ended it as the franchise’s future.

As Adams kept his head while older players lost theirs in Toronto, it was hard to remember any doubts about whether he could hold his own. But after Dax McCarty was sold at the start of the year, it wasn’t just the fans who had their doubts. The team’s captain, Sacha Kljestan shared with FourFourTwo recently that he too was uncertain of the wisdom of leaning on youth.

“I was skeptical at first,” Kljestan said. “Because first and foremost I thought about myself. And I thought, ‘Is it going to be harder this year?’ I’d played many games with Dax and had known him for a long time and respected him as a player, and always said Dax made me a better player playing alongside him. So the first thing I wondered was how I was going to perform without Dax and alongside some younger and more inexperienced guys who maybe weren’t going to do the job as well.”

Kljestan needn’t have worried. By the time New York crushed Chicago in the opening round of the playoffs, one telling image that made the rounds on New York social media showed Adams leaping ahead of McCarty to claim the ball, with what looks like a grin of enthusiasm in contrast to McCarty’s grimace. It was an instantly iconic image in that it seemed to capture the brief sense of vindication that surrounded New York in the wake of the Chicago game, as the preseason sale of McCarty appeared to get a neat and definitive endorsement.

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

It’s never as clear-cut as that, of course, and a playoff game could easily have broken another way. But the vindication of faith in Adams doesn’t lie in a single moment nor even in direct comparison with McCarty. It comes from the fact he’s met every challenge, and he’s done so without a hint of doubt.

Just before the Toronto series, I put it to Jesse Marsch that fearlessness, in and of itself, is only valuable in how it’s applied. Young players, after all, can be fearless because they don’t fully appreciate what they have to lose. He’d laughed and said, “I think that’s true,” but he’d also pointed out that his team’s philosophy called for fearlessness — hard running, chasing the ball when needs be, rather than being over-cautious in possession as older players may have been trained to default to. Then he added:

“Tyler Adams is not thinking in these playoff games, ‘This is the last shot I have at the playoffs. If I lose, what happens?’ He’s thinking, ‘I’m going to be back here a hundred times and I’m going to get better each time, and each time I’m going to make sure I’m just going after it.’ And there’s something to be said for that. In our world, we appreciate older players and their experiences, but we also really understand how younger players can benefit.”

Marsch also speaks of the qualities of Adams as a person and suggests that those qualities might be at least as important as his talent as a player in determining his trajectory. To illustrate how the club sees that development, he offers the example of Miazga.

“When I came here we had a 19-year-old Matt Miazga and for the first three months I literally didn’t talk to him about soccer,” Marsch said. “I talked him to about growing up as a man. He was the butt of every joke within the team; the leaders thought he was just a little kid and I had to teach him how to establish himself as a man within the group. I would say to him, nobody likes a center back that’s the butt of every joke. As a goalkeeper or center back, you can’t be. You have to be a rock-solid guy that everyone can count on. And that’s just a reality of the position. I think that helped Matt develop as a person first, and then we could get to the football aspects of what needed to be done.”

Miazga, of course, made his move to Chelsea, and in light of subsequent events, you can argue he did so too soon. Adams is already being spoken about as likely to follow Miazga’s path to a top-level European club.

He’s not there yet, even if the senior players on his club team suggest he has the capacity for honest self-appraisal that’s needed to make each next step up. If he stays with the Red Bulls for the next year, at least, he’ll be at a team where he has the opportunity to grow into something truly special.

Now Adams will spend time in the national team setup, to nobody’s surprise who has seen him play. This is the same player who tormented Chelsea in a summer friendly, as a 16-year-old. There’s been a sense of inevitability about his progress that should put the risk of the McCarty trade into perspective, especially since his long-term future is likely to be in the middle of the field.

An image of Tyler Adams in 2017: In that Chicago game, there was a moment where Adams dropped his shoulder to go past Brandon Vincent before crossing for a goal. Vincent is a bright young player who’ll bank and learn from the memory, but there was something in the way Adams breezed past him that just seemed to illustrate in stark terms that this was a young player hurrying to bigger and better things, on a way steeper trajectory than his peers.

Catch him while you can.

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