AMSTERDAM – If you’re a fan of the US national team, the name Will Packwood may not move the needle for you. But if the 19-year-old’s career trajectory keeps going to plan, you will very, very soon.
The key word in the Jurgen Klinsmann era has been versatility. And Packwood is learning it very early in his first year as a professional at Birmingham City. At the rate he’s going, it’s not a stretch to say he could be a bona fide USMNT candidate for a center back stable seeking a transfusion of fresh blood.
Early appearances can be deceiving – the Boston-area native’s first four appearances for the Brums have been at right back. But first-year players are often used out of position as cover. Blessed with a 6-foot-2 frame, enough agility to fare well out wide and training as a traffic director, Packwood is aiming to be a modern stopper with distribution skills.
"Pretty much everyone here agrees my best position will be center back," he told MLSsoccer.com by phone from the club's training ground last week. "Having experience in midfield, I'm comfortable on the ball. And I have the size and physique to be a difficult defender to get past."
Of course, there aren't many tougher places for an American teen to break into European soccer than England's Championship – even for one able to sidestep the usual work permit hassle thanks to his English dad. Packwood's real hurdle is learning the pro ropes in the one of the fastest-paced leagues on the planet.
The Championship is not only a blur, it's tactically direct and can get rather physical at times. Sporting KC attacker Bobby Convey moved to Reading with MLS experience at 21, and it still took him a season as backup to find his way.
"It's a steep learning curve," admitted Packwood. "It's a difficult league, even for established players. I'm getting used to it as time goes and I play more games."
Only 18 months removed from captaining Birmingham's Under-18 side, he made his first-team debut at right back in a mid-August Capital One Cup win. The outing was strong enough for manager Lee Clark to start Packwood again a few days later in the league opener.
Now fully graduated from reserve-team play, the youngster has made three league starts and watched from the substitutes bench another seven times in 15 Championship matches. Despite the modest amount of playing time, he can already see the growth that comes from hitting the ground running at top speed.
"Playing games and training with the first team every day, it affects the way you see games," he said. "You're making better decisions, more quickly."
It's also doesn't hurt his development to have countryman Jonathan Spector as a teammate. Not only has the veteran played in Europe and made a World Cup squad, but he knows how to deal with repeated position changes.
"Having Specs around is fantastic," said Packwood. "He's been there and he's done it. He's a great role model."
And much like his “big brother” at Birmingham, Packwood has made waves with the US youth set-up. He was part of the American squad at the 2009 FIFA U-17 World Cup, was on the third-place finishing U-18 squad at last summer’s Milk Cup, spent time in Caleb Porter's U-23 camp a year ago and made a handful of appearances for Tab Ramos’ U-20 side at last month’s Marbella Cup in Spain.
At Birmingham, the season so far has been a disappointment for the St. Andrews crew. It would be an understatement to say the Brums didn’t expect to be in 18th place a third of the way through the Championship season. But in Packwood’s corner is the fact that they’re 1-1-1 during his three starts with just three goals allowed. Compare that to their sub-.500 mark with 19 conceded in the other 12 games, and you figure the kid could become much busier as the season unfolds.
Putting some mid-autumn back woes behind him, defender James Hurst's loan return to West Bromwich Albion and the busy winter schedule also boost his chances for upcoming pitch time.
Nevertheless, the goal remains the same in the clubhouse, and the young American’s stated goals show he’s learning fast.
"Our goal is to win promotion to the Premier League," declared Packwood. "We want to be in the playoffs, or even pushing for [automatic] promotion.”
Sooner or later, he could be pushing for much more than that.