CARY, N.C. — It was simply a matter of time for Erik Palmer-Brown.
Of the five first-time call-ups into the US national team camp currently training in North Carolina, Palmer-Brown seemed the most inevitable. He’s one of only 12 U.S. players ever named to two FIFA U-20 World Cup rosters. Palmer-Brown earned the Golden Ball award as the best player in the 2017 Concacaf U-20 Championship, and he was the team captain of a U.S. U-20 World Cup squad that advanced to the quarterfinals last June.
Palmer-Brown could attain another goal Tuesday: earning his first USMNT cap in a friendly against Paraguay at WakeMed Soccer Park (7 pm ET | FS1, UniMás, UDN). It would be the next step along an accelerating career path for Palmer-Brown, an Ohio native who joined the Sporting Kansas City Academy in June 2009 at age 13. He signed his first professional contract with SKC in 2013 and appeared in 20 regular season MLS games through the end of 2017. He also appeared in a smattering of matches last year for Swope Park Rangers, SKC’s USL affiliate team.
Already the subject of intense overseas interest, the 20-year-old Palmer-Brown signed with Manchester City when his MLS contract expired following the 2017 season. He was soon sent on loan to K.V. Kortrijk in the Belgian Pro League in order to eventually meet the criteria for a UK work permit. Palmer-Brown made his debut for Kortrijk earlier this month when he played the full match in a 2-1 loss at Club Brugge.
Palmer-Brown, who spent 2016 on loan to FC Porto B, says his full-time move to Europe was always a career aspiration.
“It was one of my goals to go overseas,” Palmer-Brown says. “That’s something I wanted to do at a young age, and when I went on loan to Porto I saw how tough it was. It’s a struggle at times, but to grind through those [struggles] you come out a better person and player.”
Palmer-Brown says his experience playing in Portugal aided his transition to Belgium.
“There’s more English [in Belgium], so it’s been good,” Palmer-Brown says. “I don’t have to adapt — it’s been pretty easy.”
Palmer-Brown, more commonly called ‘EPB’ by his club and country teammates, enters a U.S. team not only recovering from its failure to qualify for this year’s FIFA World Cup, but also the unending search for the next great American center back. He believes the stiff competition he faces in Europe will better prepare him to put his stamp on the USMNT.
“I’ve been lucky enough to sign with one of the biggest clubs in the world now, and in watching those guys at the club, it’s very demanding,” Palmer-Brown says. “You see the whole field and you have to be able to lead from the back.”
In the meantime, Palmer-Brown’s debut U.S. senior team camp carries a distinct youthful air. The average age of the players in the current camp is less than 24. Though it’s his first USMNT call-up, Palmer-Brown’s youth national team accolades and his experience playing with many of his fellow March invitees affords him an unexpected level of comfort and high regard.
“EPB has done an unbelievable job so far coming into this camp,” says Tyler Adams, the 19-year-old New York Red Bulls midfielder and Palmer-Brown’s teammate on the 2017 U.S. U-20 World Cup team. “Having him gain minutes now with his Belgium team has been huge in his development. And it shows now with him getting called into [USMNT camp].”
“It’s been a good vibe,” Palmer-Brown added. “It’s been easy to mix in because I know a lot of the guys, and I’ve watched the guys I didn’t know coming into the camp. Meeting them has been awesome; they’ve all been very welcoming. For me, it’s been a nice, calm vibe, but also intense training.”a