ATLANTA — Ask a 10-year-old aspiring soccer player who their US men's national team heroes are, and you can probably guess the names you’d likely hear.
But the immediate and meteoric success of players like Christian Pulisic or Weston McKennie is on the far end of the bell curve of the wider US player pool. These success stories are abnormal and hardly intentionally replicable. To evaluate the real viability of the USMNT, we must examine the larger chunk of that bell curve — the careers where progress is not linear, but there is progress nonetheless.
Emerson Hyndman’s soccer story is far from perfect. But perhaps it’s because of those imperfections — not in spite of them — that he serves as a model of development for the modern American soccer player.
Hyndman’s journey — from the Fulham Academy, to battling for a spot in the Premier League with Bournemouth, to loans in Scotland with Rangers and Hibernian, and now playing under Frank de Boer at Atlanta United — is the kind of crucible that forges a player’s technique and will.
But the journey didn’t start at Fulham. It started at a local team in Dallas. Hyndman spoke to MLSsoccer.com and told the story of his development as a player that often flies under the radar — his time prior to joining a storied English club at Fulham.
Hyndman’s time in the US Development Academy — first with the Dallas Texans and later with FC Dallas — is more relevant than ever as MLS clubs continue to invest and bolster their own academies.
“I played for a team called Club Classic in the Texas area, and we were actually quite good,” Hyndman recalled. “I remember at the time we had plenty of really good players from around the area and won a lot of things, a lot of tournaments. I can't remember what age I decided to go to the Texans, but that's when the Texans became a huge deal in the Texas area. And that was a tough decision cause we won basically everything in younger ages.
“The good thing was there were a couple of friends that actually went over to the Texans also, so it wasn't like I was playing for a whole new team,” said Hyndman. “And yeah, we kept up the pace — that's for sure — in terms of winning and stuff. And it was just really fun times. I remember, especially like the Dallas Cup and stuff back then, it was a blast.”
Granted, Hyndman’s situation is unique in some significant ways. Not everybody has a grandfather who was an active MLS manager like Hyndman had in Schellas Hyndman. Schellas allowed a pre-pubescent Emerson to come train with the FC Dallas first team.
“I mean it was crazy at the time. I was small for a 13 year old, so you can only imagine what I looked like out there,” Hyndman said with a chuckle. “Looking back now it's not normal, you know. I'm really thankful that my grandpa was coaching and allowed me to do that. It really makes you play a different way. You can't really play physically at all. It's mental. You always have to get open a different way when you're that much at a disadvantage physically. So it taught me how to use a different part of my brain in terms of the football side and play quicker. Because as soon as you make contact with one of them at that age, it's a different ball game.”
But Hyndman also described how playing with the Texans in the USDA helped his game too. It wasn’t until then that he and his teammates were able to test themselves against players from not just other parts of the region, but from around the world and experience different styles.
“It was a completely new experience for me, 'cause I was used to playing only local teams and almost knowing everyone that was on the field,” said Hyndman. “It was strange seeing all these English guys run around, and the next game you played against the Mexican team or whatever it was. So it kind of opened my eyes to ‘man, there's a lot of players out there and a lot of different styles.’ So even at that age, it made you want to work harder and try to almost beat out the people around the world. All of a sudden it wasn't local anymore. That's kind of where everything shifted really.”
Before long, Hyndman was going on trials abroad — to the dismay of some of his school teachers at times — all in the pursuit of developing his game to the highest extent possible.
“I always had that belief in myself when I was a kid too. When I played, I feel like I could, you know, extend to do more,” said Hyndman. “I was going on trials a lot when I was 13, 14 years old. I got in trouble with school a couple of times because I was missing so many classes with it. I’d take one or two weeks a month and go on a trial, and I did that quite a few times during the year. Obviously that takes a lot of time and a lot of effort, but it was something I was really keen to do — to go over to Europe — and that was at 13 years old.”
So if the Texans, and FC Dallas (whose academy Hyndman played under his final year stateside) lose a player partly due to the experiences they helped provide — is that actually helping the local club?
“They knew I was obviously going overseas and having all these trials and stuff, and they were always pretty supportive of that, which I was thankful for,” said Hyndman. “They obviously wanted me to stay and be a part of their program.
“It was hard to tell them and open up to them about it, cause it was always kind of my dream to go over and play in Europe. Just to have that opportunity, even if it was at 15, it was something I just couldn't turn down regardless of what they could offer me. It was a tough kind of conversation, and it was tough to know that we were going separate ways. But looking back, obviously I hold FC Dallas really high in my development.”
As fate would have it, the most recent step for Hyndman has been a return to MLS, where he’s started the 2020 league campaign with two goals in two games for Atlanta United. At just 23 years of age, there’s still a long path left to pursue in his career. And there’s no doubt that Atlanta United stands to benefit if Hyndman attracts interest once again from across the pond. It’s the kind of mutually beneficial relationship that would have made for such a harmonious pairing between player and club.
“I think you see that all around the world, not just for young players, but at the top level you see it too,” said Hyndman. “No disrespect to a [Borussia] Dortmund, but you know, they're not quite Real Madrid are they? So when they move a player on, even if they're a world class player, they know they're just striving for that next step, that next step in their life, that next step in their career. And normally, [the clubs] get pretty well paid for it. So it works very mutually I think. You don't just see it in young kids, you see it everywhere.”