HANOVER, N.J. – At 18-years-old, Tyler Adams has already proven himself as a gifted athlete.
As he wraps up his high school coursework, taking phys-ed in person is a no-way-out-of-it requirement. So he arrives bright and early before school even starts for what is called “zero-period gym,” then drives off to training.
Such is the life of Adams, now in his third year in MLS. Even as his pro soccer career takes off, he can’t wait for things like prom and graduation, and the random hangouts with friends.
“I find time to still be a normal teenager,” he said.
At least as normal as any teenager can be while also spending weekends like this one preparing for perhaps another start in the Red Bulls' match at Orlando City SC on Sunday (4 pm ET; ESPN in the US | MLS LIVE in Canada).
Adams has followed the development ladder here with New York, an academy product since before his teen years who then played extensively for the U-17 national team. He’s progressed from playing with the USL Red Bulls II in 2015 to getting his first MLS start last year to now looking like a regular for head coach Jesse Marsch.
His combination of work rate and speed, vision and comfort on the ball make Adams an ideal partner alongside Felipe in the Red Bulls midfield. It’s nearly the same role he played with the U-20 national team under Tab Ramos as the US took home the CONCACAF championship and qualified for the FIFA U-20 World Cup earlier this year.
“I think that the USL was a good platform for me, to get games and get as many minutes as possible under my belt,” Adams told MLSsoccer.com. “It’s obviously a good professional league, we loan players back and forth here all the time, it’s common. It helped me to take my step into the national team with the U-20s and then make an impression with the CONCACAF [qualifying] and win that. And now ultimately jump in here.”
Shortly after he was appointed as head coach of the Red Bulls, Jesse Marsch and then-sporting director Ali Curtis went to Bradenton, Florida to watch Adams play with the US U-17s against Panama. Marsch remembers the midfielder capturing his eye in a match that also featured US national team and Borussia Dortmund wunderkind Christian Pulisic and highly-touted Schalke prospect Haji Wright.
“There was a lot of talented players on the field at that time, and Tyler stood out as one of their main guys,” Marsch said. “I thought Pulisic had a really good game that day and I thought Tyler was the next best player. So we got excited.”
A contract offer for Adams, who lives in New Jersey, would shortly follow, setting off three whirlwind seasons.
A year ago, Adams was talking about the red bands on his braces, excited how they matched the Red Bulls’ colors. Today, he endorses a “day-by-day” approach when considering a future that might include European aspirations.
“I’ve grown with this club since I was 11, 12 years old,” Adams says. “I thought it was the right fit for me and then obviously the coaching staff changed with Jesse signing a lot of Homegrown players, believing in them."
Adams has plenty of experienced players to learn from in the Red Bulls’ midfield.
Sacha Kljestan, a United States international, had a long career in Belgium with Anderlecht that included annual forays in the UEFA Champions League. There’s also the veteran Felipe and rising Homegrown Sean Davis to serve as a mentor and keep him grounded while dealing with budding notoriety.
“You have to earn their respect,” Adams says.
The Red Bulls don’t kowtow to Adams because he’s a hot, young prospect, or baby him because he’s a teenager.
This is a team that already shown full confidence in young players to hold down starting spots, one that integrated Davis, 24, and Alex Muyl, 21, into the starting XI last year.
This year, Derrick Etienne Jr. and Adams are being given greater responsibilities on the field. They have to earn their keep just like anyone else.
“I don’t treat him like an 18-year old. I treat him like a man on our team,” Marsch said of Adams. “Someone that we have high expectations and demands and standards for. Just like everybody else, it’s about helping him trying to get better in what we do every day.”
Even if that day includes gym class in the morning.