A quick thought exercise as the summer blockbuster season approaches: If the US men’s national team was a major motion picture franchise, who would get top billing on the posters?
Christian Pulisic is probably the most common answer. Weston McKennie and Gio Reyna would also be in the conversation for “Actor in a Leading Role” status, to borrow a phrase from the Oscars. Maybe John Brooks or Zack Steffen for the more defensive-minded among us.
Based on the USMNT’s last three games, however, Tyler Adams might just have a sneaky-strong case for a top spot on the masthead.
It’s a somewhat bold claim given his limited minutes; the ferocious defensive midfielder technically logged only 38-plus minutes, all of them off the bench in Sunday’s wild 3-2 Concacaf Nations League-winning triumph over Mexico. Adams didn’t figure on the scoresheet and played just 10 passes, completing eight of them.
It’s more a matter of where the team suffered in his absence as he worked his way back from a back injury that curtailed the final weeks of his club season with RB Leipzig. The soft spots in the heart of midfield without the 22-year-old’s energy and bite. The fluidity with which Switzerland was allowed to pass through the US press to spring their comeback win last week. The vulnerability to transition moments in the nervy CNL semifinal defeat of Honduras. The collective lift his simple presence provided in a finely-poised juncture of the Mexico clash.
Coach Gregg Berhalter confirmed on Tuesday: Even a half-fit Adams is far preferable to none at all, calling it “absolutely vital” to have the New York Red Bulls academy product in camp this window.
“I had long conversations with Tyler beforehand where his fitness was in doubt and I said listen, if you're 60%, 70%, we want to take you anyway, because we want you being around this environment. We want you seeing what this is like, being with the guys, helping out, and it was great,” said Berhalter.
“We knew there was no chance of him playing Honduras. We knew there was limited chance that he could start against Mexico. And for us it was about putting him in position to contribute, and that's exactly what he did.”
Quietly influential workers like Adams are sometimes overlooked until they’re not around, and his injury-imposed stints away from the USMNT have underlined how rare his blend of ground coverage, tenacity and leadership is in the player pool. He had to race against time to earn match minutes – and looks likely to get a good dose of that in Wednesday night’s friendly vs. Costa Rica (7 pm ET | ESPN2,UniMás,TUDN in the US) – but maintains that the management of his fitness has been handled conservatively.
“[I was] definitely anxious to get on the field,” he said in Tuesday’s media availability. “I joined up with the team in Switzerland and knew I wasn't 100% ready yet, and I had to a lot of work to do in order to make those games. But I don't get caught looking at the calendar. I remember doing that when I picked up an injury a couple of years ago and time flies when you start to do that.
“As far as fitness levels, I feel really good. I'm in a really good place,” he added. “In the past couple of games I probably could have played more, participated more, but they've done a good job of being cautious with me and just making sure that after these couple of games I have the right amount of rest, then going into the [Leipzig] preseason.”
Adams signed his first Red Bulls contract, a USL deal with the second team, just a few weeks after his 16th birthday and tales of his preternatural ferocity and drive, even on the training ground, have circulated even longer, dating back to his early call-ups to US youth national teams. The Nations League trophy hoisted on Sunday joins the 2018 Supporters’ Shield, 2016 USL Cup and 2017 Concacaf U-20 Championship titles on his career honors list and his hunger for more, much more, is evident.
“Anytime you can win a game like that and obviously raise a trophy with a bunch of your longtime friends, longtime teammates, it’s special. It brings the bond much, much closer together,” said Adams.
“The most important thing is, we're here, we participated in Nations League, we have these friendlies for a reason and that's to set us up for success in the future, especially [World Cup] qualifying. So for me, my focus has already changed. You take that in, you enjoy the moment while you can. But winning this game against Costa Rica will be the cherry on top, so to speak. And we move on, we go on our holidays and then you look back and you really enjoy it.”
Following a well-deserved summer break, Adams will hit the Bundesliga grind again, with Leipzig still aiming to end Bayern Munich’s nine-year run of league titles after finishing second to the Bavarian giants twice in their six seasons in the top flight. An intense slate of Concacaf World Cup qualifiers will be interspersed among his club schedule from September to March. And in Germany he’ll have a new but familiar manager: Jesse Marsch, his former RBNY boss and a key figure in his journey to this point.
“With him coming back to Leipzig, it's going to be really interesting. He was the person that really convinced me to sign in New York at 16 years old and he had the plan for me to take the path that I did,” said Adams of Marsch. “So to again meet up with him, go after trophies together, compete in the Champions League together, will be really special. Anytime you can be coached by an American in Europe it will be really cool.”