Tyler Adams' journey from the Red Bulls academy to first-team stardom

HANOVER, N.J. — Long before he became the poster child for the New York Red Bulls’ vaunted system of player development and a core part of the future of the US national team, Tyler Adams’ reputation preceded him.

Before getting his first glimpse of the then 11-year-old at the Red Bulls training facility, John Wolyniec had heard of Adams. The Red Bulls II coach, who at the time was on the academy staff, would watch Adams progress “three, four, five nights a week.”

When the decision was made to form a USL affiliate and Wolyniec was selected to coach the team, he made sure to promote Adams, who was 15 at the time.

“I do remember the first day he was at training and how much energy he brought as a 15-year-old. He was a bit chaotic at times, but you can see something special right away,” Wolyniec told MLSsoccer.com. “The hope was that he could learn to contain it and use it in a good way.”

When it became time for Adams to make his debut with the club, Wolyniec slotted him in at left back. It was a decision, Wolyniec said, he could tell didn’t quite sit right with Adams, who was splitting his time with Red Bull II and the US U-17s. But it was his response that impressed Wolyniec. Instead of shrugged shoulders, Adams simply said, “I just want to play, I just want to play games.”

“You just knew that his energy, athleticism and determination were going to have him be successful,” Wolyniec said. “The thing I recognized that day was his bravery. He was fearless, even as a 15-year-old kid starting his first professional game without even training with us that much.”

On that same USL team that year was Derrick Etienne, who was on loan from the academy. He, too, heard about Adams before actually meeting him, and they formed an immediate bond as the two youngest players on the team.

Etienne’s initial impression of Adams was that he was “mad cool,” but at halftime of a game at Richmond, Adams displayed a side of himself that both impressed and surprised Etienne following a subpar first-half performance from the entire team.

“There were MLS guys, there were guys who have been in the USL before and he ripped every single player,” Etienne said. “That right there showed me this kid is different. It was the first time I knew this kid means business. There’s a maturity with him you just don’t see with everyone.”

Tyler Adams' journey from the Red Bulls academy to first-team stardom - https://league-mp7static.mlsdigital.net/images/Tyler%20Adams%20-%20Derrick%20Etienne%20-%20New%20York%20Red%20Bulls%20-%20Hugging%20-%20May%205%202018.jpg?1jRsHmUmu7bMovhyk8GiKkPl9R73sk9j

Adams and Etienne went from academy prospects first team players at RBNY | USA Today Sports Images

When Adams signed with the Red Bulls as a Homegrown player on Nov. 1, 2015, that unique skillset of athleticism, work rate, soccer IQ and leadership would soon be on display league wide.

Bradley Wright-Phillips was impressed immediately.

“From the first day I’ve seen him train, I always knew that he was a good player, a talented kid with a lot of energy and a wise head on his shoulders, but it’s the consistency,” he said. “It’s not easy to be getting the plaudits he gets and stay grounded. He’s young, he plays for the national team, there’s rumors about him week-in and week-out and he still just gets on with his job. He still plays like he’s trying to get into the first team. I think that’s his biggest strength.”

Ah, those rumors.

As a promising young player excelling in MLS and seeing regular minutes with the national team, Adams was always going to draw interest from abroad. But when Jesse Marsch left midway through the season to coach at RB Leipzig, Adams was immediately linked with the Bundesliga side.

“There’s a lot of discussion about Tyler,” Marsch said when he met reporters for the first time at Leipzig. “He’s a very gifted young player. I think Leipzig would be lucky to have him. But, there’s a lot of teams interested in him. We’ve fought hard in New York to hold onto him at least until the end of the year, but Tyler has a future in Europe, no doubt.”

It would be a lot to process for any other 19-year-old, but Adams has again rolled with those punches by helping lead the Red Bulls to the best regular season in league history.

“From the very first day I ever saw him in training, it’s always about competing and not necessarily worrying about what could happen or what could set him back,” Luis Robles said. “It’s always about what he feels he can bring to the field and a lot of times it is just personality and that competitive nature.”

When Sacha Kljestan and Felipe were jettisoned in preseason trades, Adams’ role grew even larger in the Red Bulls midfield. Along with Sean Davis, he was considered a young rookie, a natural leader of one of the league’s youngest teams.

And with the ground Adams covers, he also helped make Kaku’s transition into a new league seamless.

“He’s an absolutely incredible player,” Kaku said through a translator. “Being able to pressure as much as he does and to be able to create turnovers, opportunities for me to get the ball, has benefitted me so much.”

Tyler Adams' journey from the Red Bulls academy to first-team stardom - https://league-mp7static.mlsdigital.net/images/Adams_2.jpg

Adams has made seven appearances for the US national team, scoring once | USA Today Sports Images

For a second straight year, Adams was prominently featured in MLSsoccer.com’s 22 Under 22, coming in right behind leader Alphonso Davies of the Vancouver Whitecaps at No. 2. Davies scored a brace in his final game — a 2-1 win over the Portland Timbers on Decision Day presented by AT&T — before leaving for Bayern Munich.

The Red Bulls are hoping to extend his time in MLS into December, and while it appears Cristian Casseres will likely be the heir apparent at that position, Adams has proven to a difficult player to replace.

“His leadership on the field and his presence and voice is impressive and commanding, and it’s important for our team,” Red Bulls coach Chris Armas said. “It’s the timing and the way he can read plays, and then all of a sudden shut down his part of the field. There’s so much that goes into Tyler Adams. We’re impressed in so many ways.”

Armas was one of the best defensive midfielders in league history. He knows better than most what it takes to be successful in that position, how much there is to process in the middle of the park.

“So many guys at this level can run and offer the physical part of the game,” Armas said. “For him it’s just so much more. What’s really impressive though is the way he can exist within a game and figure things out within a game, and how to then best impose himself in what the game needs is really impressive for a relatively young guy. He’s not such a young guy around here, we don’t see him that way.”

Adams has made a seamless transition at each level, the stage never too big, the lights never too bright.

“Wherever he [goes] in the future, he won’t allow himself to not get into a team or not play well,” Wright-Phillips said. “He’s one of those guys, if he’s not good enough when he gets there, wherever he goes, he will get good enough. He will prepare himself, work hard and get in the team. I know that for a fact.”