The USMNT’s epochal 2-1 World Cup qualifying loss at Trinidad & Tobago in Couva was still a gut-wrenching blow for him, both personally and professionally, as both a lifelong fan and aspiring future member of the team. And as with so many others around the program, the aftershocks of that stunning setback still reverberate for him today.
“I think about sitting on my couch watching the 2017 cycle, watching when we didn't qualify for the World Cup,” Adams recalled to reporters in a Tuesday afternoon media availability ahead of the USMNT’s home stretch of the 2022 qualification journey. “And personally, the effect that that had on me, because I was in a good way at that time and at an important part of my development – who knows, if you continue to develop for another year, if you go to the World Cup as a young player?
“So I think about the responsibility that I have and the responsibility that I have on some of my teammates: We have to qualify – there's just no other option.”
Adams has long been rated for poise and maturity beyond his years. He was barely old enough to drive when he climbed from the RBNY academy into their USL Championship squad, but didn’t flinch from making his presence known, both on the pitch and off, while in the company of much older professionals who marveled at his rapid progression to the game’s highest levels.
Now he’s doing something comparable as a steadying, inspiring influence on a very young USMNT squad that have marched to the cusp of booking their place in Qatar, yet must hold their nerve across three tense, difficult final Concacaf Octagonal matches over the next week. The goal is within reach – but then again, much the same can be said of the group that fell short in 2017.
“Coming into qualifying in general, I think the group felt a great responsibility that qualifying for the World Cup, it's the absolute minimum,” said Adams, who earned his first senior cap in a friendly vs. Portugal a month after Couva. “We have to do that to continue to move the program forward, to give our players the best opportunity to continue to develop and get that international exposure, and grow the game in the US. So we're doing that, but now it's, again, step by step.”
Thursday’s visit to Mexico at the vaunted Estadio Azteca is March’s first test, a fixture that over the decades has been among the most consequential and highly-anticipated renditions of the border rivalry. It’s a bucket-list sort of game for any US or Mexican player.
Yet in the draining three-match windows imposed on this cycle by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Yanks can’t allow it to have a knock-on effect when they host Panama in a must-win home match in Orlando on Sunday. A draw in Mexico’s capital city would seem to suit the USMNT just fine, considering they’ve never won in this fixture, with an all-time qualifying record of 0W-13L-3D at Azteca. Adams, though, says that’s not how the current squad is wired, even under the crushing pressure of a nervous, expectant soccer nation back home.
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“This is obviously a very important window and without looking ahead, a very difficult game coming up in Azteca, but we're confident in our group and the players that we have. So we're going to go down there and go for it,” he said.
“There's no fear. There's no fear at all,” he declared later in the call. “The minimum is that every game that we go into, we're leaving it out all out on the pitch so that we don't have any regrets. And when we leave it all out on the pitch, we're going to win games, that’s the bottom line. So we’re confident in the group and we're confident in the mentality of the group.”
That mindset also applies to his own situation.
An ever-present at in deep midfield for the United States, with no one else in the player pool having yet matched his combination of range, work rate, bite and ball security, Adams has found regular minutes harder to come by lately at Leipzig. That’s raised concerns about his fitness levels ahead of a massive window in which Gregg Berhalter has hinted Adams will continue to be heavily relied upon.
“Every time you go into important games that have such value, you always feel the nerves,” said the 23-year-old. “But when the whistle blows, everything becomes normal again, it's another football match at the end of the day. You have to go and you have to rely and trust your instincts and trust the plan that the coaches are giving you, know what you have to do, know your role, and the rest will take care of itself.
“We’re confident in our style of play, confident in the chemistry of the group, and I think ultimately, that will dictate our results, always.”
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And he’s still carrying a yellow card from the Yanks’ second Ocho match back in September, meaning that another caution will suspend him from the USMNT’s next match. He maintains that he’s changing nothing about his approach.
“Same mentality as always for me, same mentality as always,” said Adams. “I'm not thinking about the next game, I'm not thinking about if I get a yellow card. I haven't played like that since I've had the yellow card and I've had it for quite some time now, I think.
“So yeah,” he added with a quick flicker of a smile, “I’m still tackling.”