AL-RAYYAN, Qatar – Mike Grella will admit that his first impression of Tyler Adams wasn’t all that great.
Adams was barely old enough to drive when he signed his first pro contract, rising from the New York Red Bulls academy to their second team, and he wasn’t much to look at when he was soon fast-tracked into the senior squad.
“You see the size of him, he’s got this little smile on his face, you know, this little hidden confidence. And you look at him, he's not the fastest guy. He's not really strong. He's not tall. And you’re kind of just like very unimpressed with him as a 16-year-old,” Grella, who at that time was a veteran starter with extensive European experience under his belt, recalled to MLSsoccer.com earlier this year.
“You're looking at him thinking, is this kid nuts or what? And then watch him train, and you see him fly into tackles, and you see him win head balls, and you see him compete, and you go, ‘Oh, wow, this kid is fearless.’ And he's got this attitude – this really positive, but could be nasty attitude about him, you know? This bite.”
Seven years on, that bite has taken Adams from little Wappingers Falls, New York to the lofty heights of the German Bundesliga, English Premier League, and now, the US men’s national team’s captaincy on the eve of their World Cup curtain-raiser vs. Wales on Monday (2 pm ET | FOX, Telemundo) at Ahmad bin Ali Stadium.
True to form, Adams downplayed his own leadership role in his first words to the media at the matchday-1 press conference where the decision – which was voted on by his peers on the team – was officially confirmed.
“It's a huge honor for me, obviously, to be named captain of this team,” said the Leeds United holding midfielder. “A very young team, but a lot of credit to my teammates, because anyone throughout our leadership council can wear that armband and represent us with pride and represent us in the right way.”
Very few members of this talented group are as uniquely valuable to the USMNT, both on and off the pitch. There’s the relentless ground coverage and ferocious tackling that’s already made him one of the EPL’s top pressing midfielders since his summertime arrival from RB Leipzig. The soccer IQ that often allowed him to do the work of two d-mids during World Cup qualifying. And the steely focus and hatred of losing that’s made him a leader even among older counterparts.
Gregg Berhalter left no doubts about the 23-year-old’s worthiness for the armband.
“Tyler is a guy that's just mature beyond his years and you notice it from the minute you start talking to him,” said the coach on Sunday. “I can go on and on about the strengths of Tyler, but I think the other thing about him is his humility. And he's a guy that teammates know exactly what they're going to get from him.
“They know that he's going to go out on the field and compete. They know that he's going to be thinking about the game, they know that he's going to be into the details of the game, not just a competitor. He's also a strategist. And I think that helps the group because he calms people down and he's a guy that people get behind.”
A natural-born leader
In one sense it’s striking that Adams would win a captain’s vote on a team with headline names like Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie on it. Those two might not be all that surprised, though. Both have played with Adams since adolescence, dating back to youth national teams where Adams was moved up an age group to their 1998-born cohort, but rarely acted like it.
“I've known Tyler since the [Bradenton] residency days, and he's always been that kind of character where, if he came up and played a year up with us, like, he didn't shy away. He took on the role that he was given,” recalled McKennie as he sat next to Adams in a press conference before the Yanks’ September friendly vs. Japan.
“I think even in the national team youths, you captained also,” he said to his friend and teammate. “But the thing is, what's amazing about it is that even whenever he doesn't wear the captain's armband, sometimes you still get a sense of his leadership role that he takes on within the team.”
Those words have proven prophetic. Even more revealing was Adams’ effort to explain how he got this way in the first place.
“I mean, I've had to deal with Weston for a long time,” he said of his outgoing midfield colleague with a smile. “So if one of us is going to act crazy all the time, the other one has to act calm. Growing up, I think just being raised by a single mother and not having a father figure in my life, I had to just figure out who I was as a person and just figure out a lot of things on my own from that sense. So when my stepfather came into my life, who's my dad, obviously, I was very fortunate. He helped kind of nurture me into a young man.
“But at the end of the day, the most important thing is always having mutual respect between me and my teammates. I feel like they know I'm here for them if they need me. But on the field, yeah, it's always been a role I've taken, whether I was playing in my own age group or playing up. I wasn't afraid of really what people thought about me or anything like that. I just wanted to be there and be consistent. Be the guy that, yeah, people could rely on if they needed to.”
Old soul, born leader, wunderkind, big paws on a puppy – whatever turn of phrase you prefer, Adams’ maturity is already a key ingredient in the USMNT’s collective character, a foundational element in the Berhalter youth movement’s rise from the ashes of the failed 2018 qualification campaign.
“At the beginning, when I came into the national team picture, we had just come off the brink of not qualifying for the World Cup. So a little bit in the dumps of the frustration and aggravation of the media getting on the older players of U.S. Soccer – they probably don't get enough credit for what they built and gave us the opportunity to do,” said Adams on Sunday.
“But now you have a coach that comes in and tactically understands the game better than almost every coach that I've ever had. And he puts a plan in place of really wanting to develop the players, these young players, giving them the opportunity, having that belief in them. And that was different than what U.S. Soccer had done in the past. Obviously, we relied heavily on experience. When I came into the picture, we started to challenge the ideas and the theories that U.S. Soccer had believed in for a long time. When you build this plan and you start to develop the system, you can really bring any young player into the system and allow them to thrive.”
It’s no great leap to suggest that this team’s prospects of a successful World Cup will hinge on that undersized but ferocious presence in the engine room. And probably even their hopes for the next one in 2026, too.
“I want to be a winner. So first off, I'm very competitive,” said Adams. “I want to hold the guys around me to the same standard. I don't want to lose and then have to point the finger and say, ‘you let me down today.’ I just want to make sure that everyone's on the same page, intensity-wise, mentality-wise, no frustration, we all buy into the same thing.
“I think I've been doing that since a young age. And also, as much as I know my strengths, I know my weaknesses as well. And I want people to criticize me. I'm open to feedback all the time, and I want to get better and improve.”