KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Fresh off his breakout performance at the CONCACAF Under-20 Championships, Erik Palmer-Brown rejoins Sporting Kansas City this week, carrying the lessons of a year-long loan abroad and a renewed focus on winning minutes in a veteran-packed back line.
The 19-year-old Homegrown missed the start of Sporting's season, spending last weekend in Costa Rica helping the US U-20s win the tournament and qualify for this summer's FIFA U-20 World Cup – and earning Golden Ball honors as the tournament's top player.
“I'm still kind of just – I don't want to say 'in shock,' but just kind of soaking in the moment at the time, still,” Palmer-Brown told reporters on Tuesday, during the club's annual media day. “It's been a long trip. It's been like eight weeks away from home. I'm glad to be back for a bit and really focusing toward going to the World Cup and doing big things there, too.”
Between now and then, though, Palmer-Brown's focus is on his club. And even with Matt Besler and Ike Opara – assuming the latter stays injury-free – the clear first-choice pair, and Kevin Ellis a proven option as well, manager Peter Vermes said he expects Palmer-Brown to be in the mix this year after gaining match and life experience last year with Porto B in Portugal.
“Before he left to go to the 20s and qualifying, he was easily one of the top central defenders for us at the time in his play,” Vermes said on Tuesday. “There's a reason that we signed him a long time ago, because we always realized that he had a lot of quality. It's always about him working towards that potential.”
Palmer was just 16, Sporting's youngest signing ever, when he turned pro in 2013. Serie A power Juventus started trying to buy him about six months after that, but Sporting kept turning down their offers and Palmer-Brown stayed put. Still, with no local USL club in place at that time, playing time while he finished high school was hard to come by.
Last year, though, Palmer-Brown made 17 appearances for Porto B – and, he said, learned some valuable lessons both on and off the pitch.
“I think I'm a little more mature, just a lot more calm,” he said. “I've grown up a little bit. Off the field, taking care of my body and being more professional instead of going around hanging out with friends all the time. It was tough, but you get used to it. For me, it was fun. It was a great experience.”
And between the lines?
“I learned a little bit over there, and I'm ready to jump in any time. Just like positioning – awareness on the field, awareness in the game. That was really important for me.”
Palmer-Brown, who also played in the 2015 U-20 World Cup, captained the US for the 2017 qualifying tournament – something Besler, Sporting's captain, was glad to see.
“I think everybody was very excited to watch EPB perform like he did and represent the country like he did,” Besler said on Tuesday. “I think he did an excellent job being the captain. I know that I was really excited to see him in that role, and I think everybody's really excited to see what he does this year. We missed him last year, and it's great to have him back, and I definitely can tell that he's focused and that he really wants this.”
Palmer-Brown also showed his versatility – another quality his club manager prizes – in Costa Rica, moving from his usual spot in central defense to slot in as a defensive midfielder.
“Everyone knows him as a center back, and our group needed an injection there because we lost some players prior to the tournament,” said Brian Bliss, Sporting's director of player personnel and an assistant to U-20 coach Tab Ramos. “Erik had some abilities to play in there, but we never knew at what level.
“Obviously, in our system as a center back, you have to be able to pass out of the back. Even playing in a [No.] 6 position, central midfield, his ability to show that he can handle the ball and pass can only be a benefit to him when he comes back here.”
Whatever helps him win those minutes, Palmer-Brown said.
“It takes everything – every bit of energy in you, every bit of confidence that you have,” he said. “Because this is a great team and [Besler and Opara] are two great players – and Kevin as well, three great players in my position. It's going to be hard to break into a spot.”