As the saying goes: If you're good enough, you're old enough. By that mark, Emerson Hyndman grew up pretty quickly.
A standout soccer player at all youth levels, Hyndman was long a highly-touted prospect. Holding a European passport through Portuguese family history made him an attractive prospect for European clubs, as the U.S. youth international could be signed before turning 18, the same way Christian Pulisic's move to Borussia Dortmund was paved by holding Croatian citizenship.
With that, Hyndman also grew up pretty quickly by non-metaphoric standards, too.
His soccer talents opened huge, life-altering decisions, ones few have the capacity to tackle before being eligible for a provisional driver's permit. Spotted by scouts across England, including Liverpool and Newcastle, he was a kid with options. Already excelling in the academy of FC Dallas, where his grandfather Schellas Hyndman was the team's head coach, Fulham became the next team interested in Emerson.
"It’s not easy to make that decision at a young age, to know you’d leave friends and family behind in the process," Hyndman told MLSsoccer.com two weeks ago. He ended up leaving home to join Fulham's academy in 2011 when he was 15. "It was something I thought a lot about, but when you’re 15 you don’t normally make those kinds of decisions. It was a tough one, for sure. I have no regrets about doing it. It’s something my family knew I had to do. I was lucky I had the support.”
It was the first gargantuan decision of a young career marked by them. Winding from Fulham to Bournemouth and now Atlanta United, with stops at Rangers and Hibernian along the way, Hyndman strives to find consistency on and, more importantly, off the field.
Things went well for Hyndman at Fulham.
He accelerated up the academy ladder, earning his senior debut for the club in the English Championship in August of 2014. Less than a month later, he made his senior US national team debut after just three senior club appearances.
The box-to-box center mid, with the eye for a pass and never shy of a tackle, was progressing well, as many in youth soccer circles expected he would. He shined that summer at the premier stage for young players, the U-20 World Cup. He captained Tab Ramos' side to the quarterfinals, which fell in penalties to eventual champions Serbia.
“He’s one of those players that you throw him on the field, you let him work, forget about him and worry about the other guys," Ramos said. "He just makes your team better. I have high hopes Emerson is going to be a big-time player.”
Entering the final year of his contract with Fulham the following season, Hyndman's ability and potential began attracting more suitors. Another huge decision presented itself as Premier League side Bournemouth made an offer for his services.
Despite his growing comfort at Fulham, Bournemouth was an attractive destination. Not just a Premier League side, thus fulfilling Hyndman's dream when he left Dallas for London, but a club with one of the country's top young managers who won plaudits for playing aesthetic, possession-based soccer. It may sound simple, but few teams in the Premier League's relegation scrap dare play progressive because often the ones that do get kicked right back to the Championship.
That confluence of factors led Hyndman to accept Bournemouth's offer ahead of the 2016-17 season. It would alter the trajectory of his career.
"I grew up at Fulham in way; it was a tough decision," Hyndman said. "My contract was winding down [and] they offered me a deal, but Bournemouth came with some interest. It was a Premier League club with a highly-rated manager. It was something I had to look at. It’s easy looking back now to say, ‘Yeah, I should have stayed at Fulham,’ but at the time, I felt like I made the best decision I could for myself."
Hyndman alludes to a hint of regret.
Right off the bat, he faced adversity. Instead of a midfield three, with more opportunity for a box-to-box midfielder like himself, the club opted to switch systems that hinged on two defensive midfielders. Hyndman's best role was no longer on the team sheet not long after the ink dried on his contract.
"I was pitched on a three-man midfield and we went to two midfielders. I had a huge adjustment to even fight for a place," Hyndman said. "At a young age, that’s a hard thing to do. I had to go on loan to get my experience and try to impress. There’s never an easy path, you have to fight for everything. Obviously, I envisioned it differently, but I had some things to learn.”
Playing time didn't come easy in his first half-season with the Cherries, so he went out on loan in January to Scottish club Rangers, where he excelled. He was a regular in his half-season in Scotland and was even named Rangers' Young Player of the Year. He stuck with Bournemouth in 2017-18, but made just a handful of appearances. The lack of opportunities led to another loan the season thereafter, returning to the Scottish Premier League with Hibernian, where he again found regular playing time over a half-season. In January, upon re-joining Bournemouth, Hyndman again found himself far away from the field.
This summer, things had to change. Again.
“I’m a little surprised [at how things went], but it’s not so much Emerson’s fault in this case," said Ramos. "He happened to be at the wrong clubs for the situations they were in and the type of player he is. He just hasn’t been in the right place.”
After fighting to make two appearances in the Premier League, Hyndman did fulfill his dream, even if it hadn't come the way he envisioned. Never truly breaking in at Bournemouth, another decision arose this summer as to where to continue his career.
"I don’t fully regret moving to Bournemouth. I had the opportunity to play in the Premier League and learn under a good manager, but the opportunities were limited," Hyndman said. "It was a problem. You’re in a good situation at a good club, but you want the opportunities. Looking back, I could have had that more at Fulham if I stayed. That’s the only part where I was frustrated.”
Where to next: Stay in Europe or take on a new adventure?
When Atlanta came calling, it didn't take long for Hyndman to jump on board. After deciding to leave an MLS academy and chase his European dream at the age of 15, Hyndman is back stateside as a 23-year-old man.
“When I heard MLS, I was intrigued. But it was a huge decision," Hyndman said. "The main thing was the ambition level that Atlanta was preaching. They won the league, they wanted to improve their squad and I guess they saw me as a guy for them. I was happy to hear that. I knew they had great players. I was eager to join a team who was on the front foot in games and had a winner’s mentality.”
Part of Atlanta United's loan agreement for the twice-capped US international included an option to buy. If things go well, Hyndman will have found a permanent home once again.
Things are, in fact, going well.
Hyndman has appeared in all six MLS games he has been eligible for, including three starts. He started both US Open Cup games he was on the roster for, too. He looks right at home in a team playing possession-based soccer.
“I was really happy the coach showed that much faith in me to throw me in the first game and start me," Hyndman said. "I want to repay him for that. I started a few games at the beginning – it’s been really good for me so far this quickly. There’s some things I need to hash out, soften up my touch with all the time off, but at the same time I’m feeling good.”
Atlanta underwent a tactical shift since he joined, too. Unlike Bournemouth, though, this has worked in his favor.
Frank de Boer returned to a formation with three center backs, opening three places in central midfield. Hyndman has featured as both a box-to-box midfielder and a No. 10.
"Emerson is very much a connector," Ramos said. "He does all the things the other guys aren’t doing, whether it’s passing or defending, he can do it. He’s almost like the oil in the engine. He just makes it work.”
For the first time since departing Fulham, Hyndman is benefitting from comfort and consistency.
“I want to try and get back in the national team set-up," Hyndman said bluntly. "I want to impress the coach and turn heads a little bit. It’s all going to come, I just got to put the work in every day.”
After slightly more than six weeks, early returns on Hyndman's decision to join Atlanta have been good. They mark the latest big decision in a career full of them, with this one setting the player back on track to fulfill his vast potential.