While scrimmaging for the New York Red Bulls before their final 2018 regular-season game against Orlando City SC, an 18-year-old player named Ben Mines had to wear a blue bib. Mines had suffered a broken left clavicle at the end of August, but he recovered well enough to train with the first team. The bib marked him as a neutral player, allowing him to help whichever team had possession.
Mines was good, especially for his age, but he had the natural anxiety and inconsistency of a young player. He misplaced a few simple passes, and could get scared into avoidable mistakes by defenders. Teammates and coaches would boost his confidence by praising his creative efforts, but he’d defer to older players on the pitch, afraid to fail.
Again, this is normal behavior for a promising young payer. And it was in watching Mines that I could tell how good Tyler Adams really is.
Adams is only a year older than Mines, but they seemed worlds apart. Adams had a meteoric rise through the Red Bulls system, joining the Academy in 2011, playing with the U-13, U-16, and U-24 sides, and signing a professional contract in March 2015 at 16 years old. That November, he signed with the senior team, and by the 2017 season he was a regular. He’s still very young, but the way that he carried himself on the field made it easy to forget that.
Throughout the scrimmage, Adams was a commanding presence. He was scurrying all over the field, dribbling, tackling, and restricting space for attackers. He’d yell and instruct his teammates into position. At 19, he didn’t just look good for a 19-year-old, or for an American. — he was just good. His talent stood out even among a team of accomplished veterans.
It’s impossible not to daydream about what Adams could become. When we met that day, he was at the beginning of the next stage of his career. The transfer rumors had been swirling around him for some time. MLS is a good league in its own right, but for the benefit of Adams as a player and for the reputation of American players, it’s important for him to go to Europe and succeed in the big leagues and competitions. In January, he joined RB Leipzig of the Bundesliga, making him one of the newest among 16 Americans playing in the German league (as of publication).
Adams could go to Germany and fail, of course — becoming the cliche of the American player who only plays well near home. It’s happened to many young talents before and will happen after him. But watching him, it’s hard not to become hopeful (and even a little jealous) that Adams could become part of a set of new stories about American players abroad. To wonder if he could blossom into the great box-to-box player that becomes a building block for a new-look USMNT. Adams has the legitimate potential for greatness.
Adams and I are introduced after training. His official measurements say he’s 5’9, but he looks smaller, and because of that and the way he plays, it’s no surprise that he says his idol is N’Golo Kante, the tiny French defensive midfielder who helped Les Bleus to a World Cup title. Like Kante, Adams has a simple and gentle demeanor. He’s soft-spoken and personable, so that it’s easy to forget just how much hype surrounds him.
We get in an Uber together from the Red Bulls’ practice facility in East Hanover, New Jersey, headed to Manhattan, where he is scheduled to do an event with his agent. Over the course of an hour drive, the conversation weaves between his fears, his ambitions, and the hardships of athletic life.
When he became a professional at 16, his mother had to drive him 150 miles daily to and from training. Just two years ago, he would go to school early in the mornings to attend “classes” that were more like individual teacher assessments so that he could attend training during the day. Yet the school was only accommodating to an extent.
“I usually go to school early in the morning for one or two classes, and then come to training. The school was OK with it, but one of the classes that I was forced to attend was gym,” Adams says. “I’m a professional athlete but I couldn’t get out of gym class.”
At the same time, he battled the stigma that all young, good, American players do. The failure of Freddy Adu looms as a cautionary tale, even when the comparison is absurd. As soon as the transfer rumors started swirling around Adams, so did the specter of Adu, who was frequently compared to Pelé in the mid-aughts, and whose story of meager success relative to his outsized hype gets rehashed whenever an American player struggles.
But that does seems like the worst-case scenario. Say Adams fails in Europe. Maybe he comes back to the United States and remains a star, becoming the big fish in a small pond. Or he falls another level from grace, leaving the big clubs for a USL team where he has to live with several people in one house and practice in high grass. Or he disappears to Eastern Europe to salvage what’s left of his career. Hopes often don’t become reality, and success in soccer depends on many fickle circumstances.
As my mind traced these paths his life could take, ones that may open and close before Adams in the next few years, he remained composed as we talked. Adams, reflecting his fearlessness on the pitch, showed no anxiety about the future, nor did he run away from the possibility of failure.
He acknowledged that it’s impossible for Americans to escape Adu. But unlike many, he doesn’t see Adu as a joke. Sometimes pioneers don’t succeed in the way that the audience demands. Adu didn’t become the American Pelé like he was hyped to be, but he gave future generations of American soccer players, like Adams, hope that they could contend with anyone abroad.
“People always make fun of him, but he started all of this. He was the first one,” Adams says. “He paved the way for the rest of us. Maybe he wasn’t as successful as they wanted him to be, but he deserves some respect for what he did. I don’t like when they talk about him like that.”
As of October, Adams was living in Secaucus, New Jersey, roughly 30 minutes from the Red Bulls’ training facility. It is a quiet, suburban area, and as we drive through before hopping on the freeway, Adams, who grew up in Wappinger, New York, says that those two places are both more suitable to him than New York City. He likes how quiet they are, that Trader Joe’s and anything else he needs is close, and that he isn’t surrounded by an overwhelming number of people. He couldn’t imagine living in New York City.
Along with the driver, we talk about whether any of us have ever hit deer while driving. I have, the driver has as well, but Adams hasn’t, and shakes his head several times thinking about how jarring that experience would be.
When we talk about anything soccer-related, Adams is polished. His refined answers don’t seem like the result of media training, but of how well he knows himself and his ambitions.
He mixes self-awareness with a great level of humility. I ask him if he needs to score more goals in order to gain individual recognition.
“To be honest? I don’t really care about goals,” he says. “What I really like is shutting down the opponent’s best player. I like tackles, dribbling, and getting an assist is just as good as a goal to me.”
As a lifelong soccer forward, his answer is absurd to me. Goals are the life-blood of the game, there’s no feeling in the world like scoring. Research has found that scoring goals is better than sex. At my shock, Adams laughs and says, “Oh, you’re one of those people.”
He says the right things. He respects his coaches and is grateful to everyone who has helped him on his journey. He is not under the impression that he succeeded solely because of pure individual talent. While he likes playing in MLS, his dream is to succeed in Europe, and he feels that he is ready for the opportunity.
I ask Adams what is the most important part of the game to him, what he values the most.
“Winning trophies. If you don’t win trophies at the end, then it was all for nothing. That’s what we play for.”
There’s a path where Adams succeeds in Europe without becoming a true superstar, too, similar to Michael Bradley, the national team’s stalwart midfielder and longtime captain. Or rather, he could take Bradley’s place in the USMNT. He could go to Europe, and have a subjectively successful career before returning to the U.S. to play out the rest of his career in relative comfort. He could become the face and leader of the national team, someone who is a stabilizing force as the team goes through its iterations. He could be pivotal, even if the hype about his talent never matches the reality. Even if he isn’t one of the world’s best, he could be a hero stateside.
Yet, listening to Adams talk so confidently about what he knows that he’s capable of — that he knows he can fight for his place in Europe, and succeed there — he sounds like someone yearning for a greater and more holistic level of recognition.
I compare his bullish attitude about Europe to an incident he had with Bastian Schweinsteiger earlier in the season. The two of them collided in a game between the Red Bulls and Chicago Fire, and when Schweinsteiger tried to extend a hand to Adams, the younger player waved away the Bayern Munich legend’s peace offering.
“I respect him, but sometimes players like him act like I’m supposed to bow down to them because I’m young or because of who they are,” Adams says. “I’m not. I know he’s a great player, but I’m there to help my team win.”
Because of its obligations, being an athlete is a lonely path. It limits one’s social life, so that when Adams could have been engaging with other high school kids and living a teenage American life, he was training with his team. Moving to a new country could make those feelings of isolation even worse.
Loneliness is one of the least discussed aspects in the lives of professional athletes, but it is a common problem nonetheless. Last year, Manchester City released a documentary titled All or Nothing that had few honest moments, but for one: striker Sergio Aguero admitting he spends most of his time away from the field alone, watching mafia movies.
The upside for Adams is that in this new generation for the USMNT, many young Americans are moving overseas and forming their own community. Adams will have an easier transition into a new culture than many of his predecessors did, mitigating the sadness he might feel. The Bundesliga in particular contains a who’s who of the USMNT’s most promising players, including Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Josh Sargent, John Brooks, Timothy Chandler, Fabian Johnson, and Bobby Wood.
“I’m in a group chat with a lot of those guys,” Adams says. “We talk all the time.”
But even with friends abroad, I asked if he was still afraid of the move, of the hardships that are sure to face him off the field as much as they will on it. But again, he seemed at ease. He was used to being alone. The experience wouldn’t be new to him.
“I’m not scared,” Adams says. “I know it’s going to be tough, but I’ve been on my own for a while now. I’m comfortable with it.”
That Adams might fail is a real and reasonable fear. It has happened to countless people — not just Americans, but players all over the world. The sport is a graveyard of potential.
But while we sit in a car headed for Manhattan, we talk about the dreams of every kid who grows up a soccer player — wanting to play in a big European league, win the league trophy, win the Champions League, represent their country in the World Cup and lift up the most coveted trophy in the world — and the conversation washes away those fears and it feels very possible that Adams could achieve so many of those dreams. He doesn’t just have the ability to play at the highest level, but he wants to win so badly that he’s willing to do anything. That obsessiveness is present in the best.
For a time we sit in silence imagining what it would be to walk out to the Champions League theme song — or at least, I am and think he might be, too. Just the chills of being on a grand stage like that. I ask him if he is really unafraid. It seems improbable to me.
“Well, not on the field. It’s just a different mentality when I step into the field,” Adams says. “I’m relaxed outside, but as soon as I’m playing, I’m in the zone.”
So Adams is a man largely without fear, then — uncompromising in his effort to help his team win, showing no deference to legends. I remind him about how jarring he said hitting a deer would have been, and if that’s the case, then he has to at least be scared of bigger and more vicious animals.
“I mean, if I was one-on-one with a lion, I’d probably be like, Damn, guess I gotta go out like this,” Adams says. “But besides that, I’m not scared.”