The hound bedeviling Senegal’s every waking step was named Tyler Adams.
In more than a few ways, the U.S.’s experience at the U20 World Cup has been Josh Sargent’s to tell. The youngest player on the team, Sargent was with the U17 World Cup qualifying group two weeks ago, and his immediate promotion to the U20 team – and not just any team, but the World Cup team – was met with its share of heraldry. And rightfully so, it seems. Sargent has three goals in the U.S.’s first two games, seemingly rectifying its last great hurdle from qualifying in chance conversion.
Sargent has earned his attention – he’s been by definition a revelation - but he’s also entrenched in a glamor position given over to those sorts of prodigiously supplied headlines. One player who most certainly has not been afforded the same fawning adulation is Adams. And he deserves his shine perhaps more than anyone.
The roles on this particular U20 team are carefully placed. Sargent is the hold-up man, Derrick Jones the shield for the back line, Cameron Carter-Vickers the bowling ball on aerials, Brooks Lennon the wide terror. Adams’ role is perhaps not so well-defined. Early in his development, and even as recently as the first half of this cycle, conventional wisdom held Adams as a No. 6. He’d played at the fullback position before, but the lion’s share of his Red Bulls II experience came in the midfield’s defensive hole, and his tireless work rate and matter-of-fact tackling ability seemed to cast him there for the foreseeable future.
But Adams progressed and grew and seemed to sprout new abilities by the week. Suddenly he could run channels, provide distribution and press possession in the final third. And not only could he do it, he relished it. In the 2016 USL title game, which Red Bulls II won in smashing style over Swope Park Rangers, Adams, then barely 17 years old, had more passes than anyone else on the field. And it wasn’t even close.
The story of the U.S.’s U20 World Cup has largely revolved around Adams’ metamorphosis from a ball-stopping No. 6 to an all-action N’Golo Kante type who prefers to cover sideline to sideline and step into the attack when necessary. Adams has lived in the central valley of the American attack in South Korea, allowing him to dip back into the defensive framework when needed and simultaneously drive into the final third to press, create and win back balls in defensively risky areas. In this, Adams has become hands down the most important facet of the American game plan. U.S. coach Tab Ramos would not like to lose any of his starters, but he could most ill-afford to lose Adams. In more than one way, he’s the player Ramos has been seeking to run his frenetic press-and-break system for three cycles.
It was hard to miss Ramos’ adoration for Adams in the run-up to the tournament. This quote from Ramos’ press conference before the tournament was telling.
“It’s hard to say exactly what my expectations are because Tyler just keeps getting better and better. You almost want to set the bar for him so high that he can’t reach it. It’s difficult to do with such a young player because he’s one of the younger players here. Tyler’s physical ability to cover ground and mental strength are really amazing for a young player. Certainly have not had – never want to put players behind him – but he’s one of a kind. Certainly a very aggressive young player, and one that I think we’re hoping has a tremendous impact on the team.”
That little hitch – “certainly have not had” – before switching to more generalized praise caused Ramos to pause and catch himself before he said something overly aggrandizing. It’s an unwritten rule of coaching young players that you don’t blow up their expectation from the inside. Whatever the press does, expectations are tempered from within. And Ramos almost did it. Notice how he switches tack. You can tell he was about to elevate Adams to a place above the rest of his teammates, because he catches himself and says he would then not like to do that. It betrayed Ramos’ true thoughts, that Adams, the third-youngest player on the roster, is ahead of his peers. It is an opinion I share.
Adams has been unflinchingly critical as the leader of the central band of the American third. His dogged pursuit was the main pillar of the 1-0 American win over Mexico in qualifying, and it’s why the U20s have four points in two games. And his match against Senegal, a 1-0 win that more or less put the U.S. in the knockout stage, was a quiet all-around masterclass.
None of the things I’m about to show you tend to arrive in three-minute highlight packages, but they’re the sort of thing that inflates underneath a team and carries it to high ground.
Here, you can see the switch flip inside Adams as the defender dallies on possession. He has a mandate to press whenever he sees a foot drag, and here he’s on his man before he has time to take a second breath. Adams’ body positioning after his deflection is immaculate, and something for which he should be known. He uses his body like a shield better than anyone in the entire USYNT pool, and it isn’t close.
That positioning, you’ll note, generated a free kick for the U.S. out of absolutely nothing. Except Adams’ work rate.
Next, this is one area where Adams improved leaps and bounds this cycle; second-ball building. Adams will never be the man to push in the final ball, but he’s somehow become a tremendous bricklayer for those who do. Adams’ tenacity on ball is perfect for this, and here he manages to sense the opening for a run, body through his defender in an extremely tight corridor and then push on possession for Lennon down the flank. This is… well, it’s very good and entirely not No. 6 work.
Same thing here. That touch to spring himself was artwork.
This is one area two years ago I imagine most of us would have been shocked to learn Adams would warm to; off-ball runs into the box. Adams is no finisher, and this was a tough touch to take in the box anyway, but it’s a good thing to remind yourself that he’s become far more comfortable pressing center backs than anyone figured he’d ever be.
When Adams has his hooks in a game, you can tell. And this next one is more or less how. Adams at his best is a combination of whip-smart ball circulation and tireless physicality, and his vision is quickly coming along broadside of both. Adams wins this ball initially by backing off his Senegalese marker and simply takes the space. The little back heel to open up the rest of the attack was a bonus, but he created this entire move himself.
Pause this clip toward the end, and you’ll see three Senegalese defenders crowded around Adams as Luca De La Torre steps into the black hole he generated at his back (and then opened up with his seeing-eye back pass).
Finally, it’s that body positioning again. It’s the most consistently noticeable thing about Adams’ game, and it literally separates him from his peers. Watch the world’s best midfielders operate, and a commonality is separating defenders from the ball by simple body adjustments. If you trust your movement enough, you can force the defender to go through you to find the ball instead of at you. At worst, you’ve earned a free kick. At best, you’ve muscled or turned around your defender and created open space from nothing.
Adams is tremendous at both disciplines. This has always been his hallmark, but the latter part of this sequence has not. Adams shields possession, works his way into space horizontally and finds Lennon. The difference now is that Adams immediately turns upfield to create a run for Lennon’s feet to find. This is a relatively new innovation for Adams, and it’s been devastating for midfields suddenly confused beyond belief at the sort of player with whom they’re dealing.
There are a lot of moving parts on this U20 team, and Adams could not do what he does without those parts operating in concert with him. But it’s more obvious than ever that Adams is beginning to separate from his peers at a somewhat stunning rate. If he keeps up this pace, there’s no reason to hold him back from USMNT camps anymore.
Whether physically, mentally or technically, Adams is as ready for the step up in competition as anyone in the pool. And that’s never been more obvious than it is right now.