Welcome to What Is This USMNT Guy’s Deal, a regular series in which Defector selects a name from the myriad number of exciting young American soccer men playing in Europe and answers the question: What is this USMNT guy’s deal?
Because the current and former leaders of FIFA were up for auction to the highest bidder in 2010, the 2022 soccer calendar is a strange, mangled chimera of concentrated stretches of club play, half-sized breaks, and a World Cup that will either serve as a multi-week break for those unfortunate enough to crash out of the group stage or a backbreaking test of physical endurance, the tolls of which won’t be obvious until May. Which is to say, when the club games really matter, everyone will be exhausted. The gravity of the winter World Cup will warp everything this season. And for those on the bubble of their national team rosters, they will only have a couple months to impress their way into a ticket to Qatar.
Though the United States men’s national team is quite young and features many players who made summer moves, there’s really not much uncertainty about the core of the roster three months out from the World Cup. There remains plenty of intrigue—e.g. Who the shit is going to play striker?—but the team knows how it’s going to play, and who’s going to play. The What Is This USMNT Guy’s Deal series has split its time between fringe players and key starters, though with the tournament rapidly approaching, extremely young players like Adrian Simons Gil will have to take a backseat to those who pass for veterans on the team, like Tyler Adams.
Who Does He Play For?
Adams made a big move this offseason, leaving the Red Bull umbrella for the first time in his career and joining the American exclave over at Leeds United. He rose through the New York Red Bulls’ academy with stunning speed, scoring against Chelsea in a summer friendly at age 16 and establishing himself as a bedrock starter for the club two years later. Adams’s rise at NYRB was coeval with Jesse Marsch’s, and shortly after Marsch moved all the way up to the top of the Red Bull pyramid as an assistant coach at Leipzig, Adams joined him.
Leipzig is one of the best clubs in Germany, and Adams slotted in comfortably from the moment he arrived. His versatility and playing style made him an extremely useful player for the club. Whether deployed as a right back (good), a right-sided midfielder (better), or defensive midfielder (best), Adams proved he could press and fight and stand up against the best in Germany and, occasionally, in Europe. He played in two DFB Pokal finals, won one, and helped his side advance to the Champions League semifinals in 2020.
However, Adams’s progress began to stall after his mentor Marsch returned to Leipzig, this time as head coach, in 2021. Marsch’s tenure was ineffectual and short, as he was replaced by Domenico Tedesco midway through the season. Under Tedesco, Adams slid down the pecking order. Adams has talked about feeling perhaps too comfortable at Leipzig, so this offseason, he joined Marsch and fellow American Brenden Aaronson at Leeds. There, Adams is all set up to be one of the critical pieces in Leeds’s struggle for survival this season. He’s going to be tested like never before.
The Weston McKennie Mamma Mia Test refers to the following foolproof heuristic for determining whether or not a U.S. player is actually good or just good by our rosy American standards: Do fans tweet lovingly about them in their local language?
How Does He Play?
Adams is a classic No. 6. He has occasionally played out wide and in front of other midfielders, but he spends the bulk of his time shielding the defense and playing as the most withdrawn member of the midfield. Marsch took over the Leeds gig from Marcelo Bielsa, an iconic manager with a signature style. Thankfully for everyone involved, that style rhymes with the Red Bull way (press until you and your opponent both die), and Adams is a gifted presser. He’s on the shorter and slighter side for a defensive stopper, but he’s tenacious. He basically never, ever stops running, and he’s a constant nuisance to ball carriers. Adams’s role is to apply pressure and win the ball back for his team.
Adams’s speed and eagerness to sprint at the ball can get him into trouble. For someone tasked with covering such a crucial area of the pitch, he can get caught out of position at times by opponents skilled enough to avoid his pressures. Late in his Leipzig career, he seemed adrift between roles, without the space and freedom to fly around disrupting attacks. When Adams suits up for the USMNT, he’s given incredible leeway to cover a huge amount of ground. That team is built around the interlocking skills of Adams, Weston McKennie, and Yunus Musah (and maybe Gio Reyna when he’s healthy.) Each player brings very different skills to the table, but they work so well as a trio because they’re all relentless runners and because Adams covers enough ground behind McKennie and Musah so that the other two can freely run forward.
No club team is going to give Adams that level of freedom, like that of a peak Fernandinho, because Adams doesn’t have the passing range to justify it. He’s got good positional awareness on the offensive side of the ball, and he keeps his head up enough to always know where the next pass is. He’s not going to smack inch-perfect long balls or threaten the defense with splitting passes up the middle all that often, though he doesn’t overstay his welcome on the ball or take unnecessary risks. The USMNT is a noticeably more decisive team with Adams on the pitch, and he can comfortably work at an extremely high tempo for both club and country. Adams is stepping into the void left by Kalvin Phillips at Leeds, and replicating his production is a tough ask. But he had a great debut for the team, and I think he has the defensive chops to take it to Premier League attackers.
The Wonderteen Index is a holistic, objective metric that analyzes a player’s full array of skills and talents, distilling it all into a single number that corresponds to their ultimate potential and the likelihood that they will assume the title of Wonderteen.
Adams is 23, has been a known quantity for years, and plays unglamorous soccer, so he only gets a 19 out of 30.
How good can Adams be at the very highest level? This is a critical season for Adams to determine that, as he’s no longer one of the many young guys on a club expected to finish in the top-three of a good league. He is now a fire-putter-outer for a lower-table team in the most competitive league in the world, a league sure to create many fires for Adams to put out. He’s shown he can play and thrive in the Champions League, though playing for Leeds against Liverpool is a fundamentally different task than playing for Leipzig against Club Brugge. If he can show an improved passing game, justify his role as the defense’s shield, and help the Leeds counterattack flourish, he’ll prove that he’s more than just a runner. If his progressive passing doesn’t improve and he finds himself out of his depth, physically or tactically, he won’t be long for the Premier League. This is a major test.
Can He Play Right Back?
The U.S.’s European corps is absolutely silly with right backs, enough to stock a full XI. And so it is important to determine whether or not the USMNT guy of the week can play the position.
Not only can Tyler Adams play right back—duh, he was born in the United States of America—he has played the position extensively. While he’s spent roughly 75 percent of his time as a pure defensive midfielder, Adams has played Bundesliga and Champions League games as a right back and right-sided wing back.
Show To Me A Cool Highlight
For a guy who almost never scores, Adams has a pretty cool goal on his resume: this late (lucky) winner against Atlético Madrid in the Champions League quarterfinals.
How Does He Fit In With The U.S. Team?
Adams is a critical piece for the USMNT. Without him, the team will not have the luxury of playing an all-action 4-3-3 that allows two midfielders and both fullbacks to fly up the pitch with the ball at their feet. The USMNT loves to attack from the wings, which means Adams is the player most responsible for keeping the center of the pitch clean. Luca de la Torre has shown he can step in and play in the midfield, Gianluca Busio can pass very well, obviously Aaronson and Reyna can move back and attack way better than Adams can from the midfield, but no other player on the team is anywhere near the defender Adams is. There really is not another true No. 6 in the pool—at least not another good one. The U.S. system has produced plenty of goalkeepers, fullbacks, and attacking midfielders, but the defensive midfielder spot is even more barren than the striker spot. At least there are options for the bucket-getter role. Adams is the only guy who does what he does.
How Close Is He To The Hypothetical Best XI?
He’s maybe the least replaceable player on the team. Berhalterball doesn’t work without him.