There was a moment, eight minutes into penalty time on Team USA’s 1-1 tie against Wales on Monday that Tyler Adams showed exactly why he is the youngest captain at the 2022 World Cup.
Wales forward Gareth Bale had already canceled out Timothy Weah’s first-half strike with a late penalty and was battling menacingly in search of a late winner. Despite running tirelessly throughout the match, legs no doubt feeling like lead and lungs pumping acid, Adams appeared out of nowhere to steal the ball from the five-time Champions League winner with a pinpoint tackle.
He capped an all-action performance by the 23-year-old Adams, which included winning 83.3 percent of his tackle attempts, six fumble recoveries and two interceptions, according to FotMob statistics website. The Leeds United midfielder pulled the strings in the center of the pitch throughout the game, troubling Wales with astute positional awareness and fueling his more attacking team-mates like Weah and Christian Pulisic. That the performance didn’t end in a win probably hurt Adams deeply.
“I want to be a winner, I’m very competitive,” Adams said after being introduced as Team USA’s captain on Sunday. “I want to hold the guys around me to the same standard. I don’t want to lose and then have to point the finger and say, ‘You let me down today.’
No one knows if Adams felt as pressured after Sunday’s game, when Team USA completely dominated the first half but faded under sustained pressure from Wales in the second. Adams much prefers to let his performance do the talking – a commanding presence that spurred US coach Greg Berhalter to make him America’s youngest World Cup captain since Walter Barr in 1950.
“Tyler is a guy who’s just mature beyond his years,” Berhalter said Sunday. “Teammates know exactly what they’re going to get from him. They know he’s going to go on the field and compete… He’s a guy that people get behind.”
USA captain Tyler Adams in action during the match between USA and Wales at Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium on November 21, 2022.
(Stew Forster—Getty Images)
Adams grew up about 50 miles north of New York in Wappingers Falls, a quaint upstate village with antique shops and red-brick cafes. He began playing with the New York Red Bulls youth academy at the age of 12, although like many teenagers, he continued to play a variety of sports. He credits basketball with inspiring his all-action, box-to-box soccer technique.
“You literally spend most of your life outdoors where I’m from,” Adams told TIME in an exclusive interview on Nov. 3. “I don’t remember my mother ever letting me in. I have three brothers, so we’re always doing something cool.
After signing his first professional contract with the Red Bulls’ second-tier side at just 16 years old, Adams worked his way up to the senior MLS team. In 2019, he joined RB Leipzig, a partner club in Germany’s top Bundesliga. There he won the German Cup and put in some remarkable performances in the Champions League at the top of Europe.
Red Bull’s expanding sporting interests – the Austro-Thai giant has stakes in five football clubs in Europe and America, and by 2014 a team in Africa, Red Bull Ghana – are controversial among traditionalists, who accuse them of undermining the ties of fans with clubs in favor of corporate uniformity. But Adams has only positive things to say about the training and progress he’s made. “I have Red Bull to thank for almost everything,” he says. “They gave me all the opportunities I had in my professional career before I moved to Leeds.”
The move came this summer for a $24 million transfer fee and reunited Adams with Jesse March, his former coach at New York Red Bull. Marsh gave Adams his first-team debut in a friendly against Chelsea when he was just 16 – during which Adams scored in a 4-2 win – and his MLS debut a year later. (His first senior cap for the U.S. came just a year later at 18.)
“Tyler’s mentality is that he wants to be the best,” Marsh told TIME. “[He has] confidence, athleticism, clarity, aggressiveness and quality. He has a real opportunity to become a big player.”
Adams believes the move from Germany to the English Premier League (EPL) has added new elements to his game. “I love it,” he says. “I think it’s a league that suits the way I play a lot. [But] to play in the Champions League and to play in the Bundesliga is also a very high level.”
Adams has settled well into life in Leeds, living with his long-term girlfriend and their pet Rottweiler, Elsa. He was also helped by recruiting a Team USA teammate to the club Brendan Aaronson, a 22-year-old playmaker from southern New Jersey who signed in May for $30.2 million, the second-highest fee ever paid for an American. At the last national training camp, when someone saw Adams hanging out somewhere, the joke was that he was always waiting for Aaronson. “They were like, ‘Oh my God, you guys are so close now!'” laughs Adams. “[Aaronson] has a bubbly personality so we bounce off each other well.’
A string of man-of-the-match performances for Leeds earned him a place in the fans’ hearts. “He’s been a really consistent performer, putting in seven or eight out of 10 appearances every game,” says Chris Harvey of the Leeds United Supporters Trust. “I haven’t really seen him in demand, and he seems to be setting the tone for what we’re talking about.”
If there was one moment that cemented Leeds fans’ appreciation for Adams, it was his lung-busting performance in October 2-1 win over title contenders Liverpool. After that match, Adams was a shout was heard near the dressing room: “Three points – let’s get out of here!” For a Yorkshire club rooted in working-class grit, canvas caps and pints of warm bitter, the local beer showed that the no-nonsense American just got it.
USA’s Tyler Adams and Brendan Aaronson are among the players appealing the decision by referee Abdulrahman Al Jassim of Qatar to award Wales a penalty for an infringement on 21 November 2022.
Youssef Lulidi—Fantasista/Getty Images
Despite the disappointing result with Wales, qualifying from the group stage is “100 per cent the aim”, says Adams. “We definitely see ourselves doing well with the teams we have in our group, not only with our style of play but with the players we have.”
Many others have praised Adams after his performance against Wales, although the challenge now is to ensure his team-mates maintain similar levels. Of course, the most important thing was not to lose. “We’re obviously a young team, but we’re ambitious,” Adams says. “So you have to treat the group stage as the first part of the tournament. And once you qualify from the group stage, anything can happen.
Adams’ role with the national team differs from that played at Leeds, where Marsh employs a high-pressing style that focuses on winning balls in the opposition’s half and quick transitions that turn defensive situations into lightning-quick counters. Berhalter also values a high-energy approach, though he’s more focused on keeping possession and methodically building.
“With Greg, it’s: how tactically can you disorient the opponent? Which player is coming here? Why are they going there?” explains Adams. “But I learned a lot from both managers in different ways.”
With Adams now testing himself against England players week after week, the USA-England match on November 25 is the match he is most excited about. “It’s going to be good,” he smiles. “Obviously I’m more familiar with the players now that I’ve had the opportunity to play against them in [premier] league.”
That the game comes the day after Thanksgiving adds extra spice if it needs one, and the holiday means it’s expected to be one of the most watched football matches in American history.
Although the team will have to postpone their turkey feast for a few days, “I think the day after we play England, we’ll have our families together to celebrate Thanksgiving as a team,” he says. “It’s going to be a pretty special moment.” And even more so if they have three points to toast.
More must-reads from TIME