As the youngest United States men’s national team in generations plotted their return to soccer’s biggest stage after an eight-year absence, manager Gregg Berhalter relied on a captaincy-by-committee approach. More than a dozen different American players took on the role of captain over the past three and a half years as Berhalter rotated the armband across a leadership collective drawn from the team’s senior players.
But when the time finally arrived to select a World Cup captain, the question was put to a player vote. To no one’s surprise, Tyler Adams got the call from his peers.
As the United States prepare for Saturday’s match with the Netherlands and an opportunity to reach the last eight of the World Cup for the first time in two decades, no single player has made a bigger impact than Adams, the Leeds United midfielder who has been the team’s brightest star across three matches in Qatar, both on and off the pitch.
The 23-year-old from Wappinger, New York, about 60 miles north of Manhattan, has thrived as the defensive bulwark of a midfield that will be the US team’s biggest strength against the favored Dutch. Adams offers a controlled, efficient presence for the Americans from a deep position. He’s also more than lived up to his role as the unflappable leader of a romper room that has fielded the youngest starting XI of any team at this World Cup.
“His leadership has been vital to us from day one,” Berhalter said early Wednesday morning after the US defeated Iran in a riveting group-stage finale to seal their progress to the knockout stage. “In this World Cup, he’s extremely focused and his play has been outstanding over the course of these three games. He’s been performing lights out.”
Adams’ age makes him an unorthodox choice as a World Cup skipper – the only other captain in the whole tournament under 30 is England’s Harry Kane, who is 29 – but his maturity has made him a tailor-made fit for this precocious group.
“When you start talking about the captain types … Tyler fits a very specific role,” said Berhalter. “He’s the general, he’s the strategist. He’s the guy that goes out there and leads by example. When he talks, people listen.”
As much as Adams has stood out for the United States on the pitch, it’s been his poise and composure off it that’s captured attention back home. That was never clearer than earlier this week, when US Soccer’s decision to scrub the emblem of the Islamic Republic from Iran’s national flag on social media kicked off a political firestorm.
At a tense news conference on Monday afternoon, a phalanx of Iranian press members peppered Berhalter and Adams with provocative questions that invoked US immigration policy, school shootings, runaway inflation rates and even America’s military presence in the Gulf. Amid the barrage, Adams was sharply chastised by Iranian journalists for mispronouncing their country’s name, then immediately pressed to answer for America’s centuries-old legacy of inequality and racial discrimination.
“First of all, you say you support the Iranian people but you’re pronouncing our country’s name wrong: our country is named ee-ran, not eye-rahn” one reporter said. “Please once and for all, let’s get this clear. Second of all, are you OK to be representing a country that has so [much] discrimination against Black people in its own borders?”
Adams, after apologizing for the mispronunciation, delivered a confident, assured response.
“There’s discrimination everywhere you go,” Adams said. “One thing that I’ve learned, especially from living abroad in the past few years and having to fit in and kind of assimilate into different cultures, is that in the US we’re continuing to make progress every single day.
“Growing up for me, I was in a white family with an African-American heritage and background, as well. So I had a little bit of different cultures and I was very easily able to assimilate in different cultures. Not everyone has that, that ease and the ability to do that, and obviously it takes longer for some to understand. Through education, I think it’s super important. Like you just educated me now on the pronunciation of your country. It’s a process. I think, as long as you see progress, that’s the most important thing.”
The exchange has since gone viral, spreading far beyond the typically parochial soccer discourse in the United States into the mainstream, making for think-piece fodder and winning the praise of commentators who typically focus exclusively on the country’s more established sports.
Adams, who has a white mother and a Black father but grew up in a white family, is the frontman of a diverse and multicultural US collective that reflects the nation they represent like never before. Although Latino players remain curiously underrepresented, nearly half of the 26-man squad is comprised of players of color – a long-overdue shift in a nation where the sport has far too long been the province of upper- and middle-class white kids.
He joined the New York Red Bulls’ academy in 2011, during childhood idol Thierry Henry’s four-year stint in Major League Soccer. Adams signed a professional contract and made his senior-team debut four years later. Having forged a reputation as an industrious ball-winning defensive midfielder, Adams moved to NYRB’s sister club RB Leipzig in 2019, making his biggest splash when he fired in the last-gasp winner that lifted the Bundesliga club into the Champions League semi-finals. After three promising seasons in Germany, he landed at Leeds in a $24.2m (£20m) transfer this summer, where he has come into his own under the American manager Jesse Marsch and alongside US teammate Brenden Aaronson.
Cutting his teeth in two of the world’s best leagues has done wonders for Adams’ play and it’s paid off handsomely in Qatar, where he’s passed well and made countless important interceptions in the No 6 role, helping the Americans overrun the midfield for long stretches. But as Berhalter has noted, his readiness as a locker-room leader was apparent from the moment he made his international debut back in 2017.
“We think he has great leadership capabilities and he leads by his actions and his words,” Berhalter said. “Tyler’s a guy that’s just mature beyond his years, and you notice it from the minute you start talking to him. He’s a guy that teammates know exactly what they’re going to get from him. They know that he’s going to go out on the field and compete.”
For Adams, who wants to pursue sports psychology once his playing days are done, it’s a moment that he’s prepared for since he first broke in with the national team.
“One thing, at the end of the day, that I always want to do is I want to be a winner,” Adams said last week. “So first off, I’m very competitive. 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’. I just want to make sure that everyone’s on the same page. Intensity-wise, mentality-wise, that we all buy into the same thing.
“I think I’ve been doing that since a young age and as much as I know my strengths, I know my weaknesses as well. And I want people to criticize me. I’m open to feedback all the time and I want to get better and improve.”