'He’s the general': How Tyler Adams, through nature and nurture, became USMNT’s undeniable World Cup leader

DOHA, Qatar — The future captain of the U.S. men’s national team and future engine of a self-professed World Cup contender walked into a Lisbon hotel five years ago last month, and almost immediately, says Dave Sarachan, “you could just tell.”

Sarachan was the grandfatherly interim coach of the USMNT at the time, and no, he couldn’t tell precisely what Tyler Adams would become. But on a Monday night in November 2017, he saw an 18-year-old with chipmunk cheeks stride confidently around a meeting room, shaking hands and looking adults in the eye. He saw an “excitement,” but not a giddy or awestruck excitement. Adams, Sarachan says, “had a certain presence about him.”

Sarachan saw a self-belief tinged with humility, a maniacal competitiveness tinged with calm, and the beginnings of a vivacious midfielder with precocious maturity who has gone mainstream over the past two weeks. He saw the sincerity and poise that went viral Monday after a tense news conference. He saw the motor that has propelled Adams across 23.5 miles of World Cup pitch, and through every single minute of three games.

In fact, Sarachan says, at Adams’ first-ever USMNT training session, “he covered more ground in 10 minutes than any of the [other] players did the entire session.”

On the ground floor of the USMNT’s reboot after Trinidad, in late 2017 and throughout 2018, Sarachan and others saw a teen who already checked all the boxes of leadership. “Coming into the national team, you're a newbie, you don't want to step on anyone's toes,” Adams says. But he led by example, and set a tone that now defines the USMNT — with an authority that blossomed long before he had an audience.

Tyler Adams, left, and Cameron Carter-Vickers, both of the United States participate in an official training session on the eve of the group B World Cup soccer match between England and the United States at Al-Gharafa SC Stadium, in Doha, Thursday, Nov. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)
Tyler Adams' tenacity and nonstop work ethic have made him the vital cog in this World Cup team. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

Adams' journey from talented pre-teen to USMNT captain

Tyler Adams was raised by a single mother in Poughkeepsie, New York, “and while we weren’t poor,” Adams once wrote for the Players Tribune, “we didn’t have much.” Melissa Russo was 22 when she had Tyler, and paused her studies to care for him. They lived in a small two-bedroom apartment just below Tyler’s aunt and uncle. And they formed an unbreakable mother-son bond.

Melissa would take Tyler to soccer practice and elsewhere. He would accompany her to the library, where she’d pore over books for hours after working a full-time job, en route to her college degree. And on one hand, “our life was a roller coaster,” Tyler wrote. “We were never quite sure if things were going to stay on the tracks.”

But on the other hand, “we always had each other,” he wrote. And he had responsibility, a level of responsibility that most pre-teens don’t have, which bred growth.

“Being raised by a single mother, and not having a father figure in life, I had to just figure out who I was as a person,” Adams said recently when asked where his maturity comes from. He had, as he said, to “just figure out a lot of things on my own.”

And while his heroic mother did plenty to support him, he also felt a duty, even as a relatively powerless kid, to support her.

Which is, perhaps, why that maturity was already evident when he joined the New York Red Bulls academy. By age 12, his talent was obvious — the Red Bulls selected him as a model for their online training video library — but so was his character. “What set him apart was, really, the mentality, the work ethic and all of the intangibles,” says Simon Barrow, the longtime Red Bulls player development manager. “A lot of the things that you can't coach.”

Around that same time, in middle school, a father figure and three brothers came into his life. Melissa met Darryl Sullivan, who became Tyler’s loving stepfather, and who, Tyler says, “helped kinda nurture me into a young man.” He has called their first unofficial day as a newly formed family the best day of his life.

But even then, with more stability, Barrow noticed, “his parents weren't overbearing. They kind of let him figure it out. And I think his maturity is probably a sign of that.” Barrow, over a couple of decades, has seen his fair share of “helicopter parents” who hover over everything, or “snowplow parents” who “just charge out and remove every obstacle” for their kid. Melissa and Darryl sacrificed for him — for example, by driving him 150 miles roundtrip to Red Bulls training day after day — but they also allowed him to learn to confront obstacles solo.

So, as he rose through the Red Bull ranks and became a U.S. youth national team regular, he welcomed responsibility. He often played with and against kids older than he was, and “if he played a year up with us, he didn't shy away,” fellow U.S. midfielder Weston McKennie remembers.

Adams went off to U.S. Soccer’s under-17 residency program in Bradenton, Florida, then went pro close to home. Sarachan called him, McKennie and a slowly growing number of youngsters into the senior team after its failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. And as the underage cohort expanded, Adams’ professionalism — his on-field fearlessness and his off-field commitment — rubbed off on others.

“Weston was kinda loosy-goosy,” Sarachan remembers. “Everybody had their own personalities. But Tyler sorta reined everybody in within his peer group.”

And they, the peer group, are the ones who ultimately chose him, now a 23-year-old, to lead them into a World Cup.

'When he talks, people listen'

Leadership came naturally to Adams, the youngest of the 32 captains here in Qatar. It was also earned and learned, in a roundabout way, through competition. He’d scrap with anybody at training, no matter their age or stature. “I think the older guys probably hated playing against me,” Adams says. And so, “I ended up on their teams a lot of the time, so they didn't have to play against me. So we created good relationships.”

He also observed the elder statesmen of the Red Bulls. He learned how to manage personalities and forge relationships. “I always thought to myself,” he says, “[about] how I can relate to different people.” Within a year of his national team debut, he had an ability, Sarachan says, to “speak to [veteran defender] Tim Ream on an even level, and he can speak to the youngest guy on an even level.”

For nearly four years under USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter, Adams had been part of a “leadership council” among whom captain duties were shared. But ahead of the World Cup, his teammates elected him to wear the armband for obvious reasons. He fits “very specific” descriptions from "The Captain Class," a book about leadership in sports that Berhalter has read and values.

“He's the general, he's the strategist, he's the guy that goes out there and leads by example,” Berhalter says. “He’s not overly vocal,” but, “when he talks, people listen.”

And when he talks, people rave — about his “class” and “intelligence.” Multiple foreign journalists have approached American reporters after news conferences here in Qatar, primarily to say that they were blown away by Adams’ brilliance.

He has also, of course, played some brilliant soccer. “He's led not only off the field but on the field,” Berhalter says. He is a protector of the five players behind him and a conductor of the five in front of him. Midfielders and forwards have appreciated his ability to keep their defensive shape intact, and they’ve told Berhalter specifically that Adams has “done a great job of that.”

He has drawn comparisons to everybody and everything from N’Golo Kante to Dennis Rodman to a pitbull. He has sprinted more often at high speeds than any other USMNT player here in Qatar, according to FIFA tracking data. He will have to do more of the same against the Netherlands on Saturday — and there is precisely zero doubt within the USMNT camp that he’ll do it.

“He makes everyone's job a little bit easier,” Ream said after Tuesday’s win over Iran. “His energy, his tenacity, his work rate, it's just incredible, what he does on a football pitch. As he goes, the team goes. And you can see that. Fiery character. And it's a pleasure to play behind him, and play with him.”