Weekly Wonderkids: Episode 7

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One of Football Index’s unique attributes as a platform is that it allows traders to pick and choose which players to buy and sell, which to stockpile, and which to keep an eye on in the future. Traders can spot a promising footballer, buy stock in said player, and watch them flourish as the player’s profile grows on the world stage. If you truly believe that a teenage prospect who’s only registered a handful of substitute appearances will go on to become a Golden Boot winner, you have the power to put your money where your mouth is and add him to your portfolio.

Each Monday, Zach Lowy will analyse a new U-23 player who Football Index traders should consider buying in a new weekly series called “Weekly Wonderkids.” With this series, you’ll be able to discover which youngsters you should place your trust in – and money – and why.

Name: Tyler Adams

Age: 20

Club: RB Leipzig

Two years ago, as I was researching for questions to ask Tyler Adams for an interview on my website Breaking The Lines, I came across Adams’s admiration for former NBA star Kobe Bryant. Having just turned 19, Adams was already making a name for himself as one of the most talented prospects in MLS, impressing for the New York Red Bulls with his versatility, nonstop workrate, and gritty mindset. I formulated a question on Kobe’s ‘Mamba Mentality’ and how it has influenced Adams, to which I then passed on to my reporter Cristiano Oliviera. 

“Kobe Bryant has fearlessness at all times and his ability to make plays at any moment in the game, and his competitive edge, he didn’t care who he was going against, I try to replicate that in a sense,” said Adams. “For me, it doesn’t matter who we’re playing against, what minute of the game it is, I’m going to give everything I have at whatever moment it is.”

That Mamba Mentality has influenced so many athletes in far more sports than just basketball to be tougher, more resilient, and more clutch. Without Kobe Bryant, Adams may have never developed the competitive edge to take New York to the Eastern Conference Finals as a teenager, and subsequently earn a move to RB Leipzig. Without Kobe Bryant, so many of the young starlets that are currently making a name for themselves across the sports world would not be where they are today.

This story isn’t about Kobe, though. Because as much as you want to roll up into a ball and cry until your eyes hurt, as much as you want to block out the news and pretend that everything’s okay, and as much as you want to rewind the clock back to elementary school when you’re staying up past your bedtime to watch him drop 61 points at Madison Square Garden, the show, for better or worse, must go on. 

Making His Way Up the Red Bull Chain

Adams grew up in Poughkeepsie, New York, about a two hour drive north of the Big Apple. He’d wake up at 6 a.m. on the weekends to watch Thierry Henry score golazo after golazo for Arsenal, falling in love with the Frenchman’s elusive, effortless style. He had a poster of him in his bedroom; if Kobe inspired his killer instinct on the pitch, Henry inspired his burning passion for football. 

Put those two together, and nothing could stop Adams from chasing his dream of becoming a professional footballer. So when he got the opportunity to join the New York Red Bulls’ academy, one of the most prestigious player development systems in North America, he didn’t have to think twice. Every day, Adams would wake up, go to school from eight to three, and then drive 150 miles with his mother to the club’s practice facility in Whippany, New Jersey. He’d do his homework on the drive down to the Garden State, eat dinner in his mother’s Toyota Corolla, and get back home after midnight.

Up until he was 13, it was just him and his mother; the former balancing school with football, the latter balancing school with a full-time job. That changed in seventh grade, when his mother started seeing the father of one of his classmates. Suddenly, he had a stepfather, three stepbrothers, and a family. His stepfather, a second-generation immigrant from Scotland, is a diehard Rangers fan, and his love for the beautiful game helped push Adams’s desire to succeed in football to a new level. 

He worked his way up the academy all the while focusing on getting his high school diploma, and by the time he was 16, he made his first team debut in a pre-season friendly against Chelsea. Then manager Jesse Marsch, now at Red Bull Salzburg, entrusted Adams with a start against the reigning Premier League champions at the Red Bull Arena. 

The Blues got off to an early lead via a Loïc Rémy goal, until Franklin Castellanos equalized shortly after the break. 18 minutes later, Castellanos launched a daring cross into the box. Adams, playing the first game of his professional career, connected with the cross and headed it past Asmir Begović into the left corner. The Red Bulls went on to win 4-2, and the diminutive teenager received praise from his family, his coaches, and a certain someone who had waged his fair share of terror on Chelsea back in the day.

Henry, who had retired just seven months prior, was in town to train with his former side and watch them face Chelsea. The man who made him fall in love with football congratulated him on his debut goal. From that moment on, football was no longer a dream for Adams, but a reality.

Breakthrough in MLS

Three months after making his debut against Chelsea, Adams signed his first professional contract with the club. He made his MLS debut two months after his 17th birthday, starting against the San Jose Earthquakes, before playing for the B team for the rest of the season.

Adams’ talent, potential, and hunger to improve was evident to everyone at the club. So when captain and club legend Dax McCarty was surprisingly traded to the Chicago Fire in exchange for $400,000 in allocation money, the club didn’t bother signing a replacement. At first, it was Sean Davis, six years Adams’s senior, who partnered the tough-tackling Felipe Martins in midfield, with Adams missing the club’s preseason to play for the United States in the CONCACAF Under-20 Championship. Nevertheless, by the start of April, Adams, who was still finishing high school at the time, was starting in Marsch’s 4-2-2-2.

His mental resilience, energy, and class on the ball drew praise from then U.S. U-20 manager Tab Ramos, who called him “one of a kind.” Adams drew interest from several Bundesliga clubs, who were looking to make the next splash in the States following the success of Christian Pulisic at Borussia Dortmund. However, he stayed put in his home state, keeping his feet firmly planted on the ground and focusing his energy on club and country. 

Adams played a variety of midfield positions in the 2017 U-20 World Cup, operating as a holding midfielder against Ecuador, a box-to-box midfielder against Senegal, and even playing in a more advanced role against Saudi Arabia. No matter who he was playing alongside or what role he was asked to fulfill, he impressed with his all-action style, his aggression, and his leadership. Despite only standing 5’9”, Adams was a giant on the pitch.

The U.S. made it all the way to the quarterfinals, where they would lose to eventual finalists Venezuela. Adams was taken off shortly after halftime, with the lack of rest and excess of football taking a toll on his young body.

A little more than a week after playing his socks off in South Korea, Adams was back in the Red Bulls starting line-up, deputizing at right back in the Hudson River Derby. It didn’t matter where Marsch asked him to play, whether it was on the wing, in midfield or in defense; Adams would get the job done with no questions asked. 

He scored a brace while playing at right back against D.C. United, and his relentless energy and technique helped influence the rest of his teammates to step their game up. New York would end up making it to the U.S. Open Cup Final, where they would lose to Sporting Kansas City, and the Eastern Conference Semifinals, where they would lose to eventual champions Toronto FC.

The club rejected a $5 million offer for him in the winter of 2017, believing that he needed another season before he was ready for Europe. They were proven right. Adams racked up regular minutes for the U.S. senior team, and impressed in both MLS and the CONCACAF Champions League. Despite the departure of another veteran leader in midfield — Sacha Kljestan — and despite Marsch leaving midway through the season to become an assistant at Leipzig, the Red Bulls finished the regular season with the best record in MLS. They made it to the Eastern Conference Finals before once again losing to the eventual champions, Atlanta United, and they breezed past Olimpia and Tijuana before losing to Chivas in the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals.

After a breakthrough season, Adams validated the hype with an even better sophomore season. Many clubs, such as Hertha Berlin and Monaco, lusted over his signature, but it was RB Leipzig who, naturally, won the race for him. The German club paid a measly $3 million for him, but the Red Bulls received a 33% sell-on clause. Should Leipzig end up selling him for, say, $45 million, New York would receive $15 million.

Development in Europe

Working alongside Marsch and first team manager Ralf Rangnick, Adams made his Bundesliga debut against Fortuna Düsseldorf, winning the ball back with his terrier-like tenacity, and keeping things ticking in possession. Impressive performances soon followed against the likes of Hannover and Hoffenheim, as the American quickly won a starting spot in Rangnick’s line-up. He had hit the ground running, and it seemed as if his time in Germany was going off without a hitch.

Fate, however, would have other ideas. A niggling adductor injury sidelined him for seven weeks, with Adams recovering in time to start the league finale against Werder Bremen as well as the DFB Pokal Final against Bayern Munich, both of which resulted in losses.

It was a tough blow, but at least he’d be fit in time for the Gold Cup, right? Not so fast. Adams re-aggravated his groin injury and pulled out of Gregg Berhalter’s U.S. squad. He trained hard to prepare for club football and impress new Leipzig manager Julian Nagelsmann, but a foot injury in August, as well as complications to his groin, sidetracked those plans. He would have to wait until the final match of the Hinrunde, seven months after his last start for Leipzig, to make his debut under Nagelsmann, and he did so at the right back position. 

After the come-from-behind victory against Augsburg to close out the first half of the season, Adams spoke to Bundesliga.com, saying, “When football is your job and you don’t have it every single day, you feel like you’re missing something. It’s been an important journey, a useful experience for me to mature as a player, but I’m excited to be back now.”

It was with Adams’ renewed health in mind that the club leadership made the decision to sell Diego Demme. Six years ago, Demme joined Leipzig for €350,000 when they were in the German third tier. As the 2nd-most senior player at the club, he left after a spell which saw him become a mainstay in midfield as well as vice captain. Despite being first-choice under Nagelsmann, Leipzig cashed in on the veteran midfielder for €15 million, selling him to Napoli. 

They made the decision to part with one of the most important leaders in the dressing room whilst in the middle of a title race. Leipzig, still top of the table despite losing 0-2 to Eintracht Frankfurt on Saturday, will be counting on Adams to stay fit and consistent as they look to win the first Bundesliga title in club history. 

Adams started in a holding midfield role alongside Konrad Laimer against Union Berlin, and deputized at right wingback to fill in for the injured Lukas Klostermann against Eintracht. While it’s clear that his best performances come in midfield, his versatility, adaptability, and confidence is a godsend for both Nagelsmann and Berhalter.

Next Big Move?

For the sake of his career, it’s best that Adams stays with Leipzig for this current season, and the following season as well. Few managers are as skilled at developing raw talent than Nagelsmann — just look at Kerem Demirbay or Nico Schulz — and few clubs are as skilled at developing raw talent than Leipzig — just look at Dayot Upamecano or Naby Keïta. It would do him a world of good to stay at Leipzig for at least the next 18 months, and polish his skillset before making the move to one of Europe’s elite clubs.

Kobe Bryant will no longer walk amongst us mortals, but his Mamba Mentality will live on in the heart and soul of millions of athletes like Adams for the rest of eternity.

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