The youngest captain at this World Cup, Tyler Adams keeps USMNT steady

Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford.
Tyler Adams, 23, is the youngest U.S. World Cup captain since 1950 and the youngest on the 32 teams in Qatar.

RAYYAN, Qatar – Perhaps Tyler Adams’s finest work at this World Cup – and there has been a lot of it during the U.S. national soccer team’s drive to the knockout stage – occurred not in one of Qatar’s opulent stadiums but in a bland auditorium on the bottom level of Qatar National Convention Center.

As the U.S. captain – the youngest of the 32 at this tournament – Adams has accompanied Coach Gregg Berhalter to every news conference the day before a match. He fields standard questions about teammates, the opponent and the World Cup in general.

Before the Iran game, Adams was drawn into geopolitics. First, he was lectured by a reporter for mispronouncing “Iran,” then asked how, as a Black man, he reconciles representing the United States amid the Black Lives Matter movement.

Adams, 23, handled the inquiry with the same grace and polish with which he conducts the U.S. squad during high-pressure international matches. Instead of dismissing the questions or answering defensively, Adams engaged. He thanked the reporter for educating him and, with the maturity of someone twice his age, shared his thoughts on culture, race and the challenges confronting the Iranian people.

As in the group-stage matches, he wasn’t rattled. He just had a conversation. He didn’t escalate a tense situation. When the session ended, he and the reporter thanked each other.

The episode offered further proof why the players voted Adams the youngest U.S. World Cup captain in more than 70 years.

In discussing Adams, Berhalter cited “The Captain Class,” an acclaimed book written by the Wall Street Journal’s Sam Walker, about the art of leadership in sports.

“He’s the general. He’s the strategist. He’s the guy that goes out there and leads by example,” Berhalter said of Adams. “When he talks, people listen; he’s not overly vocal. And it’s worked out really nice for the whole group.”

On the field, Adams has set the tone for a young squad that finished second behind England in Group B with a 1-0-2 record and will face Group A winner the Netherlands on Saturday in the round of 16. The Americans have not won a knockout-stage game since advancing to the quarterfinals in 2002.

From his defensive midfield post, Adams has cleaned up messes, linked the defense with the attack and initiated forays. What has further endeared him to teammates and fans is his leadership, determination and maturity.

“Going back to when I was young, I was just very competitive,” said Adams, a native of Wappinger, N.Y., 60 miles north of Central Park. “I didn’t really care who I was playing against. The older guys probably hated playing against me. 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.”

Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford.
Tyler Adams is slated to start his fourth World Cup match Saturday against the Netherlands.

A homegrown signing of the MLS’s New York Red Bulls at 16, Adams looked up to veteran figures such as Dax McCarty, Sacha Kljestan and Luis Robles.

“I just always thought to myself how I can relate to different people,” he said. “When I’m having a conversation with [35-year-old U.S. defender] Tim Ream, it’s probably going to be very different than a conversation with Brenden Aaronson [age 22]. It’s definitely evolved in a lot of different ways, but when I’m on the field, I’ll do anything to win. I just figured out how to get the best out of all my players and relate to them in different ways.”

Indeed, they are his players. Long ago, Christian Pulisic was tagged as “Captain America” for his superhero play. And Pulisic has captained the team in many games. But when the time came to pick the primary leader at the World Cup, Adams stood out among his peers.

“The biggest thing is, I want to represent this team in the right way, represent my family in the right way,” he said. “You’re playing for something a lot bigger than yourself. You’re playing for all the people in the U.S. that are watching and supporting you. That’s what settles me.”

Adams always has seemed to be ahead of his time. He made his debut with the Red Bulls’ first team at 16 in a friendly against Premier League club Chelsea. Two years later, he was a full-time starter in MLS.

Less than two years passed, and he was on his way to RB Leipzig in the German Bundesliga. In four seasons, Adams made more than 100 appearances and became the first U.S. player to score in an UEFA Champions League quarterfinal. Last summer, in a $24 million transfer, he jumped to the Premier League’s Leeds United, where he has started 13 of 14 matches this season.

His Leeds teammates include U.S. World Cup attacker Aaronson, who said Adams has “done everything” for the English club this season. “He is all over the place.”

As Adams’s game developed, so too did his reputation in national team circles after cycling through the under-17 and U-20 squads.

One month after the senior national team’s lowest moment in decades – a 2-1 loss in Trinidad and Tobago that ended its hopes of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup – interim coach Dave Sarachan invited Adams to a friendly against Portugal. At 18, he started against the reigning European champions.

The rebuilding process was underway, and Adams would be a big part of it.

“Our first session, in the first 15-20 minutes after warm-ups, Tyler covered more ground than I’d seen anybody do,” Sarachan said recently. “I knew immediately, ‘Okay, this guy, he’s going to be in the mix for a long time because he had the full package.’ “

Hired in late 2018, Berhalter continued integrating young prospects, such as Adams, Weston McKennie, Tim Weah and Josh Sargent. Adams featured regularly but didn’t captain the team for the first time until June 2021.

With World Cup qualifiers approaching, Berhalter knew he had a natural leader. Adams led the team with 12 starts in the 14-game schedule and wore the captain’s armband seven times.

Before the World Cup, Berhalter polled about 35 players: Who should captain the squad in Qatar?

“He’s led not only off the field, but on the field,” Berhalter said. “Our defensive shape has been really good, and he’s responsible for coaching the players in front of him. I know they’ve given me feedback that he has done a great job.”

Not everything has been perfect, though.

“The occasional diagonal [pass], he needs more of that. Hopefully he’ll get the point,” Berhalter said, smiling and glancing at Adams sitting to his left. Adams swayed back and forth, smiling too.

“He’s been great,” Berhalter continued. “Really happy to see this next level that he has in him.”