Tyler Adams is driven by a relentless motor. No distance stands too great to cover for the pacy 19-year-old. A true box-to-box midfielder, that energy sets him apart every time he steps on the field.
Outside the lines, Adams gets around on a much less glamorous motor: a 2013 Accord once owned by his mother. That vehicle carries Adams 150 miles every day, from his home in Wappingers Falls, N.Y. to the New York Red Bulls training facility in Whippany, N.Y.
2017 launched Adams to new heights. After a stellar showing at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Korea Republic, he locked down a starting role with the Red Bulls and established himself as one of Major League Soccer’s brightest rising stars. The year culminated with his first-ever senior Men’s National Team call-up last November, and Adams’ debut against Portugal saw him become the first player born in 1999 to represent the MNT.
The ride to and from training takes Adams an hour and twenty minutes each way. Over the last six years, it has become his daily commute as he has worked his way up through the Red Bulls’ Academy system.
While the routine isn’t enviable and the car isn’t flashy, the unstoppable drive of the teenager behind the wheel turns heads. The first half of 2018 has seen the young midfielder continue to climb. Propelled by a ferocious motor, there’s no sign he will slow down any time soon.
“From an early age, being in school and having to do the drive, it was definitely a grind and a commitment,” Adams said. “It wasn’t the typical teenage adolescent schedule. The analogy to me being a player is that I’m definitely a grinder. I work for everything that I earn. It’s a high risk, high reward mentality. As a player known for being able to cover ground and break-up plays, my mentality on the field is being gritty.”
It wasn’t always Adams in the driver’s seat. At the beginning of his journey with the Red Bulls, his mom sat behind the wheel for the 150-mile roundtrip. Adams has always had a fire inside when he steps on the field. Even as a four-year-old, he carried a competitive streak. And for as long as Adams has played, his mother, Melissa Russo has been by his side. She raised Adams solo for much of his childhood. Her work ethic in his boyhood planted the seeds of his dogged nature on-field.
“With me being a single parent for a while, he was always very involved in whatever had to be done,” Russo said. “If it snowed and we needed to shovel the driveway, he was out there with me, as little as I can remember, like, ‘Mom, where's my shovel? Mom, what do you need help with?’ He was just always that kid that was willing to do whatever he could to help.”
The sacrifices that Russo made as a single mother defined Adams’ youth career. A change in his home life would play a similarly important role in his development. As Adams became a teenager, Daryl Sullivan and his three sons became a part of Tyler and Melissa’s family. For the first time, Adams had three younger brothers that looked up to him for guidance. The experience has served well now that Adams has become a literal poster child for the Red Bulls Academy, where images of him playing for the first team adorn the walls of club’s youth development office building. The next generation of New York players look at his profile on the wall and aspire to reach the same heights.
“Being the role model for his brothers has transitioned,” Russo said. “I’m like, ‘You know, you need to lead by example because there are a million kids now in this area that really want to be the next Tyler.’ For him to come out of here leaves a lot of hope for a lot of the younger kids.”
The Sullivans entered the picture just as Adams arrived on the Red Bulls’ radar. At a tryout for New York’s pre-Academy Regional Development School in 2012, Adams impressed enough to pique the club’s interest and earn an invite to a summer camp with the academy squad. The tryout also marked the first time Adams caught the eye of National Team scouts, specifically, former MNT head coach Manfred Schellscheidt.
“When you put him around [Upstate New York], obviously he's going to shine, but when you put him down there with some of the best kids from Connecticut, New York and New Jersey, and he's still up to the top, you're like, ‘Wow, it's pretty impressive,’” Sullivan said. “The difference between Tyler and any other player is his competitiveness. He separates himself. When you see the U.S. scout there, you see the Red Bulls, the facilities and all the coaches, that for me was definitely the moment where I was like, ‘Wow, he's got something.’”
Adams proved himself worthy of a spot in the Red Bulls’ academy set-up and did enough at tryouts to convince the USA to give him a shot. While the scouts had come to the Tri-State area to find goalkeepers to pad out Youth National Team rosters, Red Bull academy director Bob Montgomery convinced them that he had a very special player on his hands in the field.
“I quickly realized that Tyler was far above the players in his age group,” Montgomery said. “Tyler had the drive and the dedication before he came to us. He realized when he came and joined the players, the team at Red Bull, that this was the best opportunity for him to grow as a player. After the first National Team camp, he was the best player, he was the captain and from that point on, he’s been in every camp when he’s available.”
Adams earned his first National Team call-up in November 2012 as a part of the U-14 Boys’ National Team. From there, he established himself as a Youth National Team mainstay.
At the same time, Adams began to play up an age group in the New York Red Bulls system, effectively starting his climb to the first team. That ascent through the academy necessitated Adams’ commute from Wappingers Falls to Whippany. While his mom and stepfather were behind the wheel, Adams drove his development to the next level.
“He really is the easiest to motivate,” Sullivan said.
“He had to be proactive,” Russo said. “He knew, if homework’s not done, if your bag’s not ready to go, we’re not going. Tyler is a really good person to say, ‘OK, this is what I have to do the next day, this is what I’m going to do. I’m going to get my homework done from two to three and then from three to four I’m going to eat.’ He’s very dedicated to structure.”
Adams’ ability to self-motivate made it easier for him to earn Russo’s approval when he received an invitation to join the 2014 Fall class with U.S. Soccer’s U-17 MNT Residency Program in Bradenton, Fla. While he stood as one of the youngest players in the group, he played a key role in the team’s run at the 2015 Concacaf U-17 Championship and that year's FIFA U-17 World Cup in Chile.
Earlier in 2015, Adams signed his first professional contract with New York Red Bulls II, the Red Bulls’ reserve squad. Upon return from residency and the U-17s, the time came for a newly-licensed Adams to make the ritual drive from Wappingers Falls to Whippany himself for training with the USL side. With a freshly-inked contract and relishing the fact that parents would no longer have to drop him off at practice, he also looked for a fresh set of wheels.
“He obviously would have wanted something much better than a car I used to own,” Russo said. “But we really didn't give him that option. That’s one of those things where we're trying to keep him grounded. Maybe your financial means could put you in a different car, but you have a whole life and you need to make good financial decisions. That car gets beat up. It's 70 miles each way in all types of weather. Finally, he was like, ‘OK, maybe, this makes sense.’”
As he took the wheel, Adams also became a motor on the field for the Red Bulls II. In 2016, just the squad’s second season and Adams’ first full pro campaign, the young midfielder helped the team to the USL championship. He made his MLS debut for New York on April 13, and continued to earn a spot on the senior squad’s bench throughout the season. That momentum set up a tremendous 2017.
The culmination of Adams’ YNT career came in June, as he helped the U-20 MNT to the quarterfinals at the World Cup in Korea Republic. His return from Asia saw the teenager install himself as a regular in the Red Bulls’ lineup. While his 2016 debut made him the first player to complete the pathway from the Red Bulls’ Regional Development School to the first team, 2017 saw him become a starting XI stalwart. Instrumental in the team’s run to the U.S. Open Cup Final, Adams also helped catalyze New York’s run to the MLS Cup Playoffs. The Red Bulls fell in the second round, but as one door closed, another opened for Adams.
A few days later, he received his first senior National Team call-up. On Nov. 14 against Portugal, Adams made history as the first player born in 1999 to appear for the senior MNT and went the full 90 minutes in the 1-1 draw against the reigning European champions.
“I had goosebumps,” Adams said. “I don't usually get goosebumps or nerves before any game, but for that one I just remember going out there and getting pins and needles in my feet. I was just like, ‘Wow, this is a surreal feeling.’ I look back at that game and say ‘Wow,’ I got my first cap playing against Portugal with the U.S. senior team as an 18-year-old. Not many people get to say that. It’s just one of those things you can never take for granted.”
Having appeared in five of the MNT's six matches since last November, it's safe to safe to say he's starting to become a regular in the U.S. midfield. At the same time, he’s also enjoyed success with the Red Bulls and played a key part in their run to the Concacaf Champions League semifinals earlier this year.
“You never would’ve been able to tell that Tyler was the youngest player on the team,” former New York Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch said. “When you watch him play, he looks like such a man, when you see him face-to-face, he’s got such a baby face. Tyler never looks out of place. He has a magnetic sense to him. People look up to him, despite his age. He’s fearless. There’s no player he plays against or game that he’s in that he’s not ready for. I think he’ll have potential to galvanize a group, motivate a group, challenge a group, be a sort of beacon for what a team can be about.”
There’s only been a small sample size as the next generation arrives for the MNT, but at least one element has stood out. Adams’ incessant on-field engine will fuel the USA into the future. While his mom’s old car has taken a beating over six years of 150-mile daily commutes, Adams’ motor has just started to rev up.
“I just want to cement myself within the National Team group. Any chance you have to put that jersey on and look down at your chest to see the U.S. crest there is an amazing honor,” Adams said. “Whether it's from U-14 to the senior team debut, you can never take that chance for granted. Putting on the red, white and blue and knowing that there's so many people behind you definitely has a huge meaning for me.
“You want to be one of those guys that can become a regular. Obviously, that was a goal with me for Red Bulls: to cement myself, earn the respect of others and become a starter. Why not have the same goals for the National Team? I want to play the most influential part for the National Team that I can.”
“I think he’ll have potential to galvanize a group, motivate a group, challenge a group, be a sort of beacon for what a team can be about.”
- Jesse Marsch
“Tyler never looks out of place. He has a magnetic sense to him. People look up to him, despite his age. He’s fearless. There’s no player he plays against or game that he’s in that he’s not ready for.”
- Jesse Marsch