A little more than halfway through their February camp in Orlando, U.S. U-20 coach Tab Ramos gathered his players before practice and informed them that their captain for the upcoming CONCACAF championship—and then the U-20 World Cup that kicks off this weekend—was someone who’d missed more than a year of national team duty.
“It was really unexpected,” Erik Palmer-Brown said.
But what followed provided ample evidence that Ramos made a sound decision. Palmer-Brown will lead the Americans on to the field in Incheon, South Korea, for Monday’s opener against Ecuador (4 a.m., ET; FS1, Telemundo) despite his time away. He hadn’t been out of a U.S. uniform because he was hurt or playing poorly. Instead, the Sporting Kansas City defender spent 2016 in Portugal, where a loan stint with FC Porto helped forge a player with the confidence and maturity to make history—even if it separated him from U.S. coaches and teammates in the interim.
Palmer-Brown’s ability wasn’t in question. He joined Sporting’s academy at 13, signed his first pro contract at 16 and few months later, in January 2014, he was targeted by Juventus. Sporting rejected the Italian juggernaut's bid. His MLS debut that May didn’t go so well. He conceded a penalty in the first half and was sent off in the second as SKC lost to Chicago. But he stuck with it, and his potential remained apparent. In 2015, Palmer-Brown started four MLS games and was the second-youngest player on the American squad that contested the U-20 World Cup in New Zealand.
More than talent is required at the professional level, however. Consistency, application, intensity—often it’s those intangibles that separate players at the pinnacle. That’s especially the case at Sporting, where Peter Vermes has established a very demanding culture and where the likes of Matt Besler and Ike Opara are entrenched in central defense.
“I think he had to learn how to compete every day,” said Brian Bliss, the American soccer veteran who’s an assistant coach with the U-20s and SKC’s director of player personnel.
“These guys in Europe and especially at the top clubs, a lot of them don’t have the luxury of potentially going to college or having a family member look out for them, and they use soccer as a tool to get them financial security—bypassing an education,” Bliss continued. “He had a lot to learn to compete every day because that’s what he’s up against.”
So in February 2016, Palmer-Brown packed his bags and left for Porto, where he’d spend the year with the two-time European champion.
“We thought this would be a great place for him to gain some real experience in that he has a different country, a different language and a lot of opportunity to grow as a young man. We hope that’s going to be a big part of the experience he’s going to get while he’s there,” Vermes told The Kansas City Star 15 months ago. “It will be interesting to see where it leads. As much as this is an opportunity for him, he has to make sure he earns his way there.”
It proved to be every bit the challenge that Vermes and Bliss hoped. Palmer-Brown said playing in SKC’s academy while a high school student could feel like a job sometimes. That was before he got to Portugal.
“The first month was really tough,” Palmer-Brown told SI.com. “After training I would just go home, eat lunch and take a nap. I knew some of them spoke some English but obviously it wasn’t their main language. Later on, I found out they spoke pretty perfect English! I’m like, ‘O.K., wow, that would’ve been nice to know that first month.’
“It’s different over there. It’s a job. They don’t want you talking their spot. They’re fighting for the same thing you’re fighting for,” he added. “I got the sense that this is a job. You’re going to have to fight for your spot every day because everyone wants to be the one playing. … Being at home, you have your friends and family around you. Most of the time, [Porto teammates] had their friends and family around them. They had things they had to do. Being alone and at home most of the time was new to me. It helped me mature.”
Palmer-Brown took Portuguese classes. He played his ukulele. He watched Netflix. And after a month, he was starting for Porto’s B team in LigaPro, the country’s second division. It finished the 2015-16 season on a 5-1-1 run and won the league championship.
“We talked to the guys over there, and they said he was instrumental in their run,” Bliss said. “He was a major contributor to the squad.”
Palmer-Brown was late to join Porto B's title defense as he nursed a broken foot. He finally returned to the field in October. Meanwhile, he spent time with Brad Tinsley, an American basketball player at Porto he met during the fall. Or he focused on his fantasy football team. Occasionally, however, there was concern about missing time with the U-20s. FIFA doesn’t require clubs to release players for junior national team duty—even if it’s an official competition—and Ramos frequently worked with the U-20s just after the primary international break because he was assisting Jurgen Klinsmann with the senior U.S. side. Palmer-Brown kept in touch with Ramos, Bliss and U.S. Soccer fitness staff. But he knew there were no guarantees.
“I wasn’t sure what my role would be this cycle,” Palmer-Brown said. “I know Tab would always have hard decisions to make, whether he brought me in or not. It was up to him. But I was always hoping to be with the national team … You miss those guys you grow bonds with.”
There are two trophies on the mantel at Palmer-Brown’s home, which he shares with his brother, mother, her parents and his two Australian Shepherds. One is his fantasy football trophy. He had a lot of time to play armchair GM while in Portugal, and he wound up winning his league. The other is the golden ball trophy from this year’s CONCACAF U-20 tournament, which concluded in early March.
The USA had never won the regional title at that age level. Palmer-Brown not only wore the armband, he moved forward into defensive midfield and played almost the entire competition at that less-familiar position. He scored the only goal in the Americans’ 1-0 second-round defeat of Mexico and helped shut out Honduras in the final, which the USA won on penalties.
His only uncomfortable moment, according to Bliss, was trying to get the MVP trophy home. It wouldn’t fit in a suitcase, so the humble captain tried his best to wrap it in a sweatshirt in order to avoid attracting extra attention.
“He was a bit sheepish about dragging the thing around the airport,” Bliss said.
Palmer-Brown, 20, would much rather discuss his fantasy football triumph anyway. It's a symbol of the connection he was able to maintain with friends while he was abroad, in addition to the vast NFL knowledge he'd like to tell you about.
“I trash-talk them all the time,” he said with a laugh. “I told them I might have to make a little space for that fat, nasty football trophy, and I moved it next to the golden ball. I rub it in all the time … I only lost two games all season and those guys, they’re really happy about being the two teams to beat me.”
It’s banter, not braggadocio—the kind that works perfectly inside a locker room. Palmer-Brown is easy going and easy to talk to. But his work rate, unselfishness and composure also set the right kind of example. Toss in the confidence and assertiveness he brought home from Portugal, and you’ve got your World Cup captain.
“One of the reasons Tab named him captain was because he identifies with almost everybody on the team,” Bliss said. “Just because of his personality, his demeanor, he can float from the game-playing techie guys to the fantasy football guys to the guys that want to play cards.”
Ramos told U.S. Soccer’s website: “What I like about Erik is that he's not just a vocal leader, he’s also a leader by example. He has both qualities. He’s a player that the team respects and one that believes in the values of our team and what we’re looking for. Erik is in good form right now. He’s been a professional player for quite a few years and has had the experience of playing in a U-20 World Cup already. That is invaluable to us at this point.”
During a recent conference call with reporters, Ramos said, “Erik Palmer-Brown is a completely different player now than he was two years ago. He’s really matured.”
It’s expected that he’ll return to his natural center back position at the World Cup, which also includes group-stage games against Senegal (May 25) and Saudi Arabia (May 28). Palmer-Brown will be leading and anchoring a side that has significant professional pedigree but which will be missing some of the country’s top U-20 talent.
European clubs are taking advantage of FIFA’s loophole. Schalke 04 is keeping its hands on midfielders Weston McKennie and Nick Taitague and forward Haji Wright. Defender Matthew Olosunde is at Manchester United. Forward Josh Perez will remain with Fiorentina. And the best U-20 player of all, Borussia Dortmund’s Christian Pulisic, is also unavailable. He’s got a couple World Cup qualifiers coming up.
“I still think that the guys that are here will represent us well and that we have a good team,” Ramos said.
Among the bigger names are Tottenham defender Cameron Carter-Vickers, who’s Palmer-Brown’s likely partner in central defense if an injured knee is sufficiently healed, Arsenal midfielder Gedion Zelalem and Fulham midfielder Luca de la Torre. Josh Sargent, a U-17 forward from St. Louis, will play up an age group. MLS homegrowns Tyler Adams (New York Red Bulls), Brooks Lennon (Real Salt Lake), Derrick Jones (Philadelphia Union) and Danny Acosta (RSL) already are first-team contributors.
“This team has as much talent, if not more,” Bliss said when asked to compare the current U-20 squad to the one that lost on penalties to eventual-champ Serbia in the 2015 quarterfinals. “We like the defensive core … It’s been the best core we’ve had. When you get into tournament play, defending can carry the day over the attacking side of the game. I’m not putting added pressure on Tab or the team, but we have a higher expectation of this group than maybe the previous two cycles.”
Palmer-Brown has spent most weekends with SKC’s USL team, Swope Park Rangers. It’s a numbers game right now along the MLS squad's back line. Porto was unable to meet the transfer fee set out in the loan agreement, so returning to Portugal isn’t in the cards. Palmer-Brown will have to get back to work and try to climb that depth chart once he returns from South Korea. But there’s a whole lot less doubt at this point that he’ll be able to handle it, and there’s a good reason Bliss has such confidence in the U.S. defense. There’s an extra dose of experience, composure and maturity that wasn’t there before.
“It was really beneficial for me, and I look back it now and I’m grateful,” Palmer-Brown said of his year abroad. “There are a lot of great leaders on this team … It’s a very professional locker room. Everyone’s been in that environment. It makes it a lot easier to be captain of a team like that.”
It’s certainly easier now. Palmer-Brown has the confidence and gravitas to lead, but the easy-going approach of someone who will assert himself only when necessary. Heading into the World Cup, he said he thinks the CONCACAF champions are in a good place. Tough tests have been passed. Experience counts.
“Winning gives you that desire to replicate that feeling again, and that gives us a little edge on other teams,” he said. “We want to make a run and we want to make a dent in this tournament. We want to prove we can play with all these teams around the world that are supposedly the best.”