Amid Injury Frustrations, Tyler Adams Has Big Plans for Club and Country

Playing on the Champions League and Olympic stages and winning the Bundesliga title are all within reach for U.S. midfielder Tyler Adams—if he can stay healthy.
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Tyler Adams can’t catch a break. After missing months with injuries, the American 20-year-old (he turns 21 on Friday) had reestablished himself as a starter with RB Leipzig, which is in second place in the Bundesliga, one point behind Bayern Munich. But Leipzig announced on Thursday that Adams had suffered a calf injury that will keep him out of at least this weekend’s league game against Werder Bremen and next week’s Champions League clash at Tottenham.

That’s a shame, too, because Adams showed over 90 minutes in what he called “the biggest game of my career”—Sunday’s 0-0 tie at Bayern—that he can play at an extremely high level when healthy, filling a complex role for coach Julian Nagelsmann in a spot that isn’t even his natural No. 6 position in the central midfield.

“In possession, I was more of an eight in the right side of a diamond in the midfield, and then out of possession more of a wingback and we moved to five in the back tactically so we could defend their wide spots a bit easier,” Adams said in the new episode of SI’s Planet Fútbol podcast. “And then when we wanted to press, we could take a little bit more of a chance of me stepping out … while Lukas Klostermann—who was our right center back at that time—was able to slide over and then cover me. It was a lot of information going on, but for me I think my tactical sense of the game was able to help me. And obviously the coach trusted me in that position to play two different roles.”

Adams has a way of earning his coaches’ faith, whether it’s Nagelsmann or U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter. The New York Red Bulls product has a formidable soccer IQ, covers wide expanses of space and rarely makes mistakes. Consider how quickly Adams gained a starting spot after returning from his layoff.

“Coming back after a long injury, it wasn’t easy, because the team has kind of already established itself over the first half of the season and were doing really well,” he said. “So I’m happy that after obviously working hard in training and recuperating to come back, I’ve been able to find time on the field.”

Wise beyond his years, Adams is a lot like his coach, Nagelsmann, who’s only 32. One of Nagelsmann’s quirks that the Leipzig players have had to get used to is learning just 30 to 45 minutes before a game who’s in the starting lineup. (Most coaches give notice a day or two ahead of time.)

“He’s a very detail-oriented manager,” Adams said. “For me, personally, that’s very helpful. You want to know your role going into each game, and he provides a very detailed game plan of how to break down teams. Every week we play 11 v. 11 at some point during the week. The teams will be completely rotated, and that’s one of the things that I think allows us to get the best versions out of ourselves. Nobody gets comfortable or complacent with what might be the predicted starting lineup. We don’t know.”

Leipzig was leading the hypercompetitive Bundesliga until recently, but a couple of bad results have helped Bayern Munich return to first place by a point. But Adams thinks Leipzig can dethrone Bayern and end the Bavarians’ seven-year stranglehold on the Bundesliga title.

“One of the most important things is taking it game by game, right?” Adams said. “We don't want to look too far ahead and say, this game is going to be a dealbreaker for us winning the title. … We have some important Champions League games coming up as well, but we can't really look too far ahead. I mean, there's going to be some tough tasks ahead—not just for us, but for Bayern, for Dortmund, for a lot of the teams that are fighting for that top spot. For me, obviously it's no secret that at the end of the year I want to raise a trophy."

Adams’s new calf injury is all the more unfortunate, because it means he won’t get to make his Champions League debut next week at the new Tottenham stadium in London. (He’s an Arsenal fan.) It’s almost certain that he would have started the game.

“Ever since I was a little kid, all I can do anytime someone mentions Champions League, I get goosebumps,” he said. “Because hearing that anthem from a young age, I mean, usually I'm on my couch, you know, turning the TV on and watching everyone walk out to it. And I'm like, 'Wow, what a sight that is.' I can't imagine what they're feeling. And then to potentially be one of those players now that kids are turning on their TVs and watching me walk out to it is a special feeling. So I hope I have that opportunity.”

Tyler Adams has big visions for club and country

As has been the case with U.S. teammate Christian Pulisic, however, Adams’s injuries have been frustrating. He said it was a left groin injury that kept him out for six weeks last April and May before he was able to return for the German cup final. He missed the Gold Cup to try to heal. But not long after returning from Leipzig’s preseason camp in Austria, Adams said he ruptured a ligament under one of his second toes (resulting in six more weeks out). Then he started training for a couple of weeks but continued to have groin pain.

He’d feel it “whenever I passed the ball, whenever I'd go to sprint,” he said. “It's one thing to feel pain. You know, I play with pain, I've played with pain. You're never going to feel 100 percent, but this pain was so continuous that it just was not comfortable and I couldn't do what I know I was capable of. And I think that was the biggest mental block for me, was not being able to know, O.K., can I go press this guy now? Can I go close this guy down like I want to and try and make an interception? Just those sudden movements that people know me for and what I'm good at. And that kept me out a little bit longer. I went to see a couple different doctors and finally I got some exercises and things like that that relieved the pain. And I guess that gets me to where I am now.”

Where he is now is hoping his new calf injury doesn’t keep him out too long. As busy as things are with Leipzig, Adams is also looking forward to what he calls “a monstrous year” with the USMNT.

“One of my biggest things is I want to establish myself as a leader now,” said Adams, who has expressed that he would like to become the national team captain. “Coming from the position that I'm in here, having the experiences that I'm getting with Leipzig, I'm going to be able to use those experiences in big games and kind of take over and lead the group of guys that we have going out on the field. And, you know, at the end of the day I want to be a winner.”

The senior national team will be together for two friendlies in March, the Concacaf Nations League final four in June and then six huge World Cup qualifiers over a short two-month period in the fall. But Adams says if the U.S. under-23 team is able to qualify for the Olympics next month, he (along with Pulisic and Weston McKennie, who are all age-eligible) would love to play in the Olympic tournament in July and early August.

“If I have the opportunity, I would 100% want to go,” Adams said. “There is no delay in thought for that. For me it's another opportunity to represent your national team at a high level … In the past Olympics, everyone knows when Neymar went and they won. So you're playing against some world-class players and some budding superstars. I think for me it's just another platform that I can use to accelerate my growth and also establish myself as a leader with a group of guys that are similar to me in age, which is a good feeling. So for me, if we qualify for the Olympics, it would be a really, really exciting moment for me to go and be able to represent my country.”

Adams says he stays in touch with Berhalter regularly on Skype, and he says U.S. Soccer has sent a physical therapist to visit him and other European-based U.S. players, establishing a relationship as well with their clubs so that they can do as much as possible to make sure the players return healthy from national team camps to their clubs.

Berhalter said recently that even though he experimented last year with using Adams in a hybrid right back/central midfield role, he now sees him as a pure central midfielder with the national team. It’s a decision that Adams clearly embraces.

“I'm excited,” he said. “I think that individually my best role is as a six. I know that how I'm able to impact the game from that position allows me a little bit more freedom to do what I'm good at. There's always parts of your game that you're going to want to improve in the system that Gregg wants to play. I know that we've had different sorts of models of players that have played there with different qualities. But I know that the way that I'm able to impact the game, not everyone can do the same in that position. So I'm excited to get in there.”

In the big picture, Adams knows that USMNT fans are still deeply angry over the team’s failure to qualify for the last World Cup, even if he had nothing to do with that. But if you ask him what this team can do to address that anger, he says it’s not that complicated.

“There has been quite a bit bit of negativity, but in a sense we built that negativity up from obviously past experiences,” he said. “But now with a young, fresh, reviving group that is coming into the fold, they should be excited. There's guys that are working really hard to obviously not just only qualify for the next World Cup but do great bits in the next World Cup. And I think we have the ability to do that. So as hard as it is to stay patient, we're working hard behind the scenes to give a product that they're excited to watch. You want fans that are going to be able to come out to the game and say, ‘Wow, they're playing a style of play that's not only attractive but effective.’ And at the end of the day, we have to win games.”