On Oct. 10, 2017, Tyler Adams sat watching with his stepfather, Darryl Sullivan, as the U.S. Men’s National Team underwent calamity.
Coming into the night, the Americans needed only to beat Trinidad and Tobago to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. Even with a draw or loss, Panama and Honduras still needed to win for the U.S. to be completely knocked out.
Not only did the U.S. lose in shocking fashion, but Panama upset Costa Rica and Honduras beat Mexico, meaning the U.S. would miss out on the tournament, held in Russia, for the first time since 1986. Adams, who hadn’t yet earned a cap for the senior national team, and his stepdad were crestfallen. His mom, Melissa Russo, didn’t understand why.
“She had no idea,” Sullivan told The Post. “We’re like, ‘What do you mean what’s the big deal? This is huge. This is awful, this is setting us back.’ That I remember more than anything, that time and watching that World Cup and what could have been.”
A month later, Adams received his first call-up for the team in a friendly against Portugal. And the Hudson Valley native, who graduated from Poughkeepsie’s Roy C. Ketcham High School in 2017, won’t just be in midfield Monday in Qatar when the United States returns to the World Cup in its group-stage opener against Wales. The 23-year-old will be one of the faces of the team, part of what fans hope will be a golden generation for the U.S. along with Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Giovanni Reyna, Sergiño Dest and Yunus Musah.
Back then, Adams was bursting onto the scene with the New York Red Bulls, the MLS team whose academy he grew up playing in. He moved to Europe in 2019, playing under former Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch with the energy drinks company’s German club, Red Bull Leipzig, before moving to the English top flight with Leeds United — also managed by Marsch — this past summer.
His résumé now includes 32 appearances (known as caps) for the national team, a pivotal role in qualifying this time around and a key role in the Champions League with Leipzig during his last three seasons in Germany.
“Even when he was just standing with his U12 team, you just kinda knew Tyler was gonna be pretty good,” John Wolyniec, who coached Adams on the Red Bulls’ second team and was around him in the youth program, told The Post. “You didn’t know how good or when or whatever, but you just knew. And there was something, it was physical — he grew early, whatever — but it was more than that. … He was mature, he gives off this aura of competitiveness and [high] standard.”
From a young age, Adams was confident in his abilities and stood out for his work habits. Coaches needed to tell him to back off and save his energy, instead of pushing so hard all the time. Even though Sullivan, a social studies teacher, worked in education, he’s also coached NCAA soccer. The family knew Adams’ future was in soccer and made sacrifices accordingly.
“I could definitely see that his athletic ability was world class,” said Sullivan, who entered the family picture when Adams was in middle school. “And that his IQ was world-class. I think where he might’ve been his weakest was maybe the technical side of the game, but he knew that and he knew he had to work on that and that’s what he did. … I hate to say this, but it doesn’t really surprise me where he’s at.”
When coaches put Adams in defense, at right back, Sullivan pushed for him to play midfield — a stance that’s long since been vindicated. Adams, Wolyniec said, was the kind of player who made his coaches better because he was willing to push back, but also willing to be convinced.
“He wasn’t gonna take things for face value because again, he was that driven,” Wolyniec said. “He had his own opinions and you almost had to put a case together for him to buy it. But once he understood where you were coming from or what you were talking about, he was very accepting of information.”
That belief in himself, and belief from those around him, is a persistent theme in Adams’ career. Adams’ agent, Sullivan said, tried in 2017 to get then-USMNT coach Bruce Arena to bring Adams into the qualifiers, when Pulisic was the only member of the young core who was in Trinidad that night.
No such coercion was necessary this time around. Adams was on the squad for 13 of 14 matches in the final qualifying round, which was played over six months from September 2021 to March. Though his entire family won’t be able to make the trip, a handful will be in the stands in Al Rayyan on Monday watching Adams, hand over heart, singing the national anthem on the world stage.
“I think it’s gonna be extremely emotional for the entire family,” Sullivan said. “Tyler knows where he’s at right now is because of his family and coaches. He knows that everyone who’s had a piece in his journey to help him will all feel the same. … Because although it’s Tyler that’s there, everyone has a piece that they were with him.”