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Even at less than 100 percent, Adams remains a game-changing puzzle piece for USMNT

10:00 pm AEST 9/6/21
Tyler Adams RB Leipzig USMNT
The RB Leipzig star arguably changes the team more than any other player, even when he isn't fully healthy

Heading into the CONCACAF Nations League semifinals and finals, Gregg Berhalter wasn't fully sure if he could get much, if anything, out of Tyler Adams.

The U.S. men's national team midfielder missed the final month of the Bundesliga season with a back injury, keeping him out of RB Leipzig's appearance in the DFB-Pokal final. And, as the USMNT gathered for a friendly against Switzerland ahead of the Nations League's final four, Berhalter had a decision to make regarding Adams' status.

That decision, as it turned out, was an easy one. There was no chance Adams was going to be left out of the squad, injury be damned. At the end of the day, getting him into this camp was just that important.

Berhalter's decision was justified on Sunday night as Adams came off the bench to help the USMNT find balance in the eventual 3-2 triumph over rivals Mexico. And, as the U.S. prepares to take on Costa Rica in one last friendly before going their separate ways, there's a chance that Adams could get another much-needed run out as World Cup qualifying looms.

"I had long conversations with Tyler beforehand where his fitness was in doubt," Berhalter recalled, "and I said, 'Listen, if you're 60-70 percent, we want to take you anyway because we want you being around this environment, we want you seeing what this is like being with the guys and helping out', and he was great with that.

"We knew there was no chance he could play against Honduras, we knew there was a limited chance that he could start against Mexico, but, for us, it was about putting him in position to contribute and that's exactly what he did."

For the past several years, Adams' injury issues have robbed the U.S. of a key puzzle piece, one that completely changes the dynamics of their team.

The U.S. has players that can play as a No. 6, including Jackson Yueill, Kellyn Acosta and, if needed, Weston McKennie, but none possesses the attributes that define Adams' game. 

No one in the player pool can disrupt the center of the field quite like Adams and there may not be another player that can turn defending into attacking quite as quickly.

When Adams is in the lineup, the U.S. is a different team. Sergino Dest is free to move forward, McKennie free to roam and whoever starts in central defense has just that little bit of extra breathing room.

"Tyler is a nonstop workaholic and he is a fantastic player to coach," USMNT legend and former U.S. Under-19 head coach Brad Friedel told Goal. "He is someone who wears his heart on his sleeve, he will give you a comment if he believes in something and he is a very respectful kid.

"I am not surprised at all that he made the move to Europe and is doing as well as he is doing. One top of that, he is such a good kid. None of us that have ever coached him has ever said anything bad about Tyler Adams.

"We all wish him the best, want him to make trillions of dollars of playing the game because people like him with attitude and heart deserve it."

But, over the last few years, we've seen little of Adams in a USMNT jersey. He's earned just four caps in three seasons, as injuries have repeatedly kept him out of the midfield. Fortunately enough for the U.S., though, he was able to overcome this latest one in time to change the game against Mexico on Sunday night.

"I was definitely anxious to get on the field," Adams said. "Anytime you miss a little bit of time, you have to show your love and your commitment to the team because for me, I joined up with a team in Switzerland and knew I wasn't 100% ready yet and I had a lot of work to do in order to make those games.

"I don't get caught up looking at the calendar. I remember doing that when I picked up an injury a couple of years ago and time flies when you start to do that. You just have to focus on your recovery and what's best for the team.

"Gregg reiterated to me how important it was for me to come and be around the team whether I was going to be fit or not. Fortunately enough the medical staff has done a brilliant job of helping me come back and integrate myself back into the team so it was good to get on the field and help the team in any way I could."

Over the last few years, the USMNT's top team has dealt with a revolving door of injury absences. When Adams was healthy, McKennie or Pulisic wasn't. When the midfield picture was starting to look complete, Adams was forced to miss out. 

Getting Adams in camp gave him a chance to be with and build chemistry with those around him, to make up for lost time. Actually getting to play? That was a big bonus.

After being inserted into the lineup for Tim Ream, late in the second half, Adams provided that shield and that energy. He also added plenty of life to the U.S. team, a willing scrapper in the chaotic moments that defined extra-time in the Nations League finale.

Berhalter says that, in a way, things worked out perfectly. After putting Adams in late, the midfielder was given a break at the 90-minute mark and then one more after the first 15 minutes of extra time. In that way, Adams' minutes were controlled, allowing him the necessary moments to breathe.

Come this fall, though, those moments will be few and far between. World Cup qualifying is looming large, as are three-game weeks as CONCACAF's best spring towards the 2022 tournament in Qatar.

This week, in a way, was preparation for that, with the U.S. playing three games against CONCACAF's top teams in less than seven days. After toppling Mexico in a historic win, they'll have to reset almost immediately for a friendly against Costa Rica three days later, just like they'll have to when qualifiers start.

Despite the team's relative lack of experience, Adams says the group has already flipped that switch, even after winning what was, for at least several of the players involved, the biggest game of their lives on Sunday.

"Mentally you always have to stay in a positive space, whether you win or lose," Adams said. "You going to have quick turnarounds and there are going to be important points on the line. So for us, we have a really good group of guys, and I think that's gonna go a long way in qualifying for the World Cup and continuing to grow that bond and chemistry between the players.

He continued: "For me personally, I want to win on all three of these games, because in qualifying, that means nine points and it puts you in a very good position. We're very professional in the sense that, off the field, we're going to have fun, we're going to have laughs, but on the field, guys are serious, guys are taking their job seriously, there's a good structure within the team and people are going to know their jobs."

Adam's job is perhaps the most secure on the national team: when healthy, he's Berhalter's go-to No. 6. There are few players' whose absences are more felt than Adams, who completely changes the team the moment he steps on the field.

The only thing that can truly stop him is his own body, as a healthy Adams remains one of the USMNT's most important players as they march towards the games that will define them this fall.