HARRISON, N.J. — Bradley Wright-Phillips has played with some big names throughout his career spanning more than a dozen years. From his early days at Manchester City, to his stretch at Southampton and more recently during his glory years with the New York Red Bulls. So when he was asked if he had ever played with a young player with the kind of strong mentality Tyler Adams possesses, Wright-Phillips figured to come up with a pretty big name.
"Gareth Bale," Wright-Phillips said, referring to the Real Madrid star who the forward played with early in their careers at Southampton. "I saw a similar attitude. Don't get me wrong, because you guys like to twist things. I'm not saying they're the same player, or he's going to have the same career as (Bale), but they both have a mentality where they know what they're good at and they're not afraid when they step out on the field."
Bale was a 17-year-old sensation in his first professional season when he and Wright-Phillips were teammates and regular starters for Southampton during the 2006-2007 season. Bale went on to Tottenham a year later before blossoming into an international superstar.
More than a decade later, Wright-Phillips has found himself playing alongside another teenager in Adams with the same kind of strong will and fearlessness he saw in Bale. Wright-Phillips and Adams teamed up to help the New York Red Bulls eliminate Club Tijuana from the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals with an emphatic 3-1 victory in the second leg. The match saw Adams score a vital goal to help give the Red Bulls some sorely needed breathing room after Xolos cut into New York's aggregate lead early pn.
That early Tijuana goal threatened to rattle the Red Bulls, but the team's leaders stepped up to steady the group, and normalcy was restored when Adams made a 50-yard run to put himself in position to finish off a Michael Murillo pass to tie the match.
"A couple of guys you could see were grabbing the team by the neck a little bit and saying alright, come on, let’s keep moving," Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch said. "One of the things that’s always a source of pride is when that guy is Tyler. His fearlessness and his way of going after games and being up for big moments is something that makes our team good. So, there’s more than just him but certainly he was a catalyst in that sense."
Not only did Adams serve as a vocal leader, he led with his play, which saw him blanket the middle third of the field and make things difficult for Club Tijuana's playmakers. His 28th minute goal was crucial because it helped settle down the Red Bulls after a shaky start, but then his work to clog passing lanes and give teammates a consistent passing outlet — work he shared with an impressive Florian Valot — played a big role in the Red Bulls eventually dominating the second half.
There was plenty of talk coming into the season about Adams taking on a more important role with the Red Bulls in 2018, especially after the departures of Sacha Kljestan and Felipe Martins. The U.S. national team midfielder may just be 19, but as he showed against Club Tijuana, he is ready to make an impact, both as a player and a leader.
"It’s taken time to groom. He still has a ways to go yet. It’s not like he’s a finished product," Marsch said of Adams. "But, that was the thing that anyone, when they recall the first time they met Tyler, they referenced that. Whether he was 13, or 15, now 19, that he’s a man.
"For whatever reason he’s this old soul and he’s figured out how to manage this world. It’s going to continue to reward him. He’s only getting better," Marsch added. "I think we sometimes see, every day, the growth before our eyes. We see how every day he gets better and every day he’s more confident and he has more belief and he has a better ability to lead and communicate with people around him. It’s just growing. So, it’s impressive. It’s impressive. We always give him little reminders but it doesn’t take much because he’s so focused on that process."