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World Cup MVP Adams so much more than 'the American Kante' to the USMNT

7:00 PM GMT+4 01/12/2022
Tyler Adams USMNT 2022
The American captain dominated all three group-stage games at Qatar 2022 in a way that few could have expected

It's not often that a 23-year-old soccer player finds himself at the center of a geopolitical firestorm but, ultimately, there aren't many 23-year-old soccer players quite like Tyler Adams.

Ahead of the U.S. men's national team's clash with Iran, Adams was hounded by a reporter about perceived disrespect of the opponent's country. His pronunciation of Iran was corrected before Adams was asked how the U.S. can criticize the political arrest in Iran while African Americans, like Adams, still deal with discrimination stateside.

What came next was a moment of grace, humility and maturity. Adams apologized for any offense, going on to discuss his own experiences with discrimination and racism. He pointed to progress and the need to find it no matter what country or culture you represent. He never faltered, showing wisdom in the face of criticism and poise in the face of chaos.

In the end, a situation that could have been a nightmare was quickly diffused.

That's what Adams does, right? Diffuses bad situations. On the field, off the field, it's simply what he does. And that's why there has not been a bigger presence at this World Cup than Adams, the USMNT youngster that is rapidly becoming a star on and off the pitch.

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Finally, Adams is getting his flowers from the outside world. A talented young defensive midfielder, he's taken his game to an otherworldly level at this World Cup, undoubtedly the USMNT's best player in Qatar so far.

And, off the field, he's taken on the role of captain with elegance, leading from the very front. He's always been one of many leaders on this USMNT and you could say he still is. But, whether it's on that podium or in the middle of the field, Adams has stepped up to become the face of this national team.

I don't know whether it's the captaincy or not," defender Antonee Robinson said of Adams, "but I've said to him, since he's come here, he's really upped his level even more than I already know. That energy he brings in midfield and that leadership, it affects all of us and keeps us all in check. He sets the standard."

Often overlooked when compared to his superstar team-mates, there's no doubt that Adams' play at the World Cup has more than earned his spot among them.

He leads the World Cup in tackles, with nine in 10 attempts, as has routinely put out any fires faced by the USMNT. It's a key reason the U.S. have yet to allow a goal from open play so far this tournament.

Adams, as usual, has been all effort. Data says he's run more than any other player in the tournament so far, covering more ground than seemingly possible. Every time a bad situation has popped up, Adams has been there to handle it, no matter where he has been on the field.

Most importantly, though, is that Adams' weaknesses haven't shown at all. We've all known he can tackle and run, but his passing has long been seen as a weak point.

Perhaps not anymore. He completed 100 percent of his passes against England, the best team the U.S. has faced thus far. He made 17 line-breaking actions against Iran, helping the U.S. break down a team content to bunker for the first half.

The 'American Kante' comparisons are a bit premature but, make no mistake, Adams is playing at that sort of level in Qatar. He, alongside Weston McKennie and Yunus Musah, are dictating how games are played, with the USMNT midfield standing out in each of the three games so far.

None have stood out more than Adams, though, despite the fact that he's the one doing the behind-the-scenes dirty work. He was named the USMNT's captain prior to the tournament and, my goodness, did Gregg Berhalter get it right. What more could you ask for from a captain?

It's Adams that sets the tone, as many of his team-mates have said. And it's Adams that personifies this team: young, brash and unafraid of whatever is in their path. That is unless the thing in their path is an arachnid!

"England are still a big team at the end of the day," he said prior to the match against the Three Lions, "but the intimidation factor? I wouldn't say there are many things out there that intimidate me, other than spiders!"

It's an attitude that Adams has embodied since the first moment he came into the American public's consciousness. For many, his first real moment in the spotlight actually came in a friendly, as he leapt over John Terry to help a team of New York Red Bulls youth players take down Chelsea in a 2015 friendly.

“Playing with players like Diego Costa, [Eden] Hazard, I’ve seen them in a World Cup," a 16-year-old Adams said on that day. "It’s an unbelievable feeling stepping on the same field as them. It’s almost like you don’t belong, but there’s a reason you’re on the field with them."

Then-Red Bulls boss Jesse Marsch echoed those sentiments: "He’s specifically a player that is not afraid. We’ve liked him from day one. He was our first young signing and we think he has a really big future.”

That future, ultimately, included that World Cup that Adams has been dreaming about for all of these years. And, just as he made that friendly his moment, he's making this tournament in Qatar his as well.

The task will get more difficult now, though. After topping Iran, the U.S. will now look ahead to a clash with the Netherlands in the last 16, putting them against a team that is among the best in the world, even if they haven't quite looked it yet in Qatar.

Adams will no doubt be key. He'll likely be used to harass Frenkie de Jong and limit in-form Cody Gakpo, scorer of three goals in as many World Cup games. But if the Adams that showed up in the group stage is still there in the knockouts, the U.S. will like their chances.

After the win over Iran, Adams was singled out by Berhalter as the team's standout performer. He was presented with a game ball, not just for his efforts against Iran, but for his heroic efforts throughout the group stage.

"I think this player played very good today," Berhalter said, "but when I look at the body of work over the three games, he's been absolutely crushing it: Tyler Adams."

He's crushed it in every way imaginable, helping elevate his team and his own profile in the process. There's no doubt that clubs around the world will have been left stunned by Adams, who may not be long for Leeds United if the U.S. can keep this World Cup run-up.

That's for the future, though. Next up is the Netherlands, and another chance to write World Cup history. Only one man, Claudio Reyna, has captained the USMNT to a knockout round win, coming all the way back in 2002 when Adams was just three years old. Can the USMNT midfielder be the second?

"It's an opportunity for us," Adams said. "It's gonna be an amazing game. We've obviously played against good competition here like England and the Netherlands could be another favorite to win the World Cup. They've done really well with how they navigated through their group phase of the tournament so far with some amazing players. We're gonna have to be ready for that game."

It'll be tough to bet against the USMNT, even if odds are against them. So far, Adams and co. have stared down every challenge. Wales, England, Iran. World Cup qualifying chaos, general inexperience, rogue press conferences.

Adams, though, has shown he won't back down from any of it. Except maybe those damn spiders.