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UEFA Champions League

Made in New York, starring in Leipzig: Adams was bred for Champions League success

8:00 AM EDT 8/14/20
Tyler Adams RB Leipzig New York Red Bulls GFX
The talented young midfielder scored the biggest goal of his career on Thursday, but it was a moment that, in some ways, has been a long time coming

It's been just over five years since Tyler Adams had his first moment in the spotlight. It came at Red Bull Arena in New Jersey, not too far from his hometown but a long way away from Lisbon, where he conjured the biggest moment of his career on Thursday.

On that day in 2015, he was a member of New York Red Bulls II tasked with taking on Premier League champions Chelsea in a pre-season friendly. It was a monumental moment for a 16-year-old academy kid and a reserve-heavy Red Bulls team. But, on that day, he did the unthinkable: he scored.

As the ball soared over the likes of John Terry, Kurt Zouma and Cesar Azpilicueta, it fell right onto Adams' head, leaving him with a simple headed finish that spearheaded an unlikely 4-2 victory over one of the best teams in the world.

After the match, Jose Mourinho griped about reading too much into pre-season friendlies while then-Red Bulls head coach, and current RB Salzburg boss, Jesse Marsch pleaded for patience. Adams, the man of the hour, beamed with excitement.

But, in that moment, he also showed the confidence that has guided him from that stage to the Champions League. Many would feel lucky to have been given the chance. Adams, meanwhile, believed he'd earned it.

“Playing with players like Diego Costa, (Eden) Hazard, I’ve seen them in a World Cup," he 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."

He added: “Personally, I wasn’t (surprised). We all played as hard as we possibly could. We made it tough for them at times as well. As long as you’re making it tough for guys like that, it’s hard to score. That’s what we did."

Much has changed. Hazard, now a member of Real Madrid, saw his side eliminated from the Champions League last week. Costa, standing on the opposite side of Thursday's quarter-final, was a rival once again. And Adams, a player bred to be a star in the Red Bull system, was once again the man of the hour.

After coming off the bench in the second half, Adams scored the game-winning goal on Thursday, sealing a 2-1 win for RB Leipzig while knocking Costa's Atletico Madrid out in the process. It was his first goal since making the switch from the New York Red Bulls to iits sister club in Germany, and the first-ever Champions League quarter-final goal by an American player.

In a weird way, even if it was a bit lucky, it was a goal he was bred to score. For years, this player was developed with the purpose of stepping into this club in these moments. Thursday wasn't a one-off; it was the product of years of investment of both time, energy and, let's be honest, money.

A member of the Red Bull system since 2011, Adams is a product of the club's philosophy through and through. The Red Bull organisation has scoured the world for talent, finding some of the world's top players throughout that process.

Stars like Erling Haaland, Sadio Mane and Timo Werner truly emerged at Red Bull clubs before being sold on for millions and joining teams that are now watching the Champions League from home.

Adams' rise has seen him touch virtually every level of the organisational structure, from the youth team all the way to program's crown jewel in Leipzig. He started with the academy at age 12, featuring for the Under-13, U14 and U16 sides before turning professional.

He played for New York Red Bulls II and then the MLS team, becoming one of the brightest young stars in MLS in the process. Eventually, that star burned bright enough that those in charge of the Bundesliga side took notice, bringing him to Europe in 2019.

Tyler Adams RB Leipzig

There is plenty to like about Adams' game. He's a tireless worker, a player that can run and run and run until the wheels fall off. He's versatile, committed, disciplined. He also has a unique ability to identify the other team's best player and nullify them,  no matter who they are.

On Thursday, he was deployed to counteract Joao Felix after the Portuguese midfielder had started to change the game. He did just that, and scored a goal of his own in the process.

He also proved a dynamic disrupter countless times in MLS, where he was deployed as a box-to-box midfielder and a destroyer. Perhaps the most notable example came, funnily enough, against a Bundesliga icon in Bastian Schweinsteiger. After a collision between the two, the Bayern Munich legend reached down to help up the then-teenager. Adams shook him off.

“Obviously he’s a great player, and after the game I’m going to shake his hand like everybody else,” Adams said after the match. “But on the field during the moment it’s game time.

“It’s kind of like a switch in my head. Once I step on the field, it doesn’t matter who is on the field, who I’m playing against or anything like that. I’m going to give it my all no matter what.”

That, in many ways, is a mentality, and that mentality has been as key to Adams' rise as any physical or technical attribute.

To understand Adams' rise, though, you must also understand RB Leipzig's as well. Founded just 11 years ago, the club rose through the German leagues, drawing plenty of indignation and anger along the way. Just 10 years ago, they were in the fourth division. Now, RB Leipzig are one of four teams that will compete for Europe's top crown.

They'll do so in the unlikeliest of circumstances, given the loss of Werner. The forward was sold to Chelsea this summer, moving to London in a £47.5 million ($59m) deal. As part of that deal, Werner opted not to continue on with the German side through the Champions League, instead joining his new teammates in London.

Tyler Adams New York Red Bulls Oscar Chelsea GFX

In Werner, Leipzig had the ideal frontman, a player that could stretch backlines the moment the ball was won. There was a formula to RB Leipzig's madness: win the ball, give it to Marcel Sabitzer or Dani Olmo, find Werner, goal. That formula no longer works. Losing a £47.5 million player will do that to you. But they will adapt.

And then there's the coach, 33-year-old Julian Nagelsmann. When RB Leipzig take on PSG, he'll face his mentor Thomas Tuchel and a Parisian team that will likely be captained by Thiago Silva, a player two years older than the coach on the opposite sideline.

Yet, here they sit, eyeing a place with Paris Saint-Germain and, perhaps, a spot in the Champions League final. In some ways, it's an unthinkable scenario: a newly-formed clubs rising not through just their own league but through the ranks of Europe's elite. 

It's almost like they're too young to be here, too new to deserve this type of spotlight and this type of moment. It doesn't make sense for a club to rise this fast, but now they're two games away from a Champions League crown.

As for Adams, it's just like he said all those years ago. There's a reason that he and RB Leipzig are where they are. There's a reason that they belong on the field with these players and these teams. 

If this run has shown us anything, it's that they're exactly where they should be.