LEIPZIG, Germany -- Tyler Adams doesn't get the whole swapping shirts thing. Whenever he steps out on the pitch and looks at his opposition, his mind is whirring about how he can get the advantage. Names and reputation mean little to him -- there's respect, but not awe.
The empty walls of his apartment are testament to that. They're bare: no signed shirts, nothing suggesting he is one of the most influential figures on the U.S. men's national team and a key midfielder for RB Leipzig, one of the best teams in the Bundesliga.
"I don't need to go up to people and ask for their jersey -- I'm not a fan," Adams told ESPN. "We're playing on the same field. People still swap jerseys at halftime, I'm like, 'You guys are competing and you want that jersey? Are you serious right now?' " Adams laughs. "If someone asked me for my jersey at halftime, I'd probably punch them."
Then the seriousness returns: "But no, don't do that ... just don't do that. We're not friends, we're rivals and competing. I know I'm a different breed than most people with how focused I am."
Instead of football memorabilia, there are two electronic frames on the windowsill, cycling through photos of his family and some of him with his partner, Sarah. He has some art to put up, but fundamentally everything about Tyler Adams -- what drives him and keeps him accountable -- is in those small 6x4 frames.
Everything comes back to family and his inner circle. As an only child growing up in Wappinger Falls, New York, about a 90-minute drive from Manhattan, he was the man of the house. It was him and his mom. But when his new dad, Darryl, arrived on the scene when Adams was 13, he became eldest of four brothers. His life shifted, and he loved it.
His mom, Melissa Russo, makes sure he never forgets where he came from. "My mom always texts me saying, 'You're still that punk-ass kid that I remember, who I gave nuggies to.' It's her saying that when you get too high, my family are there to humble me quickly. And if you're low, they'll get you back to the middle ground."
When you watch Adams hustling an opposition player into losing the ball, or turning and pinging a pass 50 metres to put a teammate into space, he isn't looking for headlines. He's looking for the "middle ground" -- he wants to be the glue of the team, the persevering hard worker, but also a leader. So when he talks about legacy at the age of 23, and why he's never given himself a mark higher than seven out of 10, you don't roll your eyes. Instead, you believe him, and you want to be on the same team as him.
"I want people to know me for what I am like, not just as a soccer player," he says. "Also the boy they knew growing up in high school, the one that gave back to his community. I'm also Tyler Adams."
Tyler Adams is ticked off when he sits down to talk to ESPN. He's sitting on his sofa in his apartment, talking calmly about how he's been named again on the bench for Leipzig, but he's not happy about it.
Instead of raising his voice or letting his anger loose, Adams exudes a very calm, bubbling frustration. He refuses to give up or, once things go back in his favour, overindulge in the highs, whether he's playing in the Bundesliga or in a World Cup, which he will presumably be doing for the USMNT in Qatar this winter.
It's not in his nature, nor will his inner circle allow it. While some footballers have vast entourages, Adams only lets a handful in: family and extremely close friends. He stays true to the values that kept him and his mom going when they made up a two-person team, before his mom met Darryl -- back then he was out for himself and for his mom.
"She is the perfect role model for me," Adams says. "There was never a time that I went to my mom and she'd say no -- she'd find a way to make it happen. It was never anything crazy like skiing in Aspen, but it'd be me wanting to watch a game, or playing soccer with my friends." When there was snow on the drive, he'd help her shovel it. When she was down or exhausted from working two jobs to make ends meet, he told her they'd be OK. She'd drive him the 150-mile round trip for practice at New York Red Bulls. She'd always find a solution.
But it was in sixth or seventh grade when his life changed. He was in a technology class, and they were working on building bridges. His mother was very artistic, and he'd watched her craft as he grew up. Adams was a perfectionist, so he wanted this bridge to be the best. "It was probably the only class I didn't mess around in," he says. He remembers trying to increase the strength of his bridge when this "big white kid came over" to him.
"He goes, 'Are you Tyler Adams?' I'd never seen him before, so I was like 'Yeah, who the hell are you?' 'I'm Darryl Sullivan (Darryl Jr.), and I think your mom is dating my dad.' I thought ... what the f---?" Adams recalls. Fights have started on lesser suggestions. Adams checked with his mom, and it was true. She was in a relationship with Darryl Sr., and it was going well. They soon moved in together. Adams' world went from being a two-person family, to one of six.
There's no "step" prefix with this family -- as he talks about them, they are his dad Darryl, and his brothers Darryl, Dylan and Donovan. He got on well with brothers Darryl and Dylan but originally "butted heads" with Donovan. As Adams explains: "He had the youngest-child syndrome, I had the only-child syndrome." But they got over that and formed an inseparable family unit.
With that, Adams' role in life changed. He became something of a leader that the three younger brothers looked up to. "It took years for me to step up. I was 11 or 12 when we moved in, and I took on a lot of responsibility," he says. "I'm looking out for them at school, making sure they're coming home -- I had my mom messaging me making sure they were doing their homework. It was a moment, like, s---, I'd only ever looked after myself? I went from doing my homework to ensuring I could go to training, to then doing my homework to ensure I could go to training but also checking on the other guys, making sure the lights are off. All that."
It's a Rangers-supporting household. Adams' uncle's dog is named Ranger, and is trained to bark whenever anyone says the word "Celtic." The colour green is banned from the house.
Adams' perspective on soccer changed after he met dad Darryl. Adams was previously an ambitious attacking midfielder. But his dad, a soccer coach, told him to become a No. 6 -- do the job nobody else wants to do because that's how you become indispensable, he told him.
"He cultivated kind of just how I play the game, who I am and how I carry myself on the field," Adams says. At 15, his dad told him to stay in school rather than go into Red Bull residency. "I wouldn't take back that year of high school that I had for anything, like I had the high school experience. I'm very lucky for his soccer knowledge, of course, and kind of who he is."
Which is why every halftime, as Adams and his teammates sit down and collect their thoughts before the manager delivers his own, Adams checks his phone. He looks for the one unread message from his dad. They are words of guidance, pointers on his first-half performance. Here's one from Leipzig's match away at Bochum at the end of February: "Physical game, they're making midfield tight, so you need to go through progression faster, you got better as the half went on. Keep confident and look forward and take peeks." Adams processes this -- it helps him take a bird's eye view of his own performance. And then he'll look to improve.
"He sees these things," Adams said. "Like, I read them and think, yep, he's right. It's all about control in my position. I have to control the game."
Tyler Adams usually gives himself a four, five, or six out of 10. That rare seven came against Borussia Monchengladbach in February 2021, a game they won 3-2. It was a game where everything clicked. Back then it was Julian Nagelsmann in charge of Leipzig, Adams' second manager after signing for the club from New York Red Bulls in January 2019.
He doesn't even give such high marks to his breakthrough match: the preseason friendly for the New York Red Bulls against Chelsea in July 2015. He was 16 years and one month old, a product of the Red Bulls' system after joining the academy as a young teenager, and he scored in his debut. As he assesses his journey to RB Leipzig, he looks to those moments of serendipity in his career. That header against Chelsea was seven years ago.
"It feels crazy how fast it goes by," Adams says. "It only seems like yesterday I was getting the call from [then-head coach] Jesse Marsch saying I was playing. I've been fortunate. I talk a lot about timing in football, because everything is based around timing -- that game against Chelsea, I wouldn't have played if we hadn't qualified for the next round of the U.S. Open Cup. If I didn't get that opportunity then who knows... I've had good people and good coaches around me who have given me a lot of opportunities."
He has worked under Ralf Rangnick, Nagelsmann, Marsch and now Domenico Tedesco at Leipzig and he has adapted accordingly, both to differing philosophies and positions. This season hasn't been straight forward. It started under Marsch, his old mentor from New York Red Bulls and a coach he is hugely fond of. But Marsch left after just six months. And in came Tedesco.
"It's difficult when a new manager comes in, but you just have to figure out how to get better from the situation that you're in, you know," he says. The team are fourth in the Bundesliga, but Adams' last start in the league came in mid-January.
He's played at wing-back and centre-back for Leipzig, but it's at the base of midfield where he feels his calling. "I want to play, you know -- I want to win games," Adams says. "I'm going to win games. That's how it works. If I'm at right-back, I'm going to shut down the winger that I'm playing against and I'll do a job. I'm always going to figure out how to be successful. That's just how my mind works. But I'm a No. 6. Like, it's a bottom line."
He has this basketball, front-on style of hustling for the ball. "I'm not a big strong guy but I'm stronger than people think. The way I defend... from basketball, I have my lateral movement and I'm comfortable going square on because I'm pretty sure you're not quicker than me. I almost feel like I'm a bit of a Dennis Rodman-type player in football -- I do the s--- that people don't want to do. But you're always going to have a role in the team. There's always something you're good at. And that's me, I know pressing, I'm really good at it and winning a lot of balls."
He also prides himself on being able to pick out the right pass at the right time. While he's had some outstanding assists (like the pass he pinged through for Youssef Poulsen's hat trick goal against Hertha Berlin in March 2019), he has worked on his pre-orientation. "When the ball's in transit I've already had a quick scan to work out where everyone is," Adams says. "Once the ball's at your feet, it's too late to weigh up the next move."
He grew up idolising Thierry Henry. But when he started fine-tuning his own positional sense, he pored over clips of N'Golo Kante and Fabinho. "I don't think players in my position are really talked about," Adams says. "I am a player that always appreciates undervalued players more. If someone watches my game, I don't know if they're going to watch my game and say, 'Wow, Tyler was the best player in the field.' But when you look at how many balls I won, or how many transition moments I created, how many transition moments I stopped, you know, maybe they'll look at it and be like, s---, he might be the most valuable."
That value has seen him captain the U.S. men's national team, most recently in their key World Cup qualifier against Mexico. It's not a manufactured leadership with him. As he talks through his philosophy, it's all part of his DNA: "I want the best out of you. And I want you to get the best out of me. That's the bottom line, whether it's on a personal level, or whether it's on a professional level in the training ground, I want you to get the best out of me and I want to get the best out of you."
As the interview with ESPN winds down, Tyler Adams scratches around in his wardrobe, trying to find a football for a PR shoot later that day. He finally unearths one, hidden away. It turns out to be the match ball from RB Leizpig's win over Atletico Madrid in the 2019-20 Champions League quarterfinals. Adams scored the winner, but that goal is just a part of his memories of that game. The celebrations and feeling of collective achievement mean far more.
He has to win. On the grand glass table in his apartment is a set of Uno cards. They're well-used. If he's losing 4-0 to his girlfriend, Sarah, at Uno, they'll play until it's 5-4 to Tyler.
There are a series of unopened boxes on the floor from their recent move, while there are books dotted around the place. He's currently reading through the Harry Potter series for some escapism, as he continues his psychology degree online. There's also Kobe Bryant's "The Mamba Mentality, "and Tim. S. Grover's "Relentless." He has a room dedicated to his collection of Nike kicks -- Jordans are his favourite and he's desperate for a pair of Nike Air Jordan IV Retro Travis Scott in purple.
This is Tyler Adams' life in Leipzig, but you wouldn't know it from his social media. He's got an indifferent connection with those platforms. His Instagram posts are measured and informed. Adams' long-term goals revolve around community: he has his own academy and the team, the Hudson Valley Hammers, is coached by his dad. Adams wants to launch a foundation and also partner with a charity in New York.
He's aware of his status as a role model, and the influence these young Americans have in soccer. "Being on Instagram, doing this, doing that posting for likes, posting for the attention, like, I know, that's not me. Why would I change who I am genuinely, as a person to gain attraction? I love that you can build your brand, do what you've got to do, because that's a tool for that. It's good for that."
"It's absolutely incredible how fast you can become viral for something bad," he adds. "Yeah, much quicker than you can for something good. So that's also another reason that I'm just not on social media in my private life, like I don't need, you know, when I can, when I can share something that's good and important in my life, I always want to but, you know, people just get caught up in the wrong things.
"Nothing good happens past 9 o'clock. You know, my mom has always engraved that in me just, you know, just be smart. Be smart."
This season still has the potential for silverware for Leipzig with the club in the German Cup and in the Europa League semifinals. He still carries the DFB Pokal final defeats to Bayern Munich in 2019 and Borussia Dortmund in 2021. "People always say, forget the losses, forget this, forget that. But why would you forget that?" he asks rhetorically.
The league is a hurdle too far, with Leipzig 18 points off leaders Bayern Munich. He has previously spoken about how frustrated he gets when the champions snap up their rivals' best players. But he gets it, from their point of view. "You can win 10 trophies in three seasons there, why wouldn't you be tempted? You do get annoyed though." So this season he desperately wants to win that cup, with Leipzig in the semifinals up against Union Berlin. "I need to win the Pokal and the Europa League. If there's something I can win, I have to win it. That's the bottom line."
And then attention will shift to his future, with several Premier League teams interested in him, and the World Cup. "I've had some amazing moments in my development at Leipzig and I'm still developing and that's an important thing. But when I feel like I can't develop anymore, I know it's time for me to go and move on and just find where I can be pushed outside of my comfort zone."
At age 23, he's not even halfway through his career, but having started so young, it's one already packed with experiences and knowledge. When Tyler Adams watches highlights of his career, they'll be bookended by the moments he's captained his nation. That's been the proudest moment of his footballing life to date.
"Who knows when the last time I get to captain my country will be. The first time I was 21 or 22. And hopefully the last time is, I don't know, 35? Who knows? 36? So I think the period that I've grown and how I've matured not only as a person, but a player as well, during that time period, will be like, you know, that was our captain that was the captain of the U.S. national team that's like, the epitome of what a captain and a leader should be in a winner. I want to win."
He pauses and then wraps up what it means to be Tyler Adams. "What I want for my career ... It all goes back to what I was like as a little kid. Success for me looks like getting the best version out of myself. Like, I don't care about being in the headlines. I don't care about scoring goals. I don't care about assisting goals, like I want to have an impact on the game, that's for sure. But is my impact going to be scoring and assisting? I don't know. But my impact is going to be f---ing valuable. I know that for sure.
"You don't want to be the weakest link in any system, or any team or anything like that. And I've never been the weakest link in anything. I want to be known as a winner."