KYLE SCHNITZER - Thursday, September 25, 2014
When I recently spoke with Erik Palmer-Brown over the phone, our conversation was interrupted a few times by someone trying to come into his bedroom. The phone picked up noises in the background.
I could hear someone ask him a question. "I'm on the phone!" Palmer-Brown shouted back, "Come back later." He apologized for the interruption, explaining that it was his brother trying to come into the room.
The interaction sounded like a typical 17-year-old trying to avoid the outside world. But Erik Palmer-Brown isn't the typical teenager.
Whether it's a Friday night high school football game or trying to remain cool during a phone interview, Palmer-Brown is at the center of attention for the future of United States soccer. He is the youngest player to ever premier in Major League Soccer. He was one of the youngest to travel to Argentina with the Under-20 United States national team. His age and current skill set makes him a highly coveted prospect, where European suitors have already tried to pry him away from Sporting Kansas City.
But he is not in a rush to. Nor does Sporting feel now is the right time for him to leave. Some will say that he is ready, that this is a golden opportunity to blossom as an American star.
Quite frankly, Erik Palmer-Brown doesn't feel he's ready just yet. Not because of his current skill set but because he wants to be much more than a player.
Away from the Field
In the mornings during the week, Palmer-Brown trains with his teammates of Sporting Kansas City. He can be seen wearing the navy and baby blue of Sporting, participating in the same conditioning and working on the same tactical training his teammates go through. But once practice ends, he goes from the running on the pitch to a seat and desk inside of O'Hara High School.
"He's a unique situation in comparison with the other players," Peter Vermes, head coach of Sporting Kansas City said. "Because of his age and some of the other things he is going through, he's still trying to graduate high school."
Despite being the center of Sporting Kansas City's youth developmental, Palmer-Brown tries to separate his life as a soccer player from the one at home. Instead of soccer being this primary focus at all times of the day, he still makes time for other events, like the 7 p.m. football game or talking to his friends about life. Even at school, he is surrounded by classmates and friends who focus on the person rather than the soccer player.
"Soccer and school are two different places," Palmer-Brown said on a phone interview with Yanks Abroad. "It's a place where soccer isn't involved and where I can be with my friends."
Brown explained that off the field, they never talk about soccer. He selflessly said that he likes to talk with his friends and gets to know where they are in his life. And despite being one of the most talked about youth players in MLS history, Palmer-Brown said he doesn't receive the star treatment in school. According to statistics from 2012, O'Hara High School's enrollment is 360 students. And because of the size, Palmer-Brown said everyone knows each other, which elevates the star treatment he might endure some place else.
Even though he has grown up in the Midwest his entire life, he is at the stage of his professional career where decisions will have to be made, like when and where will he play? When will he debut for the senior national team? For Palmer-Brown, those decisions have come sooner than expected.
In the beginning of September, Palmer-Brown was included in Tab Ramos' under-20 national team roster for Argentina. As one of the youngest players on the roster, he played in all three matches including the 1-1 draw against Argentina's under-20 squad.
Besides growing as a player from competition, he explained how he learned more about culture and environment, which created an eye-opening experience.
"Travelling to new countries is a new experience," he said. "In Argentina, there are stray dogs roaming and the streets are flooded. The houses are not nice, but they are grateful and enjoy it."
His experience only lasted for a few days, but backdrop of Argentina served as a primer to what Palmer-Brown can expect if he features in the future for Jurgen Klinnsman's senior team. The trip gave him a taste of how travel is a part of the game, as he reported back to Kansas City later that week. But before he gets that call, he understands he has to improve in certain areas of his game.
"[Soccer] is a team game," he said. "We have to make sacrifices for each other. I need to improve my game. I'm just trying to make myself better as a player."
Sporting Kansas City's head coach Peter Vermes spoke adamantly about Palmer-Brown's progression from when Sporting first signed him as a child. He explained how Palmer-Brown is a special case because he has always played up a level, never playing with players the same age.
"I'm going to use a word very carefully here because of when he was younger, and he's still young," Vermes said. "But no matter what age he is, whenever you push him up a couple of age groups, he performs very well, like he belongs there,
"Now at his age, he has international scores for his physical ability. Whether it is recovery speed or jumping ability, he is a very good athlete. Obviously, he has made his transition very easily than others."
After injuries and players leaving for international duty, Vermes challenged Palmer-Brown this season by calling him up to the senior team. In his debut against Chicago, Palmer-Brown lasted 64 minutes before acquiring his second yellow card, which resulted in a red. In three games, he has accumulated three yellows.
Despite his aggressive nature-of-play, he saw more positives than negatives. He admitted that he had to rush Palmer-Brown because of injuries and players leaving on international duty. Even with the red card in his first game, Vermes was encouraged by Palmer-Brown's toughness and his ability to put his past performance behind him to the point where he has no problem playing him.
"I have the confidence to put him into a game," Vermes said. "I won't lose sleep over it. I like putting players in positions where once they start getting in there, they also have the ability to be successful."
Palmer-Brown's potential as a prospect and success created an international stir earlier this year. In January of 2014, Serie A's Juventus reportedly offered Sporting Kansas City $1 million for the rights of then 16-year-old Erik Palmer-Brown. The winner of the last three Scudetto's and an annual UEFA Champions League participant, Juventus has one of the strongest back lines in soccer.
So for the United States, with center back being a position in question during the World Cup in Brazil, the move to Turin seemed to be a dream move for the casual fan, right?
But Sporting Kansas City rejected it. And over the past year, reports have indicated Juventus continue to try to pry Palmer-Brown from Kansas City, but he does not feel he was ready for the move abroad.
"I though it was cool that one of the bigger clubs in Serie A wanted me," Palmer-Brown said. "Top defenders play there. I just felt I wasn't ready. My goal is to play overseas but I love playing in Kansas City. This is where I want to play."
As for Sporting Kansas City, Vermes admitted he has a special relationship with Palmer-Brown. He's known him since he was a child and explained how it isn't just about business when selling a player, especially someone as young as Brown.
"We are not just working on the soccer player, we are working on him growing up and becoming a man and all the other things that go along with it," Vermes said. "We have a responsibility. We're not going to send a kid off just because someone is going to give us some money. It's never been our idea, it never will be. We're going to do right by him, by a lot of different things,
"One of the focal points is him growing up. What I don't want is for him to go somewhere and for his development to get interrupted because now he has to go to a foreign country and learn the language while not getting the kind of attention he needs or he's not comfortable."
While Palmer-Brown admitted he didn't feel ready as a player, Vermes disagrees. He explained his physicality receives international praise from teams around the world, but it's his development as a person that makes him not ready.
"He has a lot of other things to concentrate on [besides soccer]," Vermes said. "[Kansas City] is his hometown-we want to be sure we provide the opportunity for him."
Just 17-years-old, Erik Palmer-Brown has a packed resume. A price tag of $1 million was not enough for his services. He's represented the United States internationally at multiple age-levels, often playing with players older than him. He was the youngest player to debut in MLS at the age of 16.
But that's not enough for him.
"I'm still young and learning, but I'm not where I want to be at all," Palmer-Brown said. "I want to be who younger kids look up to, a [Clint] Dempsey or [Michael] Bradley- I want to be a star."