Why you should care

Because the next World Cup is only three years away.

The evening is mild, the pitch is pristine and the visiting forward sees only daylight between him and the goal. He is wrong. Behind him, quiet and quick, comes center defender Erik Palmer-Brown. The kid shoulders the evasive striker, slowing him down. His foot connects with the ball. Then comes the slide tackle that dislodges it definitively — and returns possession to the American all-star team.

That whole episode, in Denver last month, took 11 seconds; Palmer-Brown works fast. Not just on the field, where he’s an unabashed closer, but off it, too: He’s all of 18 years old, a phenom with a faux-hawk fade, fresh off his high school graduation. (Not that he attended the ceremony: Palmer-Brown was on a plane to New Zealand with the national squad for the Under-20 World Cup.) At 16 he became the youngest player in the history of his Major League Soccer club, Sporting KC, and then, last year, the youngest defender to start a match in league history. There has been much chatter that Juventus, the Italian powerhouse team, will snap him up in a big-dollar deal, but there are those who speculate that Palmer-Brown could become the next face of American soccer, one whose achievements could bring more racial diversity to the MLS lineup.

“It’s been unreal,” says Palmer-Brown; it’s a signature refrain. After all, the defender is still a teenager, one who trades funny faces with his teammates in the locker room while answering my questions. He lives at home and is devoted to his mom, hangs out with his childhood friends and still hasn’t reached drinking age. Senior spring, he missed a lot of school — six weeks for training camp in January and February, a U-20 tournament in Austria in April. He squeaked by with online courses, study guides and help from friends. Becoming a full-time pro, rather than one who has to split training and tournament time with studies, has been a relief.

But now is when Palmer-Brown must prove his mettle, and hopes are high. “It’s only a matter of time that he’s representing us in the World Cup,” says Sporting KC teammate Graham Zusi, a mainstay of the current U.S. senior team. The next go-around is 2018, when Palmer-Brown will be 21, and it is expected that he’ll make it. There’s also the matter of Juventus. Rumors of the deal have persisted for more than a season and a half, and though most of the trades report that it’s just a matter of when, and not if, nothing’s closed yet. Palmer-Brown has no definite answer on it.

Worth noting wherever Palmer-Brown lands: Phenoms can flame out. Take Freddy Adu. A decade ago, the Ghanaian-American was the youngest player ever to sign with the MLS, at 14; the press anointed him the next Pelé, a fresh face that could invigorate American soccer. But Adu never really flourished, and he became an itinerant journeyman. Zusi and other teammates say that Palmer-Brown is no peacock, though: For all of his physical prowess, his greatest asset might be his mental game. “You’ve got to focus on now to get to that point you want to be,” Palmer-Brown says.

Brought up in Lee’s Summit, Missouri, Palmer-Brown has been playing soccer for at least three-quarters of his life. His mother, Marilyn, a single mom with two kids, wanted him to get as much exposure to sports as possible. Young Erik did well in baseball too, but come sixth grade, Marilyn urged him to choose. Having the sports academy of an MLS team nearby tipped the scales: At 13, Palmer-Brown joined the Wizards (the former name of Sporting KC).

He was and is a rare player of color. Compared to football, basketball and baseball, soccer attracts fewer Black kids — it’s a young professional sport in this country, with less evidence of upward mobility, says Laurent Dubois, a history professor at Duke University who wrote Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France and curates a blog on the politics of soccer. And while American soccer is still basking in the glow of last year’s World Cup, its popularity overall still lags behind more established sports. Only 7 percent of Americans say it’s their favorite sport, while 42 percent swear allegiance to American football, according to a Harris Poll this year.

Could Palmer-Brown help raise soccer’s profile, especially among African-Americans? Possibly. Palmer-Brown says he hasn’t given that prospect much thought, but recognizes his potential role. Weirdly, he might have even more effect abroad, if he were to play with Juventus. For starters, it’s a titan of the game. But there are also racial tensions in European clubs that are pretty much absent in the United States, says Dubois. “The idea of openly racist chants in an American stadium is sort of impossible to imagine,” he says.

For now, Palmer-Brown’s focus is on what you might guess — eventually fulfilling expectations and making it onto the senior-level national team, then playing in a World Cup, with kids back home wearing his name on the back of their souvenir jerseys. “He’s got all the ability in the world,” says Zusi. “It’s in his hands.” And how might that feel for Palmer-Brown? Why, naturally (and here the teenager widens his eyes and tilts his head back): “Unreal.”

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