Palmer-Brown’s progress in Portugal

Palmer-Brown’s progress in Portugal

Few players will land in Incheon International Airport ahead of the FIFA U-20 World Cup Korea Republic 2017 with the amount of experience Erik Palmer-Brown has. USA’s captain will be one of a handful of players to have played in a FIFA U-20 World Cup before, but it was an experience far from the comforts of home that has turned him into the leader he is today. Last year, Palmer-Brown spent a full season playing for Porto B in LigaPro, Portugal’s second division.

“I’d say on the pitch was really big for me,” Palmer-Brown told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview. “It really helped me learn, I wouldn’t say a different style of soccer, but technically the players on the ball were a lot cleaner, and a lot calmer on the ball, and that forced me to be a little more technical and calm on the ball. I think that brought a lot to my game. Positionally, tactically, they do some things different where I took notice of that and have added that into my game now.”

As challenging as his on-field education was, living thousands of miles away from Kansas City as a teenager brought an even steeper learning curve.

“Off the field, for me was the biggest thing. Soccer was everything. I didn’t speak the language. For the first months I really didn’t have any friends besides my team-mates, really. So soccer was everything. I would leave training and go home and get ready for the next day, rest up and think about the things I did well in training and try to implement those things the next day in training and try to get better every day. As to here (Kansas City), if I have a bad training session, I try to forget about it and just go hang out with friends. That, I think, really changed a lot from when I was there. It’s a lot more difficult to make friends with a language barrier.”

Palmer-Brown, who can play as a centre-back or holding midfielder, has dealt with more pressure and expectations than most teenagers. He was Sporting Kansas City’s youngest ever signing at 16 and a year later Juventus were said to have been chasing his signature. However, Palmer-Brown got his head down and worked and did not get distracted.

“I think that was the hardest part. I wasn’t playing for the first month there, and you could tell the players wanted you to earn their respect. I earned their respect and friendship by my play on the field. I think that’s something that here, in an environment like Kansas City, everyone’s friendly and really welcoming. That’s not to say they weren’t welcoming, but you had to earn their respect, and I think that was a cool thing to learn.”

Despite dealing with the adversity of language barriers and homesickness, Palmer-Brown eventually helped Porto B win its first ever second division title, the first B-team to win a second division title since Real Madrid Castilla in 1984. 

“Defensively and mentally it helped me realise what winning a championship was like at least. You want to replicate that feeling as many times as you can, because there’s nothing like winning a championship.”

It’s that winning mentality that Palmer-Brown brought as captain to the USA U-20 side that won the CONCACAF U-20 Championship for the first time in its history this past February. But just like his experience in Portugal, lifting the trophy did not come without its share of adversity along the way. USA lost its opening match to Panama 1-0 and looked set for an early exit in the qualifying tournament in Costa Rica.

“When we took that first loss it was like, ‘Whoa, now’s do-or-die’. It took us all by surprise, especially me. It wasn’t easy, but you could see the guys and the fire in their eyes after we lost that game. It wasn’t how we wanted to start the tournament, but we were determined to not have it end that way.”

Palmer-Brown described the USA side as “another family we have other than our club teams.” The Stars and Stripes will enter Korea Republic with newfound confidence as continental champions but also with the knowledge that they can look to their leader when adversity comes their way, because he has been there before.

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