When you ask Emerson Hyndman what soccer means in his life, he doesn’t hesitate. “It pretty much is my whole life,” the teenager, captain of USA’s U-20s told FIFA.comahead of the World Cup that kicks off in New Zealand next week.
Hyndman is steeped three generations deep in American soccer. His grandfather, Schellas, is a renowned coach in University and Major League Soccer circles. His father, Tony, was a USA youth international in his day too. Hyndman, 18, has the game in his veins. “There was a ball in my crib probably before anything else," said the midfielder hailed by many as the best American player under the age of 21.
Hyndman grew up playing in Texas, where his grandfather coached local MLS giants FC Dallas. He showed promise early, selected to the U-14 national camp when he was 11. Fans and journalists talked about him as the next Great American Hope. At 15, Hyndman took the next step, a big one -- across the Atlantic to London to join Fulham’s youth academy.
His development kicked into overdrive in England. “It was the right decision for me,” he said in a tone both matter-of-fact and polite, with the cool clip of someone not easily flustered. “I developed quickly.”
Hyndman dropped back from attacking midfield to a deep-lying role, where his technical skills on the ball blossomed. When Fulham were relegated from the English Premier League at the end of last season, the American’s big chance came. He made his first start in the Championship, England’s rough-and-tumble second tier, in August. He’s been a regular in the team ever since.
It’s unlikely Hyndman would have received his opportunity so early at another club, but US Soccer and Fulham have a special relationship. The club, on the banks of the Thames, have a long tradition of scouting talent in North America. Carlos Bocanegra and striker Brian McBride – whose name graces the pub at Craven Cottage – had great success there. Eddie Lewis, Eddie Johnson and goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann also called Fulham home.
But most important in the list is Clint Dempsey, who was twice named Player of the Year when the Cottagers were among the big boys in the EPL.“Dempsey was still there when I came to the club,” Hyndman remembers of the America icon, a smile growing in his voice. “We’re both from Texas and we talked a few times. He told me it’s place where Americans can really get a chance.”
It’s one thing to develop on the insulated pitches of an English Academy, but Hyndman was thrown into the blood and thunder of full competition. The slender midfielder learned the hard way.
Baptism of fire
“The Championship is tough,” said his U-20 coach Tab Ramos, one of the best players in American history. “He’s not very big and he’s very talented, so he gets kicked a lot. It’s one of the toughest leagues, physically, in the world. He’s been put through the ringer.”
While Ramos has been reluctant to heap public praise on players in the past, he’s effusive about his current captain’s abilities. “He’s the total package,” said Ramos who sees in Hyndman a ten-year career in the full national team.
It’s a prophecy that’s already coming true. Hyndman already has a senior cap. When his phone rang in September 2014, he didn’t recognise the number. The voice of the other end said: “This is Jurgen,” Hyndman responded: “I don’t know any Jurgens.”
It was Jurgen Klinsmann, coach of the USA senior team inviting Hyndman to camp for a friendly with the Czech Republic. “I got a call and three days later I’m playing with guys I’d just been watching on TV in the World Cup."
The US U-20s are in camp in Auckland preparing for a tricky opener against Asian newcomers Myanmar. Ramos’ team is a collection of players from eight leagues around the world. The coach is eager to play an expansive brand of football that will put Hyndman in the thick of things as midfield metronome.
When Hyndman looks at the U-20 World Cup ahead, he sees it as part of a development. “We had a rough time in qualifying,” he admitted of the preliminaries in Jamaica. “But we learned from it. That adversity made us better and more prepared for now.”