U.S. international striker Bobby Wood typically wins his battles. The 24-year-old uses his explosive frame to fight off defenders and force past them on his way to goal. He rarely gets knocked down.
But at a U.S. training camp in Ohio in November, Wood spent a lot of time on the deck. So much so that his teammates made a running joke of it. "Bobby, how many times you end up on the ground today?" they would ask him.
More surprising than Wood’s plight was the man putting the hits in: Tottenham’s Cameron Carter-Vickers. The defender was attending his first national team camp and relishing his duel with one of the squad’s most aggressive players.
"They were going in for some awesome battles, some wrestling matchups it seemed," U.S. midfielder Alejandro Bedoya tells Bleacher Report. "[Cameron is] definitely not afraid of any tackles, of showing his strength."
Bedoya "bounced off" Carter-Vickers when the pair went into their first tackle. "Talk about first impressions. You look at him and you're just like, 'Wow. This guy is a soccer player?'" he says. "He should be a running back the way he's built. A linebacker. The guy's calves and legs are humongous."
U.S central defender Matt Besler was another in awe. "The first thing that stood out to me was his physical presence. There were many times throughout the camp where I shook my head and I couldn't believe that this kid was 18 years old (he's 19 now). He doesn't look like an 18-year-old kid, and he doesn't play like an 18-year-old kid, either."
Veteran forward Alan Gordon joined the line to see Carter-Vickers' identification. "I was very surprised by his age. I didn't know much about him before the camp. When somebody told me his age, I was like, 'Wow.' He's got a very mature body. I thought he was 30."
Carter-Vickers is the son of former professional basketball player Howard "Hi-C" Carter, who was drafted to the NBA by the Denver Nuggets in 1983. He left the league after two years, and after a decade playing in France, he took a contract with Iraklis, a pro team in Greece.
It was there that Carter met Geraldine Vickers, a star netball player, and the pair moved to England to have a son together in 1997. "High-C" returned to Greece, and then Louisiana, leaving young Cameron to be raised by his mother and grandmother in Southend.
Carter-Vickers inherited his parents' athlete genes. He played basketball like his dad and qualified for a national shot put competition, but football was always his forte. And he was always a powerhouse. As a boy, he remembers breaking his grandmother’s wrist with a shot in the backyard.
It was around that time, aged 10, that a Tottenham scout spotted Carter-Vickers. He joined Spurs at 11 and soon elevated above his age group—playing for the under-16s at 14 and with the under-18s at 15.
The man-boy had skills, but it was Carter-Vickers' maturity that stood out to those working with him at Spurs. "What impressed me most was his eagerness to learn," former Spurs and England centre-back Ledley King tells Bleacher Report. "He really wanted to improve and get to the highest level."
Carter-Vickers had a club in Tottenham, but his national allegiance remained undefined.
Would he choose England, the country of his birth? Or Team USA, the land of his father?
U.S. youth coach Javier Perez came knocking first. A colleague scouted Carter-Vickers at a 2014 event at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, and Perez called the 16-year-old up for a U18 tournament in the Czech Republic, where he impressed. Soon enough, Carter-Vickers was the toast of the U.S. youth ranks. Every age group wanted a piece of him.
Had England missed their moment?
Tab Ramos, who coaches Carter-Vickers on the U.S. under-20 squad, certainly hopes so. He speaks to a gifted natural defender who won't back down. "He's so powerful. He doesn't get beat in one-on-ones," he says. "And he's incredibly good in the air. He's not very tall, but he wins everything in the air."
Ramos elevated Carter-Vickers to a lead role in the 2015 squad that ran to the quarterfinals of the Under-20 World Cup In New Zealand. The 16-year-old starred alongside Arsenal hopeful Gedion Zelalem, hotly tipped forward Rubio Rubin, Emerson Hyndman and Paul Arriola.
"He's not a vocal leader," Ramos says. "He's a leader by example, and that's a great thing. When he does say something, people listen. He demands respect because he's very focused on his work and he takes every day seriously."
Speaking of work ethic, there's the story of Carter-Vickers taking his maths exam at the British embassy in Sydney, Australia. Nothing special, you might think. Only that same afternoon he was flying to New Zealand for the Under-20 World Cup. He passed both tests.
But don't think Carter-Vickers is all business. Teammates speak of a player who loves to tell stories and get laughs. He's quiet but fun-loving.
In the opening-match U20 World Cup game against Myanmar, Carter-Vickers and Maki Tall celebrated their collaboration on the first goal by miming basketball shots—an ode to his father perhaps. The tournament ended in penalty-shootout misery to Serbia, but it was widely viewed as the most successful youth tournament for U.S. men’s soccer in years.
Over There @socceroverthere
I like this photo of Maki Tall & Cameron Carter-Vickers. http://t.co/ToKPG04o6g2015-5-30 06:48:00
"I'd say it was one of the best moments of my life," Carter-Vickers tells Bleacher Report over email. "The memory that stands out is beating Colombia in the Round of 16. It was a really tough game, and we defended well, so to go and win was good."
From the highs of New Zealand came the low of Carter-Vickers' career so far—being part of the USA under-23 team that failed to qualify for the 2016 Olympics in Rio. At 17, he was the youngest player on the squad. It was a crushing disappointment, but Carter-Vickers still managed to enhance his reputation.
Wil Trapp, who captained the team, says: "You get a lot of the obvious physical exploits, but he'll surprise you with his passing ability and his confidence. I was impressed by his ability to assume leadership when needed for such a young guy in games that were tough."
Midfielder Trapp was impressed by Carter-Vickers' conviction and self-belief. Trapp says Carter-Vickers kept it simple when the situation warranted but wasn't afraid to express himself with an ambitious through ball here and there. "That was really impressive to see the bravery, I guess you could call it. The confidence to make an imprint on the game."
And then there was the impact his British accent made on the squad.
"If he was talking about a pretty girl, he'd say that she was buff," teammate Kellyn Acosta says. "I thought that was kind of weird. That was like the polar opposite of the girl he was pointing out at the time."
Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino believes Carter-Vickers, "will be one of the best centre-backs in England." Those in and around the club deem the 19-year-old their best defensive prospect since former England international King came through the academy.
King, who worked with Carter-Vickers on Tottenham's U18 team, thinks that might be true. "He's probably more physical than I was as a young kid coming through. Maybe a better defender than I was, too. But on and off the pitch, I can see characteristics in our demeanor, our determination to want to improve and want to get to the top."
During last summer's International Champions Cup, a preseason exhibition tournament, Carter-Vickers was the only Spurs player to take in every minute of games against Juventus and Atletico Madrid. In the Juve match, he showed his versatility, switching from right to left midway through, where he delivered a number of fine passes to full-back Will Miller.
The teenager struggled to keep pace defensively, however, missing a tackle early on that led to Paulo Dybala's opening goal. "It was a real baptism of fire," Kristan Heneage, a scout and writer, says.
Carter-Vickers made his full Spurs debut in a 5-0 EFL Cup win against Gillingham in September. He featured in the same competition against Liverpool a month later, where he was tasked with tracking the rapid forward movements of Daniel Sturridge and Divock Origi. Sturridge triumphed, scoring two goals in a 2-1 win for Liverpool.
For now, Carter-Vickers remains outside of Spurs' starting XI for Premier League competition, making do with appearances in the cup competitions.
A conundrum looms large. In Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen, Carter-Vickers has a pair of excellent mentors at Spurs, but two World Cup-experienced defenders will be hard to dislodge. To improve you have to play, but to play he may have to move clubs.
Unless he can play his way into the Spurs team, of course.
"He's an outstanding talent. He's got everything, really," Heneage says. "I think he needs a year to mature, to refine himself a little bit before he is ready for the Premier League, but he could play in the Championship [one tier below the Premier League] tomorrow. If he's not playing first-team football in 18 months, he should be disappointed."
In October, Carter-Vickers captained a U.S. under-20 team against England. "It couldn't have been easy for him, but he was all-in," says his coach, Ramos. A month later, Carter-Vickers got his first senior-squad call-up from then-USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
He didn't play in World Cup qualifying losses to Mexico and Costa Rica, results that ended Klinsmann's time in charge, but he made the gameday roster in the second match.
"Even though the results didn't go well, it was a good experience for me to be around seasoned internationals and mixing with them," Carter-Vickers says. "There isn’t really one particular memory that stands out, but being on the bench against Costa Rica was a good experience."
(Why Klinsmann didn't bring Carter-Vickers into an already-lost match remains a mystery. After all, the moment he walks onto the field in a competitive senior international is the moment his allegiance is set.)
These were big moments to be around the USMNT. Klinsmann brought former national team players Frankie Hejduk, Gregg Berhalter and Josh Wolff into the changing room to talk to the team in Columbus. The embattled coach noticed Carter-Vickers looking at the players with big eyes, listening intently to their stories, learning the soccer lore of his adopted nation.
Bedoya says he and Geoff Cameron tried to help Carter-Vickers adjust. They'd been in his situation before. "His little soft-spoken self would tune in, tell some stories and get other people to laugh," the Philadelphia Union midfielder says. "You could tell that he was starting to feel pretty comfortable within the group."
Gordon, one of the oldest players on the roster at 35, thought Carter-Vickers acquitted himself well in his first camp. "He did what a young kid is supposed to do. He kept quiet. He kept to himself and earned a little bit of respect on the field."
Another senior call-up will come soon enough under new coach Bruce Arena to finally end the talk of Carter-Vickers switching to England. The U.S. coach plans to meet with the centre-back when he travels to Europe in March. Ramos believes Carter-Vickers has been approached by England but is confident he won't file for a switch. The FA declined to comment when contacted by Bleacher Report.
Carter-Vickers cites visits to Louisiana in his youth as giving him an appreciation for life in America. He stays in touch with his father, who's proud of who the young man is becoming. "Most parents want their children to do better and have more in life than they did," Carter says of his son. "He's already on pace to do abundantly more."
Meanwhile, Carter-Vickers remains eligible for the Under-20 World Cup this summer and could play a defining role during the tournament in South Korea.
From there, anything is possible, but patience is required. And Carter-Vickers knows it.
"Cam is a really level-headed soccer player," Ramos says. "I'm sure he's not thinking, 'Hey, I want to be the best centre-back in England tomorrow.' I'm sure he's just taking it a step at a time and thinking about his club first. I think he's doing it the right way."
For Carter-Vickers, it's one powerful step at a time.
Noah Davis is a contributing football writer for Bleacher Report, covering the game from his base in Brooklyn, New York. Follow him on Twitter @noahedavis