In some ways, Erik Palmer-Brown is an average, 17-year-old American kid. With the end of the school year approaching, he's counting the days left in his high school career and reflecting on what life will be like after graduation.
But in more ways, Palmer-Brown is anything but average. A veteran of United States national soccer teams at the Under-17, U-18 and U-20 levels, Palmer-Brown has, for almost two years, balanced the demands of high school with the duties of being a professional soccer player.
It's been quite the ride already. Palmer-Brown, a center back, signed his first professional contract in 2013 at age 16, becoming the youngest signing in the history of Major League Soccer club Sporting Kansas City.
He made his first-team debut the following year in a 2-1 Sporting loss at Chicago, but his season ended early following a broken foot in late September. Earlier in 2014, Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl reported that Sporting had turned down a $1 million bid for the young defender from legendary Italian club Juventus.
This spring, Palmer-Brown joined the U.S. U-20 team for its recent camp in England as coach Tab Ramos whittled down his roster for the upcoming FIFA U-20 World Cup in New Zealand. The U.S. has been drawn into Group A with the hosts, as well as Ukraine and Myanmar, and as Ramos told USSoccer.com, the camp was a chance to make tough decisions about which players to select.
Ramos, a veteran of the 1990, 1994 and 1998 World Cups with the senior U.S. squad, said:
Between this camp and the camp that we have in Austria (from April 18-26), I think it's the last opportunity for us to make final conclusions on players. I'm trying to see them in different positions and see how certain players may be able to help us.
And then after that, we'll focus on trying to get the best group together. We don't have a lot of time for the World Cup but that's normally how this works.
Palmer-Brown spoke with Bleacher Report's Michael Cummings shortly after he returned from U.S. camp. Here's what he said.
Bleacher Report: You recently returned from the U.S. Under-20 team camp in England. How was the experience, and how was working with coach Tab Ramos?
Erik Palmer-Brown: It's always a pleasure working with Tab and getting in with the guys again after my broken foot. It was really fun seeing all the guys again, seeing the new faces and preparing for World Cup.
BR: So how is the foot?
EPB: I would say I'm a bit banged up…but it's been getting better day by day, so I should be training by the beginning of next week. It's good, and it's getting a lot better. I'm just not used to this type of injury—I've never broken a bone before, so I'm not used to the recovery, but I'm getting back to 100 percent.
BR: Can you tell more about how you've worked with coach Ramos? How has he helped your game develop?
EPB: I mean, I just love Tab. He's a great guy. He doesn't shy away from telling you what you're doing wrong and what you're doing right—which, for me as a player, I feel is a big part of my game because you don't want anyone to sugarcoat you because you're a younger player.
With Tab, he says you gotta be more vocal, you gotta want the ball. It's great being able to have that kind of a relationship with a coach. Those are the things I like about Tab.
BR: I understand that you've been attending high school while training and playing with Sporting Kansas City? What is that experience like?
EPB: Yeah, it's still going on—we have 20 days left (as of Friday, April 3). It's pretty exciting that it's almost over. I mean, I love my school, I love all the people at my school and it's gonna be sad to go our separate ways and move on with life. But it's also exciting not to have homework after school—being up pretty late doing that kind of stuff and then going to practice in the morning.
So in that aspect it's good (that school is ending), but it's fun. It's a challenge to double school with soccer, but my coaches understand that I'm going to school, and my school understands that I'm a professional athlete, and it's an even balance.
BR: Do the people at school treat you any differently than anyone else? Have you ever gone out to play with the school's soccer team?
EPB: I went out and practiced with them once, just to have fun with my friends out there.
But, no, at first it was different, people looked at me like, "Oh, my gosh, he's a professional soccer player." But now, I know everyone. It's a small school; you know everyone; you even know freshmen, and it's awesome. It's an awesome feeling going to such a small school that everyone knows each other and everyone has good relationships with each other.
BR: But being a professional athlete has to have some advantages. It's prom season, so has it helped you find a date?
EPB: No. I went to prom last year with a date, and I mean, I don't do dancing, so that's not me. I've been asked, but I'm not going to prom, and I'm not sure I can anyway.
BR: How did you get into soccer in the first place?
EPB: I started playing at a young age—I think four. My mom is the type of person that's open to trying new things. She wanted me to play as many sports as I could when I was young, and I love soccer and baseball, so growing up I played both sports. A lot of my friends played both sports with me for the same teams…
I think it was sixth grade that I had to make the decision. My mom was like, "You can't keep doing both because they're both getting too serious to where you can't miss one or the other, so you have to make a choice." I chose soccer because I was with the Wizards Academy (Note: The former name of Sporting Kansas City was the Kansas City Wizards) and from there it just went uphill.
BR: It sounds like you're close with your mom, and she seems really supportive. Can you tell me more about her?
EPB: She's a single mom. My dad passed away, when I was nine years old, from an enlarged heart. She's been a single mom my whole life—they were never married. My little brother, Nick, she raised us, and she's just so great. She works as much as she can for both of us, and it's awesome to finally be able to help her out and give back.
BR: You're a center back, which is not necessarily the most glamorous position in soccer. What do you like about the position, and which players do you model your game after?
EPB: What I like about playing center back is you don't get the glory. For me, I don't like being in the spotlight—it's a team game, and that's how I like to reflect my play. As a center back, you're a leader back there, but you're not going to get a lot of the glory as much as the strikers or midfielders scoring goals. Being back there and leading from the back is the spot for me.
I try to model my game after the greats, such as Thiago Silva. He's an athletic center back with good feet, and he's a leader. He's a captain for PSG and was the captain for Brazil. So that's one of the guys I try to model my game after.
BR: Last year, Sports Illustrated reported that Sporting Kansas City turned down an offer from Juventus for you, and the offer was reportedly for $1 million. What did it feel like to be linked with a club like Juventus, and are you open to a move overseas one day?
EPB: It's an awesome feeling to know that a club a like that is looking at you. But at the same time, I've always been taught to focus on the now. If you're doing good now, that leads to better things in the future.
That's my main focus, but, yeah, I'm open to it. As a young kid, growing up, MLS wasn't on TV as much as it is now, so I'd get up early in the morning, and I'd watch those EPL games. It was a dream to play overseas at those big clubs in the world.
But I'm with a big club now in the United States. Over in England, I'd say I play with Kansas City and people would know who that is. So it's a great feeling to be playing at home in Kansas City, and that's what I'm focused on right now.
BR: After your MLS debut last year, I read a quote from you about how it wasn't quite what you wanted it to be. What steps have you taken to work on that?
EPB: Better preparation. I feel like getting a taste of that first MLS game, kinda getting beaten around, it was good to get the experience at that level and be able to take that level back to training with me and try to improve my game from there.
BR: It's no secret in U.S. soccer culture that guys like me, reporters in the media, tend to anoint young players in the U.S. as the next big thing. There's certainly a lot of attention on you right now at age 17. How do you deal with the pressure?
EPB: My mom's always taught me to be a humble kid, and I feel like it's your guys' job to get the best stories you can and write about players that are with the national team and in the fold with their club team.
So I feel like it's a part of the game. You've got to be willing and able (as a player) to talk to the reporters and help out the fans and do what you need to do because it's your job. People look up to you, and you're in that kind of role with a responsibility to give back.
BR: What are your short-term and long-term goals, say for this season and over the next five years?
EPB: Short term, I want to break into the 18 (the number of players in a game-day squad) and become a regular (with Sporting Kansas City). It's always been my goal to play in front of Sporting Park…
But also long term it's to be in the national team. I want to be with the first team, I want to be playing in a World Cup, and that's my goal.
And also, short term with the U20s, I want to make this World Cup coming up.
BR: You mentioned to me earlier that you're going to be confirmed tomorrow. Is faith a big part of your life?
EPB: I go to a Catholic school, and a lot of my friends are Catholic. I've been going to church with them Sunday afternoon or on Saturdays; we try to go together because we're always hanging out.
It's a big part of my life. I like to give all the glory to God. Without Him, none of this is possible.
BR: You've already represented the U.S. at the youth level. How do you impress coach Jurgen Klinsmann and get into the senior squad?
EPB: You've got to keep working hard; you've got to keep doing the basics. I feel like if you're doing well with your club team and you're showing well with your youth international team…Jurgen is always talking to Tab, and if you're doing well on the youth international level and you're doing well with your club, it's only a matter of time.