Youth is Served
Recent KC high school graduate Erik Palmer-Brown is fulfilling a childhood dream playing for Sporting Kansas City.
Jet-lagged from another overseas trip, Sporting Kansas City's Erik Palmer-Brown is nonetheless full of energy on the practice pitch, clowning around with his teammates after a mid-week training session.
Palmer-Brown had just returned from Linz, Austria, where he participated in a training camp for the United States Under-20 Men's National Team. For the past couple years, the Lee's Summit native has been the soccer equivalent of Carmen Sandiego from the old children's computer games. Where in the world is Erik Palmer-Brown? Too many places to count.
In 2013, he played substantially for the Under-18 Men's National Team at a tournament in France. He's also been at other U.S. training camps in Argentina and England. And he was one of the Team USA members for this year's FIFA U-20 World Cup in New Zealand, further cementing his status as one of the great young players in the game.
And here's the kicker (pun partially intended): the 19-year-old just graduated from Archbishop O'Hara High School in May.
As a youth soccer player for Kansas City United, Palmer-Brown was invited to try out for the Sporting Kansas City Academy in 2009. In August 2013, he became Sporting's all-time youngest player when he signed his first contract at the age of 16 as part of MLS' Homegrown Player program. And last season, as a senior-to-be in high school, Palmer-Brown made his first start for Sporting KC, becoming the youngest player to start at his defender position in the history of MLS. For the first time this season, on May 9, he was inserted into the starting lineup in a 1-1 draw with DC United.
One of the biggest things Palmer-Brown has learned as a pro is how to quickly fit right in with a club full of his favorite players like Matt Besler and Graham Zusi. "At first, coming in, I looked up to these guys. I was a fan going to their games and being a ballboy and watching them play," Palmer-Brown says. "In the locker room, I was kind of timid talking to them and [afraid of] saying the wrong thing. Now, it's all jokes, and I'm always the one getting joked on….It's really fun and I feel like one of the guys."
“Erik Palmer-Brown is a player with a tremendous amount of potential. He has world-class athleticism, and I say that based on the results of testing that we've done and we do on our team. He's just a world-class athlete,” observes Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes. I think with the combination between his age, being as young as he is, and the qualities he has as a player at this moment, just turning 18 years old, he's got a major up-side. Obviously it always comes down to the same thing with every player though, as much as he needs good people around him…it always comes down to the individual and you have to have the most commitment…he's maturing all the time…but I think he has all the tools to be a top player.”
And the good thing for Palmer-Brown is that U.S. Under-20 coach and soccer legend Tab Ramos reminds him a lot of Sporting coach Peter Vermes: serious when he needs to be, with moments of levity sprinkled in between. "It's a great environment to be in, because he knows that we're at the age where we're old enough to be on our own, and usually before, at youth national team camps, we have a set schedule for everything," Palmer-Brown says of Ramos. "If you don't have practice or whatever, it's on you to prepare for the next practice or the next day. He trusts us and lets us be ourselves."
Only one other player — Tottenham Hotspur's Cameron Carter-Vickers — is younger than Palmer-Brown on the U-20 team as well, but Palmer-Brown has always been the young kid at practically every level of competition, so by now it's no big deal to him. The U-20 teammates bonded quickly and played games like Super Stickman 2 on their iPhones when they intermittently had wifi in their Austria hotel room.
Unreliable Wi-Fi made schoolwork more of a challenge than it usually was for an ordinary teenager with an extraordinary schedule. But the teachers and administrators at O'Hara were exceptionally understanding about Palmer-Brown's unique situation and helped him get caught up with all his work in time for graduation.
Thanks to some summer school courses, Palmer-Brown only had to take four classes for his last semester of high school at O’Hara. On a typical school day, he had a British literature course first thing in the morning, and then dashed to Sporting's Swope Park training facility for practice, before returning to school for his final three courses.
Palmer-Brown started playing soccer when he was four years old and grew up admiring Jimmy Conrad, Diego Gutierrez and Preki, all former Kansas City Wizards. But soccer isn't the only sport that he's been keen on since he was little. A self-described sports junkie, he also played a little basketball and baseball and made an early declaration to his mom, who played softball herself, that he wanted to play professional sports.
And just before his junior year, one of Palmer-Brown's best friends got him hooked on golf. His scores are pretty decent, but not surprisingly, he bemoans his inconsistency. With no more Shakespeare or George Orwell to worry about in British Lit, he wants to book tons of tee times at his favorite golfing haunts like Fred Arbanas Golf Course, Shamrock Hills and Country Creek. It's just one part of an action-packed summer with his buddies.
"We try to go laser tag and have a bunch of people go out to this place called Jaegers and go paintballing and have a fun time," Palmer-Brown says. "One of our friends lives on a lake, so we go fishing and that's an activity we do a lot, or Marco Polo and swimming and stuff. That's just how summer is. It's going to be fun."
Oh yeah, and there's a lot more soccer to be played this season.