I've been fortunate during most of my 37-year career at Soccer America to have been able to walk to work or work from home.
The only time I ever had a long commute was between my freshman and sophomore years in college when I had a summer job at the plant where my father worked in New Jersey.
It was about an hour's drive from Tuxedo Park, where we lived in upstate New York. We'd leave about 6:30 in the morning. I'd drive to work, and my father would drive on the way home in the afternoon. I hated the drive, but it was, luckily, only for one summer.
The plant was located in Morristown, New Jersey, which happens to be next to East Hanover, where the New York Red Bulls have had their training facility since 2013.
The first time I interviewed Tyler Adams, in Lyon before the USA's 2018 friendly against France, I told him how impressed I was with him and his daily commute to New Jersey, the same as mine, only a lot longer. He just shrugged.
Adams grew up in Wappingers Falls, New York, about 30 miles farther north than Tuxedo Park is. He'd drive with his mom, Melissa, to New Jersey several times a week, beginning when he was with the Red Bulls' U-13s. When he got his driver's license after he turned pro, he drove himself, 75 miles each way. I was lucky -- I got to nap on the way home.
Adams was 15 when he turned pro with Red Bulls II, 16 when he scored in his first-team debut against Chelsea (photo), 17 when he made his MLS debut with the Red Bulls and 19 when he started his first Bundesliga game with RB Leipzig.
Adams has always been mature beyond his years -- "a little bit of an old soul," is the way Jesse Marsch, his current coach at Leipzig and first coach with the Red Bulls, described him to The Athletic's Sam Stejskal in his excellent profile -- but he is not alone in starting out so young.
With Ricardo Pepi's call-up to the national team at the age of 18 and decision to pick the USA over Mexico, I was reminded of the story by Sam Borden, then of the New York Times, in 2016 about soccer in the border town of El Paso, Texas.
One of the players Borden profiled was Pepi:
"Slick and fierce and merciless in front of the goal, Ricardo was picked out during an area scouting day this year and offered an opportunity: Leave home, move to Dallas, live with a family there and join the youth academy of F.C. Dallas, the city’s Major League Soccer team."
Ricardo Pepi moved to Dallas when he 13.
What stands out about the squad of players Gregg Berhalter picked for the start of World Cup 2022 qualifying is how young they are -- the average age of the eight forwards called into camp was 20.6 -- and how very young they were when they began the life of a pro.
Konrad de la Fuente was 12 when he entered La Masia, Barcelona's youth academy. Tim Weah (who has since been scratched) was 14 when he moved from Queens to join Paris St. Germain, where his father, the great George Weah, had starred. Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna were both 16 when they turned pro with Borussia Dortmund, benefiting from being able to obtain European passports. Brenden Aaronson began playing with Bethlehem Steel when he was 16.
U.S. Soccer's Bradenton residency program allowed players to get a taste of life away from home -- Josh Sargent was 14 when he entered the last class for the 2017 U-17 cycle -- but it was still just a taste. Most MLS clubs now offer some kind of residency or at least home-stay option for young players entering high school.
In his interview with SA's Andrea Canales, El Salvador coach Hugo Perez (who used to work with some of the current U.S. national team players) expressed amazement at the USA's depth: "They have three teams that they can field very easily and all of them are going to be very good and competitive."
The USA's ability to go deep to its bench was perhaps the biggest reason why it won both the Nations League and Gold Cup this summer. That depth is no guarantee that the USA will qualify for Qatar, but the amount of talent breaking in at MLS clubs and across Europe is unprecedented.
Indeed, there is a fundamental difference in how young players -- and their families -- view the sport and what is necessary to succeed at it than they did a decade ago when Jurgen Klinsmann was starting out as national team coach, tasked with changing how the game was approached.
"The generation now is prepared for making a big move, at a very early age," he said when I spoke with him on the eve of Pulisic's appearance in the 2021 UEFA Champions League final. "We all always had the discussions about first college, then the professional game, what is the right move? Then we had more and more kids turn pro after the first year of college or maybe the second. Now you have that huge pool of young players at the age under-18."
Kids chasing dreams and realizing them.