Mention Sporting Kansas City’s Erik Palmer-Brown to a soccer fan and the questions come rapidly. That’s what happens when a talented player who hasn’t seen the field as much as one may have expected with his hometown team signs (in an assumed big-money move) to begin playing with English Premier League club Manchester City in January. Why didn’t he stay at Sporting Kansas City? Is he still dedicated to his current team or is his mind already in England? How much money is Manchester City paying him? Does he expect to play at Manchester City? Will they loan him out? If so, to where? Big questions for a 20-year-old.
A young man and his future. Lots to be decided, to be determined. Surely Big Dreams, to be gained… or lost.
But the fact is that his move is not for another three months. He may be counting the days, but he would “rather not talk about” his impending move now. Is it because he doesn’t want the focus on him and away from his team in the drive for the best playoff seeding they can get?
Another fact is that Palmer-Brown is still a “prospect.” He is still learning. Yes, questions abound as much as his talent does. Yet it seems the Sporting Kansas City center back wants them to be answered on the field, here and now, as he steps into the starting lineup for team captain Matt Besler in a crucial series of matches for his current club. What you do today impacts your tomorrow.
“[Being given the chance to help the team] feels good,” said Palmer-Brown, as he looks to push his second-place club up from the tight Western Conference race. “Our team mentality is: Whenever you are called upon it’s your job to step-in and do a great job. Everyone here on the team, everyone trusts. You build that trust up over the year, and when you get that moment, everyone trusts you to take it.”
The 6’1”, 175 lbs Palmer-Brown is towing the company line. Perhaps because he realizes it has served him well. In a year where his stock has risen dramatically – captaining the U.S. team to the CONCACAF U-20 Championship in Costa Rica while winning the award for the tournament’s top player, guiding the same side to the FIFA U-20 World Cup quarterfinals in Korea-Republic – he has played in only eight MLS games, with five starts and 461 minutes played. And those are career highs for the fifth-year Sporting KC man. His development at Sporting Kansas City has always been methodical.
Being a difference-maker in Sporting KC’s run for the playoffs is the next step. Manchester City is surely watching.
“It’s definitely down to the time of the year where every point matters, every game matters, and those are the games that you have to grind out…,” said Palmer-Brown. “It’s a learning point for me; the guys are leading me through it step-by-step, and I’m having fun.”
It seems odd that one who was loaned to Portugal’s FC Porto in 2016 and helped their B-team win the LigaPro title needs some hand-holding. But the young man’s eyes are alert and mindful as he gets to daily observe an MLS All-Star and a U.S. National Team and World Cup veteran in Besler and now take his place in his absence beginning last Saturday and continuing for at least two league matches through next Wednesday’s fixture in Houston while Besler is with the senior U.S. squad.
“Matt is the complete package: He’s a great leader, a great defender out on the field, a very intelligent guy,” Palmer-Brown stated. “I try to learn from him every time he plays. Watching him out on the field, I try to bring as much of his game and our style of play onto the pitch as I can.”
However, Ike Opara, a top MLS defender and his partner in the heart of the Sporting KC back line, feels Palmer-Brown can bring more.
“He’s a very strong kid for his age. He has the athleticism to be able to track any kind of forward, he’s able to defend any sort of forward. He just needs experience,” said Opara. “His ability to change a game with his athleticism is big for us. We haven’t seen all of what he’s able to do yet; hopefully in the next how-many-ever games, he’s able to [show] that.”
In his Saturday’s start for the held-out Besler (stitches on forehead), Palmer-Brown was strong in challenges and read the game well while taking care of the ball. It is hoped that his athleticism can shine through on offensive set pieces, an area where Sporting Kansas City has been inefficient all season.
“I hope too. That’s what we talk about because those are big opportunities for any team to get a goal and to put the other team on the back foot,” said Palmer-Brown.
“We have no excuses… And we’ve gotten our heads on a few of them; we just haven’t put them on target. Our runs and movement in the box have been a lot better; it’s just about us putting it on frame,” stated Opara. “When I mentioned that we haven’t fully seen yet what Erik can do, set pieces is one of those and how dangerous he can be on them.”
There is another danger though, that of changing the well-crafted partnership at the center of the backline – out of necessity – during such a crucial three game stretch.
Palmer-Brown and Opara fared well, despite the final 1-0 loss in an important match, last Saturday limiting the speedy counter-attack of the conference-leading Whitecaps to only three shots on goal, the goal coming thru a fine piece of skill by Whitecaps forward Erik Hurtado. While Opara admitted there is always concern finding rhythm with a new partner, he liked what he saw.
“We have a good stretch of games, and he is going to need to step up,” said Opara. “And he’s more than capable of doing it. Last Saturday was a test to his ability and his mindset, and I expect the same moving forward from him.”
Palmer-Brown’s long-time mentor, his manager Peter Vermes, liked what he saw as well.
“He was good. Erik is a good talent, and he’s only going to get better game after game. He’ll play again this weekend,” said Vermes before reiterating a sure focus in the progression of any prospect and the importance of a good teacher. “Consistency is the biggest thing you are trying to get from any player… One of the consistencies has been Ike. Throughout the season he’s been an important aspect. Him being in there and Erik having played the last game and getting more and more games is going to help [Erik] with his rhythm.”
In line with his mentors, Palmer-Brown reflected on the coming games.
“For us, we have to get back on track because this is the time of year to end on the right foot. And that’s our goal,” he said.
And that seems to be Palmer-Brown’s personal goal too. A proper end to his current time in Kansas City, and onward to the next step.