When Erik Palmer-Brown joined Sporting Kansas City for preseason camp last month, his arrival prompted some familiar descriptions. Teammates and coaches alike used words such as promise, upside and potential.
The branding has followed Palmer-Brown since 2013, when at 16 years old he became the youngest signing in club history.
Nearly four years later, Palmer-Brown is trying to make good on those labels. And he hopes to offer some new ones.
His preference? Maturity.
“I didn’t put as much pressure on myself (back then),” Palmer-Brown said. “I was at home. I was relaxing with friends. I had signed an MLS contract, and people looked up to me.
“Now it’s not (like) that for me. I have bigger goals and bigger dreams.”
Palmer-Brown, still a teenager for another six weeks, enters the 2017 season with some key additions to his resume. He spent 2016 living and playing in Portugal, his first truly away-from-home experience, which he describes as essential to “growing up.”
And over the weekend, he captained the United States Under-20 men’s national team to the CONCACAF U-20 championship. He was named the tournament’s most outstanding player. He returned to Kansas City this week.
“The fact he was named captain of the team was a big step for him,” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said. “And the fact he (had) some very important moments for the team was huge. He’s a really young kid but has incredible upside and great potential, and hopefully we’re going to keep working toward that and he’s going to realize that over the next couple of years.”
The 2017 campaign will provide an indication into whether Palmer-Brown realizes that potential in Kansas City. He has consistently expressed a desire to play overseas, and he called a year-long stint in Portugal “amazing.”
But he and Sporting KC have collectively decided that his immediate future is in his hometown. And there are no current plans in the works to change that, Vermes says.
“At the end of the day, coming back here, it’s no easy task — you still have to work hard every day to break into the (lineup),” Palmer-Brown said, later adding, “I think hard work pays off in the end. Time will tell when you can play. For me, it’s just work hard, keep my head down and keep trucking through.”
Palmer-Brown played primarily defensive midfielder for the United States U-20s, and assistant coach Brian Bliss, who is also the director of player personnel for Sporting KC, said Palmer-Brown “thrived” in that role.
But Vermes still views Palmer-Brown as a central defender. All 10 of his career MLS appearances have come as a center back.
Matt Besler and Ike Opara formed the center back pairing for Sporting Kansas City’s season-opening draw Saturday against D.C. United. Palmer-Brown slots in behind those two, along with Kevin Ellis.
“Before he left to go to the 20s and qualifying, he was easily one of the top central defenders for us at the time in his play,” Vermes said. “There’s a reason that we signed him a long time ago — because we always realized that he had a lot of quality. It’s always about him working towards that potential.”