Emerson Hyndman currently plays for Championship club Fulham FC. Having come through their academy to feature regularly in the first team, as well as representing his native USA at the FIFA U20 World Cup in New Zealand, the Player Development Project were keen to understand more about the development of a player described by his club as ‘a chief midfield orchestrator’.
The name Hyndman is one that attracts a fair bit of attention in US Soccer. Schellas Hyndman coached FC Dallas for 5 years after spells coaching in Brazil and around the US College scene with three different NCAA schools. Out of the Hyndman legacy emerged the latest name to do the family proud.
Emerson Hyndman is a young man who is a fish out of water. Finding his way on the battle grounds of Championship Football, arguably the fastest and toughest league in the world, Emerson, 19, is plying his trade at Fulham FC, the famous London club that until recently was a mainstay of the Premier League. Signed by the club as an academy player, Hyndman is now playing with the big boys and showing the English that American players can not only compete, but also get success in the week-in week out grind of English football. We spoke to Emerson to get a better understanding of how he came from Dallas teenager to professional footballer in England.
It’s clear that family played a big role in Emerson not only being involved in football, but developing at the rate he did. We asked him to explain a bit more about his family and cultural background. He explains, “ My grandfather was born in Macau, China. At the time it was a Portuguese colony and he moved to America when he was quite young and settled in Illinois. He is pretty well known in America now and is a great coach. He had a rough childhood coming into a new country and had to develop his English and study particularly hard.”
“Nothing came easy for my grandfather. That work ethic was passed down to my father and he worked hard for everything he achieved.”
Given the younger Hyndman has thrown himself out of his comfort zone and left his family in England, hard work appears to be a trait in the family. Emerson elaborates, “Nothing came easy for my grandfather. That work ethic was passed down to my father and he worked hard for everything he achieved. I feel that trait is part of our family; both my father and grandfather faced a lot of challenges. My mother is also very hard working. She sacrificed a lot for me, drove me to training early in the morning or at inconvenient times. I feel it’s all connected in a way and the family has always worked hard for what they’ve got.”
It appears Emerson had the benefit of a strong family environment with hard-working values and without a doubt this would have be integral to him adapting abroad. So when did football become a dominant part of Hyndman’s life and what were his first recollections of the game and was it through coaching or play?
“My first memories were through organised football for fun at the YMCA,” he says. “I always enjoyed it and then I when my dad realised I loved it and wanted to learn more he helped me with that. It wasn’t overly coach-led, it was just games. We would show up with friends, put on a jersey and just play.”
Hyndman’s grandfather clearly carved a strong reputation in America. Often there is great expectation on young players who come through these families. Was this reputation a help or hindrance to Emerson in his development?
“My grandpa allowed me to train with his first team as a 13-year-old (and a small one at that) and playing with grown men who were twice my age was definitely provided me with benefits.”
Emerson continues, “It was both. As I got older I went and watched his college teams play. I was much more into it as a teenager and invested in it. He was at FC Dallas as a coach when I played there and really that brought more challenges than benefits because I had the same name as the coach. However, my grandpa allowed me to train with his first team as a 13-year-old (and a small one at that) and playing with grown men who were twice my age was definitely provided me with benefits.”
Emerson clearly spent a lot of time playing and being around top environments, being stretched as a player and learning early how to play against those physically better than him. So as tough as this might have been, how was it to move to another country, link up with a top club and have to adapt as a 15-year-old?
“There are a lot of challenges. That decision to move was exceptionally hard and perhaps almost tougher for my parents than me at the time.” He continues, “I was running on adrenalin, I was young, excited and took the chance. The first couple months or so were very tough. I was put into a schooling system at Coombe Boys School right next to the training ground.”
Hyndman describes integrating into the English system as “a huge challenge”, so what made it tough? He explains, “I’d never been to a boys school let alone an English school! Once I got used to the training schedule, the day-in-day-out routine and was around teammates it kind of settles you down. I’ve always stayed connected with my friends and family back home via Facebook or just texting, but obviously I do miss my friends and family. It was difficult in that regard but once I got used to it and saw how many people invested their time in bringing me over it makes it easier to settle in.”
So how did the opportunity to play at Fulham FC come about for a young man from Dallas? “I had a trial with Liverpool when I was 13-14 years old. Malcolm Elias was the chief scout at Liverpool and when he moved to Fulham and asked me to come over and trial.”
Clearly determined to make his way in the English game, Hyndman continues, “I was really grateful for that chance. I had a couple of visits to the club and thought it was a great place for me to develop and saw it as a club where I could get through the academy and play with the first team one day. It’s been a crazy ride.
He explains, “My first year was very challenging. Physically I was at a weak spot. I remember the first day of pre-season I could barely get through our running drills. My coach, Steve Wigley said he had some doubts when he saw me run but was reassured when he saw the way I could pass the ball and said he ‘thought I’d be fine with time and development.’ It was tough in that way but once I started playing games, getting in to the swing of things and the English style of football it really all just flowed from there. As a second year I had a lot more experience. We made a long FA Youth Cup run to the final, which was great fun, and I learned a lot from it.”
English football is known as being a cauldron, not a place for the meek – you have to have a tough exterior to handle the dressing room environment, let alone the stadiums which can at times resemble tribal warfare. How does the English style compare with the USA?
“In England it’s very intense, your teammates are always telling you how to help the team, where to be: it’s very involved.”
“I think there are a lot of similarities actually. The big differences would be overall intensity and pace. I remember my days in the USA where there were a lot of technical players, but the pace was just a lot slower – less tackling and sprinting. In England it’s very intense, your teammates are always telling you how to help the team, where to be: it’s very involved. It was a big challenge for me coming in to the English way at first but over time I have adapted to it.”
Hyndman is a midfielder who has played for the USA at all age group levels and now has a cap for the Men’s National Team. But what are his attributes? What kind of player is he and does he have his own style?
“Passing is one of my stronger attributes. I grew up as a number 10. When I turned up at Fulham that was my role. I didn’t defend too much and didn’t run too often. I would rather pick my head up and play the through ball or sometimes dribble a bit.”
He continues, “I think ‘methodical’ is probably the best description of my style because I’m always trying to exploit things and think. I’m trying very hard to grow into being a thinking footballer.”
So what areas of his game has Hyndman had to improve in his time at Fulham? “As I’ve developed I’ve had to cover more ground and was taught in the academy to play a deeper number 8 role, defend more and be a bit more physical, learn to tackle well. Pre-season with the first team last year was a realisation that I had to fight for this and compete with men.”
We often talk about he importance of culture in football. Does the difference in style translate to a style of play in the USA? Is American culture reflected in the way American teams express themselves?
“In a way it does. When you see our ‘never give up’ attitude, it reflects the people we are. I feel in all age groups, I started with the U14 national team and it’s the same as the men’s senior team now. Everyone fights for their spot, every session players are attentive and at it. I feel American teams (even if we don’t get the result) always give 100%, will fight for the ball, try to play the right way and I think that will just get better as time goes on.”
Hyndman appears methodical in the way he considers his answers and at times, wise beyond his years. Despite only being new to the professional game, what words of wisdom would he have for young players looking to follow in his footsteps or simply trying to reach their own potential?
“If you have a passion for something like soccer then you should try to be the best you can.”
“I really say take advantage of your time. I grew up in a way where I had a lot of time on my hands and I tried to use every minute of it on something I loved. If you have a passion for something like soccer then you should try to be the best you can. I always tried to do that. When I was younger, I would just ask my dad to drive to a field and train. I was lucky my dad supported me in that and I had a lot of time on the ball.
Player Development Project advocates the role of mentors. We were keen to know whether mentors were a key part of Hyndman’s development and who they were?
“For sure – I used to watch great players all the time, and more recently I would say it’s Iniesta. Obviously I enjoy the way he plays, but more so it’s his attitude to the game which I love. If he gets fouled, he moves on, he never argues, he carries himself in such a great way as a role model. He’s a leader and impacts the game positively.”
When thinking of Iniesta it’s easy to think about creativity, after all he is a player that has the ability to do the exceptional. So how does Hyndman define creativity in the beautiful game?
“It’s a key and exciting element of the game. There are so many great creative players. Again, someone like Iniesta is one who can make something out of nothing. For me that’s what creativity is. If you see something happen that you perhaps don’t think could happen, that moment that takes your breath away, makes you think ‘wow, I didn’t see that coming’ and changes the game – that’s creative.”
At this point in time, Hyndman is a survivor and product of the English Academy system – a place which can be ruthless and intense. But what are the most positive elements of developing in an academy environment?
“I think being surrounded by peers that all have the same goal in a team structure is a huge help. Everyone obviously wants to go as far as they can but being in a team helps that. I also believe a winning team helps development. When we made our FA Youth Cup run as a second year scholar, we were so ‘together’ during the whole process. We weren’t thinking about ourselves at that point and that helps development.”
Conversely, there are challenges within the academy environment, as Hyndman explains, “It’s tough to separate yourself from the team. You might find yourself out of position in some games and that can be hard or they get down, but it has to fit the team. Everyone is going to experience those challenges later in life so I understand that. It was difficult in my early days to go from #10 to #8, I didn’t like it, didn’t understand it, but it has benefitted me. Adjusting to things like that can be very difficult for young players.”
“It’s a very tough league and I knew that coming into it. In my first game it was harder than I thought it would be. I made my debut at 18 in the first game of the season and it was my first professional game.”
It’s easy to judge the Championship from the outside, but how has the young American prospect found the competition to date?
“It’s a very tough league and I knew that coming into it. In my first game it was harder than I thought it would be. I made my debut at 18 in the first game of the season and it was my first professional game. The physical side really surprised me. I’d trained all pre-season with my team, had been adapting to the physical nature of my team in pre season fixtures, but the intensity of the championship, the up and down nature of all the players is a lot quicker than what it might appear on TV. I watched Blackburn on the team bus on the way to our first game and it looked quick, but when you’re out there it’s much different, however I now feel like I’m at the point where I’ve acclimatized to the league and can deal with the challenge.“
New Zealand played host to the FIFA U20 World Cup in 2015, and Hyndman was lucky enough to be a part of it with a strong team from the USA. How did he enjoy his time in ‘the land of the long white cloud’ and what were the key lessons from the tournament?
“It was incredible – one of the best experiences of my life so far and a great place to host it. Going to New Zealand (probably one of the last places I ever thought I’d get to go) was awesome. We went a long way in the tournament, unfortunately lost on penalties and didn’t go all the way, but we had a great tournament. Playing teams like Colombia, Serbia, Ukraine and getting results or close to them was something that made us all happy. When we lost to Serbia (the eventual winners) we knew they were a very good team. We were proud of our performance but knew we could go further. It was an experience that all of us will remember.”
So on the back of a very intense 18 months, we wanted to know what Emerson felt the remainder of the 2015–16 season held for him?
“Having done pre-season for the first time last year made the last one a lot better. The experiences I had of playing with the first-team and playing international football last year has made it easier to prepare for this season. I was only 18 last year and it was hard to adapt to playing with guys ten years older than me when I was so used to having team mates my own age but I’m used to that now, I’m comfortable on and off the pitch with my teammates.”
Currently honing his talents with the Fulham FC environment, does Hyndman dream of higher honours or European football? What are his long-term goals?
“I want to reach the highest level I can – there is no limit. I want to play in all the major competitions, a World Cup and the Champions League. I know it’s a long process that takes a long time. I just want to take it as it comes and I know the harder I work the more good things will come. That’s my mindset.”
Emerson Hyndman comes across as a calm, intelligent young man who is driven by a growth mindset. Watching his development and progress in years to come will be interesting and hopefully exciting. He is clearly a young man who loves a challenge and isn’t scared of discomfort. We can only hope more young players follow his lead into the trenches of European football in the future.