The ball was still bouncing inside the goal when Cameron Carter-Vickers and Maki Tall made eye contact and ran towards each other. With smiles across their faces, they slapped backhands and jumped, arms raised as they mimicked fade-away jump shots.
It was a somewhat spontaneous celebration after Carter-Vickers had assisted Tall on the game-tying goal against Myanmar in the first match of the 2015 FIFA U-20 World Cup in New Zealand, a game the USA eventually won with a goal from Emerson Hyndman.
“We’ve been watching the NBA Playoffs. He’s a big LeBron fan, so he thinks Cleveland are going to win. And I like Steph Curry of Golden State,” Carter-Vickers said of the NBA Finals opponents. “From that we made up a handshake and in the game it just came out. We didn’t really plan it; it was more spur of the moment. We were happy that we had scored.”
At just 17 years old, Carter-Vickers is the youngest member of the USA’s U-20 MNT at the U-20 World Cup. And while soccer has been his main focus for the past 10 years, basketball is in his genes.
Cam is a great player; he’s a beast. What he does for this team is just amazing. He’s physical, powerful and he has great skills too. For a defender, you can’t ask for more. I can’t imagine what he’s going to be like when he’s 25 – he’s going to be a great player. - U-20 MNT teammate Maki Tall
Cameron’s father, Howard Carter, was a star basketball player for Louisiana State University in the early 1980s, helping LSU reach the NCAA Final Four in 1981. The following year he was selected to represent the U.S. on the USA FIBA 50th Anniversary Team during a European tour. Also on the team was a player by the name of Michael Jordan.
Howard Carter was the 15th overall pick of the 1983 NBA Draft by the Denver Nuggets. After one season in Colorado, he played another season with the Dallas Mavericks before going to play in France for nearly a decade. In 1997, he joined a team in Greece and met Cameron’s mother, an Englishwoman named Geraldine Vickers.
His parents never married. Howard moved back to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Cameron grew up in Southend, England, with his mom and grandmother.
“I’ve lived in England my whole life, but my dad’s American and I’ve always been quite close to my dad, so that’s where the American connection comes in,” said Carter-Vickers, who carries both his parents’ names. “I went to the U.S. quite often when I was younger to see my dad and cousins and aunties and the rest of my family. Obviously it’s more difficult now because of football and other commitments.”
Cameron was a point guard on his grade school basketball team that won the Essex Cup, but it wasn’t a passion of his. He also played rugby and threw the shot put, making it to the national competition as a 14 year-old with a throw of some 13-odd meters.
But none of those sports won him over like soccer.
“Of course in England, soccer is the main sport, so I’ve been playing soccer since I was seven on a local team,” said Carter-Vickers. “From there, first I trained with Southend. And then when I was playing for our Sunday League team, a Tottehnam scout came to watch another good player on our team, but when he was watching him he saw me.”
Tottenham invited the then-10-year-old to train at their development center. The following year, Cameron got a formal trial and joined Spurs’ academy. Last year, as a 16-year-old, his soccer career took massive steps forward.
Carter-Vickers was playing for Tottenham’s U-18 team at the IMG Cup in Bradenton, Florida last year when they faced the U.S. U-17 MNT. Tottenham won 5-3 and the big center back caught the eye of the U.S. coaches.
“It was one of our U-17 coaches who mentioned to us about Cameron playing for Tottenham,” said U-20 assistant and U-18 head coach Javier Perez. “I had a chance to go to Tottenham and met with his coach and his mother, and asked him if he was interested in playing for the U.S. National Team. He was a player with a lot of talent, so we definitely wanted him, and he was interested.”
Perez called Carter-Vickers to the U-18 team for the Vaclav Jezek Tournament in the Czech Republic in August 2014. The USA won the tournament with victories over Czech Republic, Hungary, and Ukraine.
“It was impressive,” Perez said of Carter-Vickers’ first camp. “For that 1997 player pool, we have very good center backs, like Erik Palmer-Brown and Tommy Redding, very, very good center backs. But the fact that (Cameron) was able to deal with players of his age, the way he did it in that tournament, it was a very good reference for us.”
And for the youngster, choosing to represent the USA was a cherished opportunity to strengthen bonds with his dad.
“I’ve always been close to my dad, especially in sporting terms,” he said. “He’s always helped me and pushed me on, so obviously it was a great honor to represent the United States.”
A few months later, Carter-Vickers was named to the U.S. U-23 roster for a match against Brazil in Brasilia, where he started in the 3-0 loss. In January, two days after turning 17, he joined the U-20s for the CONCACAF Under-20 Championship in Jamaica.
“It’s all gone pretty quick since I first got called up,” Carter-Vickers said from New Zealand. “The Under-23s was a great experience. I didn’t expect to play, but I ended up starting. From there to be called in to the U-20s for qualifying and World Cup coming up, I was very pleased. I was hoping to do my best and get in the starting XI.”
Carter-Vickers scored his first international goal in the USA’s first qualifying match, a 1-1 draw with Guatemala. He went on to start all six games in the tournament that qualified the U.S. for the U-20 World Cup.
“Obviously we got off to a difficult start, but I think our team unity really showed,” Carter-Vickers recalls. “And the way we bounced back from the first two poor results and performances at the beginning of the tournament was really good.”
In March, Carter-Vickers captained Tottenham’s U-21 team for the first time. In all, he appeared in 10 games for the U-21s and 11 for the U-18s.
Now, he’s the youngest member of the USA’s U-20 World Cup team, and he’s been quickly embraced by his teammates.
“Coming in to a new group of players, the first thing I try to do is perform as well as I can,” he said. “I think it always helps if you’re performing good, then naturally you’ll get on better with people. And this group has been really helpful with that – they’re all really nice and I get along great with all of them.”
One of the players he quickly bonded with was Maki Tall, the forward from Washington, D.C., who plays professionally in France with Red Star.
“Cam is a great player; he’s a beast,” said Tall. “He’s still 17 and what he does for this team is just amazing. He’s physical, powerful and he has great skills too. For a defender, you can’t ask for more. I go up against him in training and it’s hard scoring goals against him. I can’t imagine what he’s going to be like when he’s 25 – he’s going to be a great player.”
Like the rest of his teammates, Carter-Vickers has similar goals for both club and country.
“Hopefully I can keep improving and keep playing well,” he said of his future. “Obviously it would be great to play on Tottenham’s first team one day. I’ve been there for a long time so that’s a big goal. And internationally, of course I’d love to play in big competitions for the U.S., like the Gold Cup and World Cup, competitions like those… any player would want to aim towards that.”
Arnhem sits on the banks of the Rhine River, a sleepy Dutch city 60 miles from Amsterdam. The town usually enjoys a quiet existence, except for the roars that emanate every weekend from the legions of black-and-yellow-clad fans that pack the GelreDome, home to Arnhem’s top attraction: Vitesse.
Matt Miazga can accept responsibility for disturbing the peace in town last spring. The American defender brought some of the madness of the GelreDome to Arnhem’s avenues when he and his Vitesse teammates paraded through with the 125-year-old club’s first trophy: the 2016-17 Dutch Cup.
“It was amazing to be a part of that first trophy,” Miazga said. “Playing in final, that joy, that excitement and just that goose bump feeling after winning was amazing. The city was crazy. We had a big parade and a big celebration after. There was a stage in the middle of the city. Probably 30 to 40,000 fans were there cheering. It was an awesome celebration.”
When Miazga signed to play in Europe, he didn’t imagine he’d hoist a trophy and spark one of Arnhem’s rowdiest parties in recent memory. This sleepy hamlet has served as an important step in his single-minded quest to become the best player he can be.
“He came here with a mission,” said Marc van Hintum, Vitesse Sporting Director. “He’s a winner that you don’t see every day. That is something that gives him an extra dimension. His mentality is superb. He’s a guy that comes in and says ‘I need to succeed. I need to train hard, work hard every day, take my rest to train hard the next day.’ Of course he has the ability to play in Holland, but what makes him exceptional is his mentality.”
In Arnhem, Vitesse serves as the main show in town. There’s not a long block of fancy nightclubs and the libations of Amsterdam seem worlds further away than just a 70-minute car ride. As a kid in the suburbs of New York, Miazga picked soccer over everything. He missed school dances, dinner invitations and countless excursions with friends in favor of training and games. As he grew up, those decisions formed Miazga’s unilateral focus. In Arnhem, the lack of alternatives makes the decision a foregone conclusion. That makes the city an ideal home for a footballer devoted to the perfection of his craft.
“I'm here to play football,” Miazga said. “I go train, I sleep, I eat, I rest and repeat and play games. It’s not a big city. There’s no distractions, no extracurricular activities. You just come home, do what you have to do, focus on your craft and prepare. That’s been very beneficial for me.”
Miazga’s parents forged his one-track mind from an early age. He started to play soccer because his Polish parents grew up around the game back in their home country. When he first started to kick the ball around at age four, it didn’t take long to realize that his parents passion would also become his.
“A lot of different kids, a season comes and they play a different sport,” Adam Miazga, Matt’s father said. “I said to him ‘You’re not going to play a different sport, you choose one sport, what you want to do. We’re not going to jump from flower to flower and try everything and when the season is done, you don’t know anything. If you want to play soccer, let’s do it.’”
The local Clifton Olympians provided Miazga’s first competitive soccer, but as he conquered game after game in his small pond, a new challenge became necessary and Miazga joined the New York Red Bulls’ academy set-up. He once again rose to meet each obstacle in his path, and conquered the U.S. Soccer Development Academy as a U-15/16 age group champion in 2012.
His imposing frame and knack for physical, lock-down defense caught the attention of scouts from all over as he led the Red Bulls to the Academy championship. Miazga signed a letter of intent to attend the University of Michigan in 2012, but the Red Bulls organization had bigger plans for the young defender. In 2013, he signed as the eighth Homegrown player in club history.
Miazga’s first professional contract indicated that he figured into New York’s future plans, but his progress began slowly. In 2013 and 2014, Miazga only saw the field sparingly across a handful of appearances. Everything changed in 2015, when new head coach Jesse Marsch came to Harrison, N.J. Miazga would carry the banner for a wholesale shift in organizational philosophy.
“I felt strongly that Matt just needed to be challenged in a big way,” Marsch, now an assistant coach for German Bundesliga side RB Leipzig, said. “There was a lot of change in the organization, an emphasis away from the superstar player and more toward developing young players. He was never really entrusted to do the job. It was mostly because it was a team of veterans and a team of very established players.
“In the previous teams, the young guys were treated like the guys who carried the bags and they were the butt of the jokes, but they weren't really engaged as a real part of the team. I told him for that mentality and shift to change, it was going to be on his shoulders and even though he was 19 and it wasn't fair for to demand that he become a man now, it’s the reality of this business. The best young players, they grow up quickly.”
Prior to 2015, Red Bull Arena had served as a final home for some of the game’s biggest names and a haven for MLS veterans. Legends like Thierry Henry closed out their careers in Harrison and the team enjoyed moderate success. Marsch had other ideas. He gave Miazga just what he needed: an opportunity.
“He gave me that role to try to establish myself as a significant member of the team,” Miazga said. “I embraced that challenge. I thought I took it on well and he kept pushing me along. I really knew what it meant to be part of a professional team fighting for trophies.”
Marsch’s trust in Miazga may have seemed misplaced at the start. In the season’s first match, the young center back committed several errors that almost cost the Red Bulls a draw on the road at Kansas City. After New York survived to salvage a point against Sporting, Marsch didn’t show Miazga the bench. While they broke down his mistakes, they took more time to discuss his mindset and how he translated the tactics to the field. Miazga started for the Red Bulls the following week, and logged 24 more appearances throughout the season.
Miazga’s mission in those matches: shut down the opponent’s best attacking threat. Week in and week out, he would line up with a singular focus to shut down the most dangerous strikers in the league. Sebastian Giovinco. David Villa. Cyle Larin. No matter who lined up on the other side of the field, Miazga would do everything in his power to keep their name off the scoresheet.