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SSFC Spotlight: Erik Palmer-Brown returns to USMNT

The center back has a big opportunity in qualifying.

Austria Wien v FC Admira Wacker - tipico Bundesliga Photo by TF-Images/Getty Images

Erik Palmer-Brown could perhaps be considered a surprise inclusion on the latest United States Men’s National Team roster. While not an unfamiliar name, the 24-year-old defender has only received one call-up during Gregg Berhalter’s tenure. After years as a member of the Manchester City loan army, he has taken a step forward over the two months with ES Troyes AC in Ligue 1. This opportunity comes at a fortuitous juncture, during the last rounds of the CONCACAF Octagonal and with the 2022 World Cup on the horizon.

Palmer-Brown was raised in Lee’s Summit, Missouri, competing for Lee’s Summit High School and the Sporting Kansas City academy. After choosing soccer over baseball, he played up three age levels and developed his skills with futsal. The American youth international won three consecutive state cups, ranked the top player in his cohort by Top Drawer Soccer.

In 2013, the club signed the then-16-year-old to a professional contract, allowing him to fulfill his dreams. “It was a tough decision to pass up college but Sporting made it really easy,” Palmer-Brown told American Soccer Now. “It’s like family there. I’ve been there most of my life—since I was like 11. They brought me up since I was a kid. I feel it was a great decision. The fans are great. The whole community is great.”

He made the three appearances in his second season, but struggled with a foot injury. Italian super club Juventus made a reported $1 million transfer offer that was rejected by Sporting Kansas City. The Guardian named him to the prestigious “Next Generation” list of top talents.

Over four seasons, Palmer-Brown made a total of 23 total appearances across all competitions, struggling to break into a veteran-heavy lineup. He also went on loan to Porto B, receiving the opportunity to “show [his] value at one of the best clubs in Europe.” The defender made 17 appearances and helped claim the second-division LigaPro title.

In September of 2017, Palmer-Brown turned down a “very good” extension with Kansas City and signed a pre-contract with Manchester City for four-and-a-half years. There was also reported interest from PSV Eindhoven, Porto, Juventus, and Borussia Dortmund. According to Grant Wahl, the English super club showed a “path to the first team” and development plan.

“It was one of my goals to go overseas,” Palmer-Brown told MLSSoccer.com. “That’s something I wanted to do at a young age, and when I went on loan to Porto I saw how tough it was. It’s a struggle at times, but to grind through those [struggles] you come out a better person and player. I’ve been lucky enough to sign with one of the biggest clubs in the world now, and in watching those guys at the club, it’s very demanding”

Palmer-Brown could not qualify for a work permit and was sent on loan to Belgian club Kortrijk. He made nine appearances, earning a regular spot in the rotation. The defender then spent a season in the Netherlands with NAC Breda, playing in 18 matches and scoring the first goal of his professional career.

In August of 2019, Palmer-Brown was once again sent out on loan, this time to Austria Wien in the Austrian Bundesliga. He made 26 total appearances, contributing two goals and one assist. The club extended his loan for another season. With the American anchoring the back line and overcoming a thigh injury, Die Veilchen (The Violets) finished at eighth in the table but managed to win the Europa Conference League playoffs.

The series of temporary moves was a grind. “It’s really difficult, actually,” he shared with American Soccer Now. “It’s a really tough time, settling-in, getting your work visa and doing all these things. You can’t play, you don’t know the group. You have to get acclimated, prove yourself again. Bouncing around club to club, it’s challenging... That’s the thing about moving around from league to league... It’s just you get see a lot of different types of style play, a lot of different players.”

Firmly entrenched as a member of the Manchester City loan army, Palmer-Brown was sent to recently promoted sister organization ES Troyes, despite reported transfer interest from Venezia FC. He played sporadically over the first few months. Following the January appointment of manager Bruno Irles – who was more open than his predecessor to playing players from Manchester City – Palmer-Brown started ten consecutive matches.

Last month, Troyes — at 15th in the table, two points above the relegation zone — made the deal permanent and signed him through June of 2024. His performances have been strong, demonstrating a mix of hard defending and accurate passing. He has taken advantage of the opportunity and found some stability in France, which in turn boosted his international standing.

Palmer-Brown was a highly-regarded member of the United States program from a young age, one of the youngest players on the roster for the 2015 U-20 World Cup. He captained the squad that claimed the 2017 CONCACAF U-20 Championship and was awarded the competition’s Golden Ball. The defender played every minute at the ensuing U-20 World Cup, a run that ended with a loss against Venezuela in the quarterfinals.

His first senior call-up came in March of 2018. A few months later, Palmer-Brown made his senior international debut, starting and playing 90 minutes in a 3-0 friendly victory over Bolivia. The next month, he appeared for 30 minutes in a 1-1 draw with France, which would be his last involvement for several years.

After being invited to last March’s friendly camp, this upcoming window is a chance to earn his first minutes under Berhalter. “He’s been doing great,” said the USMNT manager. “Ligue 1 in France is a tough division for defenders. We’re really excited to have him here.”

Palmer-Brown is an athletic center back that thrives on the side of a three-player back line, comfortably racing with opposing wingers in pursuit of the ball and attempting a well-timed challenge. His first touch and passing are fairly smooth, making him a fit for possession-based tactics. The 24-year-old also does well to aim his headers into the path of teammates, avoiding costly turnovers and counter-attacks. His tackling and interception statistics are in the 80th percentile for center backs in the top-five leagues. While with Manchester City, he regularly met and reviewed game film with a loan coach, which helped to improve parts of his game such as body positioning. Stars and Stripes FC’s Justin Moran created highlight reels of recent performances against Marseille and Nantes which provide a glimpse into his general movement and technical ability.

After receiving significant attention as a youth prospect, Palmer-Brown’s career has taken a winding road. He made the decision to join what is perhaps the world’s top club, which led to a series of loans across Europe. Each successive move brought experience, helping him develop into a serviceable defender. While hoping to compete for a spot in 2026, there is a chance to become a member of the USMNT depth chart with less than a year before the World Cup in Qatar.