It’s difficult not to view the life Charlie Adams is making for himself stateside with a degree of harmless envy.
“Right now, it’s eight o’clock in the morning and I don’t see a cloud in the sky,” he grinned. “I live five minutes from the beach so on my days off I go there. There’s just so much to do and it’s difficult to wake up sad when there are blue skies every day.”
In the same breath, it’s difficult to begrudge the 25-year-old anything, given the fact he took a leap of faith to leave English football behind and cross the Atlantic five years ago, largely blind to whether the hefty risk would pay off. Fortunately it did.
Just days after being unveiled as a member of the inaugural San Diego Loyal squad – the United Soccer League (USL) franchise part-owned and managed by USA legend Landon Donovan – back in February, Charlie spoke to brentfordfc.com from a quiet corner of the Olympic Training Centre in Chula Vista, California.
“Even though I’m only 25, I feel like I’ve had a long career,” he said as his manager nonchalantly breezed past in the background.
This summer will mark a decade since he signed his two-year scholarship at Brentford, having been spotted at a Community Sports Trust futsal scheme and then progressed through the Centre of Excellence. Having entered the system as a left-back, bigger and better things have, of course, happened since but he still exudes enthusiasm about the humble beginnings of his career.
“I remember when I went in as maybe a 15-year-old on day release, I was buzzing that we had beans on toast for lunch. I couldn’t believe that they served us lunch, even at that age. As I moved up through the age groups, all of a sudden, we had one chef come in, then we had two and then we were having a buffet, with incredible food, for lunch. They are small things but I saw them first hand.
“It was also similar with the staff they brought in. People like Chris Haslam, Neil Greig - I loved those guys. You don’t realise it and I didn’t realise it until now when I’m 25 and I’ve been to a few different clubs how good they actually are. I probably took them for granted. I thought every club had their own Chris or Tom Perryman, or whoever else in the medical team. At times they were tough on me but they are so, so good at their jobs.
“I was never one to have a bad attitude or to sack things off but, in my mind, I asked: 'Surely that’s not needed?' But now I see it. It would just be little things, like making sure your hydration was good, making sure you were doing prehab, your cooldowns. One thing Neil used to say was that one cooldown won’t prevent an injury but a thousand will.
“In the second year of my scholarship, Jon De Souza, Ose Aibangee and a whole new regime came in to the Academy and that’s when you really saw a change. It went up a notch and you felt you were then at a proper, top club.
“Even things like introducing the STATSports vests, hydration, testing in pre-season and regular tests throughout the season to make sure you were where you needed to be, checking for muscle defects after games. All of these things came in, as well as a whole different way of playing, where it was a passing-based build-up system.”
In April 2012, Charlie signed a one-year Development Squad contract and, after playing a starring role in their 2012/13 campaign, was handed his first team debut by Uwe Rosler in a game away at Carlisle 11 months later, though his place in the squad was only secured after an injury to Harry Forrester, who he has since played with at fellow USL outfit Orange County. “I said to him recently: 'H, mate, I’ve got to thank you. First of all, I need the money you owe me for cleaning your boots and second, I appreciate you being injured that day!'”
At the end of a fruitful few months – playing in a Reserve Team that included now-established EFL players such as Jake Reeves and Luke Norris - Charlie signed a two-year extension at Griffin Park. Many fans harboured hope he would be the pièce de resistance of the improving youth system at the club, with his mazy runs, enterprise and left foot a sight to behold.
By this point, he’d evolved from a left-back into a player confident playing further forward on the left wing or in the No 10 position, well-versed in what was expected of him, with the Development Squad adopting the first team model. But being given the freedom to do so had its drawbacks.
“I look back now and think I should’ve been a bit more versatile,” he continued.
“I was very stubborn and I wanted to be this pretty, flair type player that likes a touch and has good quality on the ball. I didn’t think defending was beneath me, but I thought it was better to save my energy for when I got on the ball. To play in Uwe’s system, though, you had to do both sides. I thought to myself that I just had to be so good in the games that he saw that there was no way he couldn’t put me in a squad. That was the wrong mindset, to be honest. There are only two or three players in the world that sack off their defending.
“Uwe made me grow up a lot. There was a pre-season where we went to Germany and we would do cycling before breakfast, do a session after breakfast, then rest, lunch and then do another session in the evening. There were times where the gaffer would be getting onto me and I’d think he was being harsh, but I look back on it and he was probably trying to test me, trying to toughen me up and I did really well that pre-season.
“Thankfully my head was in the right place; other lads might not have taken it so well. I had a real good year in the development squad and he would involve me in sessions, especially the ones leading up to the FA Cup game against Chelsea home and away. He would use me in the second 11, who would mimic Chelsea and he’d have me playing the Juan Mata role, which was pretty cool.
“Later in Uwe’s time at the club, before he went to Wigan, I wasn’t really near the first team. In my mind, I should’ve been on the bench and possibly making appearances, but when Mark Warburton came in, he was the one who said I was in the first team and that he wanted me with them every day. That was the real step that gave me a lot of confidence. The squad we had that year we got promoted to the Championship was unbelievable. Although I didn’t play that much, I was still there day in, day out and I’m sure I made a small contribution to the team having the success they had.”
With chances looking limited as Brentford returned to the second tier for the first time since 1992/93, Charlie, along with Josh Clarke, joined League Two club Stevenage on a month’s loan in October 2014, a deal which was later extended until Christmas. Those 11 games in Graham Westley’s side were, effectively, his first tangible experiences of professional football but, nonetheless, during that period, his talent shone through sufficiently for an unexpected proposition to arise.
He said: “At that time, James O’Connor was friends with my agent Clive Clarke. James had a real good career in England, but towards the end, he went and played for Orlando City. It’s different out here because clubs don’t really have much history so they just pop up here, there and everywhere, franchises move and it’s whoever has the money to pay for a franchise. Louisville City bought the Orlando City USL franchise, because Orlando were going to the MLS and he was going to be the gaffer.
“He proposed coming out and, at the time, I wasn’t too sure. The chances at Brentford were limited but I was maybe still thinking I could break into the First Team or go to a League One team. As my time at Stevenage progressed, it came to Christmas time and James said to me: 'If you come over here, you’ll be top dog and you’ll be one of our main players. It’s growing massively. You’ll have a big influence in the city.'
“He turned my head a little bit because I got disillusioned with lower league football as, although I was doing well, I wouldn’t say I was enjoying the games too much. I would go from Brentford, where we’d play really good football and training was so, so enjoyable, to playing lower league football where it wasn’t like that. It was very direct and a percentage-based game of playing in the opposition’s half as much as possible with or without the ball. I was playing wide and wasn’t getting as much of the ball as I would in a reserve team game or playing for Brentford and that disillusioned me.
“I had offers in the Football League but I thought I’d give it a go. I was always smaller and very technical and I felt that going abroad where the style is a little bit slower. In America they don’t really have an identity, it’s a mixture of everything. You have some really athletic guys but then you have a big Hispanic influence from Mexico, Central and South America, so it’s very different to England and it’s not as physical and not as fast-paced. I went there with James and had a really good time.
“It was the first time in my career I experienced proper injuries; I suffered a bad hamstring strain and was out for a little bit. I signed a two-year contract there initially and then towards the end of the year I was playing, coming back from a hammy so I’d be out again. It was tough for me towards the end. At the end of the year, James and I sat down and I said I thought it was best that I went somewhere else. I went to trial for a couple of clubs in the MLS in Chicago Fire and Colorado Rapids but things didn’t work out there as planned for a few reasons.”
Then came an unexpected return to Hertfordshire. Having been without a club for a number of months, former Brentford youth team coach Darren Sarll – who had succeeded Teddy Sheringham as Stevenage boss after an ill-fated spell at Broadhall Way – handed him a short-term contract after training with the club to maintain his fitness.
As planned, Charlie returned to the US at the end of the season and, as a result of a trial with MLS club Real Salt Lake, signed for their second team, Real Monarchs. He had his sights set on a first shot at the American top flight equivalent, but as he explained, the league rules narrowed such a possibility.
“They didn’t want to dish out a foreign spot for a lad who would be on the fringes. The foreign players in the MLS are the ones who get paid the big bucks and the ones you’ll see week in, week out. You are only allowed seven foreign spots, so they like to keep one or two open if there’s a chance of a bigger signing coming in. It was in the same league Louisville were in but it was a great experience because we were playing with the MLS players every day.
“I saw some really good players there and did some pre-seasons with the first team and made some really great friendships. Different players to England, players that probably wouldn’t be able to play in England. I played with a lad called Joao Plata – a 5’2” Ecuadorian. I looked at him and thought that if he was growing up in the system, unless he was at a top Premier League club, I couldn’t see him breaking through. With the upbringing I had, I couldn’t see it, because though he’s a top, top player, he’s just not at all what you’d expect from an English player.”
It was during his two-and-a-half years with the Monarchs that Charlie enjoyed his most successful period to date. Having joined midway through the 2016 season he initially played a bit-part role at the Utah-based club, before making 57 appearances over the course of the next two years, scoring seven goals as they reached the Western Conference quarter-finals in both 2017 and 2018.
The aforementioned spell with Orange County was short-lived and thus he embarked on the next chapter of his intriguing career when he was enticed back to Europe by Austrian third tier side FC Pinzgau Saalfelden last summer, a club who had recently been taken over by American investors.
But no more than six months into a lucrative three-year contract, Charlie’s deal was cancelled due to a cost-cutting exercise at the club, facilitating another move across the Atlantic to his current location on the Pacific Coast, two hours south of Los Angeles and 45 minutes’ drive from the Mexican border city of Tijuana.
Once he knew Donovan was interested in bringing him to San Diego, he grabbed the opportunity with both hands.
“These guys are so, so good,” he added. “It’s like being at an MLS club. Of course, having someone like him as your coach is unbelievable. We also get so much publicity. We had our first pre-season game against FC Dallas and we have quite a big fanbase here, which is good. The premium season ticket holders came and watched this game, maybe 500-600 just at our training ground.
“After the game we met the fans and they were literally surrounding Landon. A few of them were coming up to us, but it’s like Lionel Messi’s walking down the street. To us he’s just a normal geezer and our coach, but to people out here, he’s so, so much more. He’s done so much for this country.”
Before the season was suspended due to the worldwide Covid-19 outbreak, Charlie wrote himself into the club’s history books when he scored San Diego’s first competitive goal in a 1-1 draw with Las Vegas Lights FC and is no doubt an important component in the make-up of the squad.
Now, as challenging as it appears to be for foreign players to make the step up from the USL to the MLS, does a London-born lad in his mid-20s still believe he can make it at the top of the American game?
“Of course that’s the aim. The goal is, of course, to do well and then hopefully someone picks you up but it’s tough for the foreign players because you pick up a foreign spot. Someone like me, for example, I go to RSL and there was a time I thought I was going to be playing week in, week out in the first team. But because you are a foreigner, they don’t want to waste a foreign spot on someone who’s going to only be on $60,000-$70,000.
“They’d rather use a foreign spot on Albert Rusnak who is on $2 million or a big guy from Spain or Argentina who is on a load of money. It’s tough, especially for a guy like me who hasn’t established themselves in Europe, for them to say 'This is the guy we want', who is also going to sell shirts.
“I’ve seen the quality of the MLS and, don’t get me wrong it’s a top level, but am I good enough to play in the MLS? 100 per cent. Sometimes it doesn’t really come down to that and that’s where the lack of promotion and relegation doesn’t help because you aren’t forced to put the best team out every week. There’s such a discrepancy in the salaries. If you are paying a guy $500,000 a year and he’s a designated player, the coach has so much pressure to play this guy. They aren’t going to play the $60,000 a year player over him. I haven’t really seen it. It’s kind of the same anywhere, but I don’t think there’s as much of a discrepancy in the wages.”
Charlie Adams’ stateside career has already taken in four cities and the hope of success with his current employer is only just beginning.