COLUMBIA—During Rock Bridge's quest for a state championship, soccer coach Alex Nichols said he's trying to foster a sense of team unity, rather than drawing attention to any one player.
“We don’t rely on a freshman for all that productivity; we rely on all of them to do their own thing,” Nichols said. “Everybody including him has to continue doing a better job every single game to keep going in the playoffs.”
It's easy to see why Tyler, a freshman striker, has recently been at the center of his team's attention. He scored a team-high 21 goals for the Bruins during the regular season and possesses a unique level of talent for his age.
Tyler said on the field he just tries to get in position to score, then reacts to the situation. He thinks any of his teammates could score like he does, but it just happened to be him this season.
Defender Nick White praised Tyler for his excellent dribbling techniques.
“He has non-American footwork,” White said. “I know players who have grown up in the states that are going D-1 and they have no idea how to do stuff like that.”
Tyler, who has been playing soccer since he was 4 years old, is originally from Liberia. He and his younger brother came to the United States in 2004.
Nichols did not deny that he had been impressed by Tyler’s play.
“He is better than most freshmen you will see,” Nichols said. “He has more skill.”
With a 16th birthday in December, Tyler is also older than most freshmen.
But Nichols also said that Tyler had not scored in four games, and that the team is led by seniors.
“He needs to get used to the playoff atmosphere,” he said. “He’s playing against guys who are a couple of years older than him, so his skill is not setting him apart right now.”
Others, however, think differently.
Senior midfielder Patrick Bromstedt said he has embraced the idea of Tyler getting attention for his contributions on the field.
"I like it because he is a freshman,” Bromstedt said. “He is the best freshman in the state, and he is our freshman.”
Tyler is the only freshman on the varsity team and has been there the entire season. The team has faced several tough opponents, including Marquette University High School from Milwaukee, who beat the Bruins earlier this season.
When asked about his success and whether the team relies on him, he deflected attention away from himself and toward his senior teammates.
“I just want to win it for them right now,” Tyler said.
Nichols and assistant coach David Graham both expressed concern that the recent media attention on Tyler was taking away from the achievements of his senior players.
Yet some of those seniors are quick to compliment Tyler's precocious skill.
“There is a move that he can do that nobody else can do, even though they know how to do it,” White said.
White described the move, a stationary juggling trick that combines a spin and a rainbow (when a player kicks the ball over his or her own head).
He joked that Tyler learns his moves by playing the soccer video game "FIFA Street".
With the pressure increasing, all the attention Tyler has been drawing might be welcome if the Bruins can win three more games and bring home their first state soccer title in the school's history.