The email arrived on a Monday morning in May.
DeAndre Yedlin was not yet a star. He had never appeared on Good Morning America, and his name hadn’t made headlines in London or Rome. He wasn’t an international commodity or the latest, fastest-rising version of the Great American Hope. If you were an MLS diehard, you probably thought he had potential. If you were a casual soccer fan, you likely didn’t know his name.
But there the email was, displayed on his phone that morning, just after the Seattle Sounders had finished practice. It was an invitation from U.S. Soccer to join Jürgen Klinsmann in Palo Alto. The 30-man pre–World Cup roster had been announced. Yedlin was in.
“By the time I picked up my phone,” he says, “I was already getting texts and tweets and everything. It was a little surreal.” He’s telling this story just outside the locker room where it all happened, sitting on a bench in a Seattle suburb on a warm July afternoon. It has been, he admits, a crazy summer. Yedlin spent a couple weeks in California, then a couple more down in Brazil. He helped set up a goal against Portugal. He marked and contained Belgium’s Eden Hazard, who had just come off a season with Chelsea in which he won England’s Young Player of the Year award. Yedlin listened as his talent was first acknowledged, then celebrated, and now, finally, picked apart. He considered homes in Italy, in England, and in countries with deep-pocketed clubs in between. And along the way, he made a great number of American soccer fans very, very excited. Maybe Yedlin, only 21 years old, is the one who will take the mantle from Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey. Maybe he marks the first swell in a storm of rising talent, someone whose emergence suggests that investments by MLS and U.S. Soccer have paid off.
And it’s not only what Yedlin might accomplish on his own. It’s also what he might represent. For at least a decade, every World Cup cycle has brought up the same hypothetical among casual fans: What would happen if the United States’s best athletes played soccer? If you could take an NBA point guard or an NFL corner and turn back time and put a soccer ball at his feet, what would happen? With Yedlin, a bottle rocket of right-flank speed and power, we’re now starting to find out.
Yet for Yedlin and those around him, this isn’t about a sea change or a grand athletic experiment. It’s about a 21-year-old who until quite recently was fairly anonymous, and about how he’s dealing with newfound fame and trying to figure out where he belongs in global soccer.
Even before the 30-man roster was announced, Yedlin thought he might have a chance. He’d played only two games for the U.S. men’s senior team, but, he says, “It was clear Jürgen had some confidence in me. I thought it was about 50-50 that I would get the call, even if it was only for me to go through the experience so I would know what to expect in 2018.”
Among fans and reporters, Yedlin was widely assumed to be one of the roster’s most obvious cuts. Few media projections included him on the final roster. The blog Footy America called his exclusion a “no brainer” and gave him a 1 percent chance to make the squad. “We’d been thinking maybe he had a small chance to be that 22nd or 23rd guy on the team,” says Dylan Walton-Yedlin, DeAndre’s uncle, who introduced him to soccer. “I mean, it depends on the philosophy. If you need all 23 guys to be able to contribute, maybe he’s not one of the 23. But if you decide, ‘Well, we’re not going to use our 23rd player anyway, and we might as well give a young guy some experience,’ then maybe you look at DeAndre and think, ‘Let’s give him a shot.’”
On the first day of camp, Klinsmann pulled aside Yedlin, John Brooks, and Julian Green, the three youngest players on the team. “We didn’t bring you here as practice players,” Yedlin remembers Klinsmann saying. “Why would we bring you to this camp just so you could get ready for next time? That would be stupid. We expect you to compete right now.”
Over the next 10 days, Yedlin made his case. At right back, Fabian Johnson had begun to cement his position in the starting 11. Along with Timmy Chandler, Michael Parkhurst, and Sounders teammate Brad Evans, Yedlin was competing to be Johnson’s backup. Chandler had top-flight experience in the German Bundesliga; Parkhurst offered defending and versatility; and Evans could be technically sound in the attack. Yedlin’s greatest asset had less nuance. Says Dempsey: “The first thing you notice is his athleticism.” So while the others were more likely to choose the correct pass or the proper positioning, Yedlin offered something simpler but just as vital: If he had to run along the touchline with Portugal’s Nani or Belgium’s Hazard, for at least a few moments, Yedlin would look like he belonged.
He felt good about his performance, but just as meaningfully, he felt the veterans were treating him as one of their own. “It was important that no one made excuses for me,” he says. “In that kind of camp, if they expect anything from you, they’re going to let you hear it any time you mess up. That’s how they were with me. That was kind of a message that everyone there expected me to be ready to play right now.”
We all saw what happened next. Yedlin made the team. He stayed on the bench for the U.S. opener against Ghana, watching as his friend Brooks headed in an 86th-minute goal to give the United States a late win. Six days later against Portugal, Yedlin emerged from the bench in the 72nd minute and roared immediately down the right flank. He’d never been on this stage, or faced this talent, but from the moment he entered the game as a midfielder, Yedlin repaid Klinsmann’s faith. What he may have lacked in decision-making and footwork, he made up for with punt-returner speed. In the 81st minute, he burst past Miguel Veloso to the touchline, stretching Portugal’s defense before delivering a ball that Michael Bradley collected inside the 18-yard box. Bradley hit Graham Zusi, and Zusi hit Dempsey, who chested the ball into the net for a go-ahead score. Against Germany, he entered again as a midfielder and again he transformed the U.S. attack from the moment he stepped onto the field. And against Belgium, Yedlin was sitting on the bench talking to Chandler in the 26th minute just moments before Johnson went down and Yedlin was thrown in at right back, holding his own for nearly 90 minutes of play.
By the time Belgium closed out its round-of-16 win over the United States, fans around Europe were clamoring for their teams to buy Yedlin’s rights from MLS. And now, little more than a month since the Belgium game, reports suggest a deal to transfer Yedlin to Tottenham is nearly done.
If this all seems a little fast, that’s because it is. In fact, this growing obsession with Yedlin has made Klinsmann uneasy. Klinsmann declined to comment for this story, and U.S. Soccer spokesman Michael Kammarman relayed the coach’s reservations. “He doesn’t like the way the media hypes up these young players,” Kammarman says. “He thinks it’s even worse here than it is in other countries. The media is always looking for a young star, and that kind of attention can be really bad for some of these players. Just look at the guys who have dealt with it in the past.”
He has a point. The last 20 years of American soccer tell a story of evolution and progress, but also, when you look closely, a story of overblown hype. There was Freddy Adu, of course, the postpubescent professional who dated a starlet, dazzled with his passes, and did a photo shoot with an adoring Pelé. He was supposed to become our Maradona, our Ronaldo, our transcendent, global star — finally. Only he never grew enough to win possession, and he never learned how to defend, and reports say he never really learned how to train, and he bounced from MLS to Portugal to Turkey and back to MLS. Now 25, Adu spent this summer trying, and failing, to catch on with Stabaek in Norway (managed by former USMNT coach Bob Bradley), then trying, and failing, to do the same with AZ Alkmaar in the Netherlands (home to American striker Aron Jóhannsson). He’s now in Serbia, on a contract with Jagodina, hoping to keep his career afloat.
But it goes beyond Adu. Before him there was Jamar Beasley, the Indiana teenager who jumped straight from high school to MLS. “Ten years from now,” then–New England Revolution coach Thomas Rongen told Sports Illustrated in 1998, “there will be a specific style of play associated with the U.S. national team, and he epitomizes that style.” Ten years came and went. Jamar’s younger brother, DaMarcus, became a long-standing fixture on the national team. The U.S. had success, but still no signature style, and the man who was supposed to craft that style, Jamar, drank his way out of MLS and never earned a single call-up to the national team.1
You can even look at the last World Cup cycle. Juan Agudelo scored in a friendly against South Africa during his USMNT debut at age 17, just months after the 2010 World Cup. His goal sparked proclamations that Agudelo would soon supplant Jozy Altidore as the leader of the American attack. After a spectacular MLS goal the next spring, the Big Lead gushed: “Throw out the caveats. You’re watching the future, the present and, potentially, a new era of American soccer.” Four years later, Agudelo is still young, still brimming with potential, but still stuck behind other strikers and on the national team’s fringe. Even Brek Shea, the former FC Dallas winger who transferred to the English Premier League’s Stoke City, was first hyped and then humbled. Now, he’s searching for the right situation overseas.
So yes, if recent history is any indication, perhaps we should all calm the hell down about DeAndre Yedlin. He may be headed to a top club in Europe, but wherever he ends up, earning playing time will be tough.2 Even still, Yedlin’s growth says something about how far the United States’s soccer culture has come, as well as how far it has left to go.
Yedlin’s life tells a particularly American story. He was born in Seattle in 1993, a child with Native American, African American, Dominican, and Latvian roots. His father was absent, and his mother was 19 when she had him, so she allowed DeAndre to be raised by her father and stepmother, Ira Yedlin and Vicki Walton.
DeAndre Yedlin played baseball, basketball, and football as a kid, but his first experience with organized sports came on a soccer field. No matter what sport Yedlin tried, he dominated. He was smaller than most kids, but faster than them all. On the basketball court, he could dribble past everyone for an open layup; on the baseball diamond, he would embarrass opposing fielders in rundowns, leaving them flailing at him with their gloves as he zipped by on his way to the next base.
Today, it’s easy to look at Yedlin — 5-foot-8 and thick-chested, and able to outrun the best soccer players in the world — and imagine him on an NFL roster. He could be Darren Sproles, leaving linebackers grasping at air, or he could be Tyrann Mathieu, another Mohawked terror with a knack for separating offensive players from the ball. In college, Yedlin was clocked at about 4.2 seconds in the 40-yard dash. And, says his college coach, Caleb Porter, “It’s about a lot more than top-end speed. It’s his burst, his ability to go from a jog to a sprint before you even realize what has just happened.” His athleticism, Porter says, “is truly world-class.”
It would have made sense for Yedlin to play football. He inhabits a cornerback’s body in an age when cornerbacks can command $70 million contracts. He grew up in a city that became home to Richard Sherman, one of the best and highest-paid corners in the NFL. Almost as soon as a young athlete hits puberty, the American sports industry offers him incentives to star in football, basketball, or baseball. If you’re a physically gifted American teenager with American friends consuming American media, chances are you don’t consider soccer your best option for a career in sports.
By the time Yedlin reached adolescence, however, the bias in favor of other sports was beginning to weaken. When Yedlin was 9 years old, Brian McBride and Donovan led the United States to the quarterfinals of the World Cup and conversations about soccer began to enter the mainstream. As Yedlin grew, so did soccer’s popularity. The foreign leagues hadn’t yet become staples on basic cable, but MLS was expanding and Donovan had become a legitimate star. Yedlin, if he chose soccer over football or basketball, could dream of one day competing in the World Cup. He could find flesh-and-blood examples of success. Players of previous generations had to imagine themselves as American soccer’s early adopters.
Still, when he arrived at O’Dea High School as a freshman, Yedlin did the same thing as damn near every other boy in his class. He tried out for football. But at 5-foot-1 and weighing just barely 100 pounds, Yedlin looked like an impostor in his pads. “You’ve got 90 kids trying out for the team,” remembers Jim Walker, then the freshman football coach and now the school’s principal. “So as coaches, we’re keeping our eye on the big guys, the ones who actually look like football players. But after the third or fourth day, you realize there’s this one kid in the wide receiver line who is running past everyone else on every single drill. He’s tiny, but he can cut; he can run. He’s just an athlete.”
Yedlin played a little receiver and a little running back. From time to time, he would outrun the other 21 players on his way to the end zone. But also, from time to time he would run routes across the middle. Those were less pretty. “I got lit up,” Yedlin says. “More than once. Every team has that one kid the other team looks at and thinks they can just crush. I was that kid.” At the time, Yedlin had already fallen in love with soccer. He’d begun playing with competitive club teams, and he’d been invited to a youth national team camp. But it’s fun for him to look back and imagine the other possibilities. “With the body I have now,” he says, “yeah, I could play football. But it was completely different back then. If I had grown earlier, maybe I would have stuck with football. Maybe. But I was just too small. I was quick, I could outrun people, but if anyone ever got a hand on me, I was done.”
In 2008, the year Yedlin turned 15, MLS announced the creation of a “Homegrown Player” rule. The rule allowed teams to sign players who had developed in their own academies — no need to enter the MLS draft. The rationale was simple: By giving clubs the ability to sign players from their academies, MLS would encourage them to improve those academies. Better MLS academies would mean better opportunities for young players to develop. Eventually, those players would improve the quality of play leaguewide.
Two years later, Yedlin joined the Sounders’ youth academy. This, to him, seemed like the beginning of life as a professional. They trained at the Sounders’ facility; after practice they had access to all the Gatorades and protein shakes they could drink; and on weekends, they traveled the country, playing academy teams from other MLS clubs. It looked something like the soccer development model that has long been in place overseas and has been slow to develop in the States. Training was detached from schools and put in the hands of clubs, which taught talented players how to be professionals and to prioritize soccer above everything. Yedlin loved it. And yet, he continued to play for his school. Once, he played an out-of-state game with the Sounders on a Friday, then flew home to Seattle the next morning in time to drive from the airport to an O’Dea game he could enter at halftime.
Then, unlike many other young American players — Agudelo, Altidore, and Shea among them — Yedlin went to college. He enrolled at the University of Akron, more than 2,000 miles from home. There, he played for Caleb Porter, a coach who had no pretensions about the sanctity of college sports. “I was preparing my players to be pros,” Porter says. “The way I ran my program was similar to the way John Calipari runs his [basketball] program at Kentucky. They came to play for me because they wanted to be pros and because I let them know that I wanted them to be pros, too. Everything we did — from the way we trained to the schedule we kept to our nutrition and everything else — everything was about winning, yes, but also about getting these guys ready for life as professional soccer players.”3 After two years at Akron, Yedlin signed a contract to go home to Seattle, bypassing the MLS draft through the Homegrown Player rule. In March of last year, at 19 years old, Yedlin made his professional debut.
In all of this, Yedlin’s athletic growth mirrored the typical American experience — soccer as a young child, Little League baseball as an older boy, football as a postadolescent, single-sport specialization in high school, then college, then the pros. But along the way, he took advantage of advancements in American soccer’s infrastructure — playing for elite youth clubs, then the Sounders’ academy, then going back to the club that trained him through a rule designed for cases like his.
And if some of Yedlin’s success can be attributed to the growth of soccer culture in America, some of his shortcomings can be attributed to that same culture’s flaws. In the past, an athlete of Yedlin’s caliber would have been less likely to focus on soccer. But here’s the short version of any Yedlin scouting report: Strengths: Athleticism, fearlessness. Weaknesses: Everything else. Yedlin didn’t even really begin sharpening his technique until he arrived at Akron. “He was always a freak athlete,” says his uncle Dylan. “Akron was where he really learned the game.”
Americans — especially during the World Cup — like to wonder what would happen if our greatest athletes played soccer. But as with any other sport, speed and agility can only take a player so far. Yedlin draws criticism for some of his decision-making. He likes to go forward, sometimes at the expense of his defensive responsibilities. “It’s such a fine line with him,” says Sounders goalkeeper and USMNT veteran Marcus Hahnemann. “You want to overlap and get forward, but wait a minute — you’re still a defender. You still have those responsibilities. You still have to find that balance. It’s a complicated thing.”
Some have suggested that Yedlin move full time to midfield. But his skill set, built on quickness and speed more than creativity and technique, would have a defined ceiling if he moved farther upfield. “Could he be a winger? Yeah, sure,” Porter says. “But when you look at the top wingers, he’s never going to be more technical and more clever off the dribble and in his combination and movement than those guys are. He just doesn’t have that. But at right back? With his athleticism, bombing forward, going box to box? Right now, this is just the tip of the iceberg. I mean, he obviously already looks like the right back of the future for our national team. Beyond that, he can be a Champions League right back. He can be that good.” The difference, says Porter: At age 21, it may already be too late to master the finer points of midfield technique. But defending? “Yeah,” Porter says, “that can definitely be taught.”
Soon, it seems, a foreign coach will have that responsibility. As of this morning, Yedlin’s future remains uncertain. In recent weeks, he has been linked to clubs ranging from Liverpool to Roma to Napoli. The latest reports have him finishing the season in Seattle, then going to Tottenham, where he would compete for playing time with English international Kyle Walker. Yedlin and the Sounders have been quiet on the specifics, but all involved acknowledge that a transfer may be finalized soon.
“He’s just ready to get it over with,” Dylan told me yesterday afternoon. “There are only so many ways he can answer the questions without really answering the questions. He’s had people come up to him and say things like, ‘Good luck at Roma.’ What’s he supposed to say? If he says, ‘Thanks,’ then it’s like, ‘Oh, my god, that means he’s going to Roma.’ If he says, ‘Well, I still don’t know; we’ll see’ — well, that just gets a little old.”
And yet it’s crazy, Yedlin admits, to even be having this conversation so early in his career. “It all happened so fast,” he says. “I can’t pretend it hasn’t been surreal.”
It is crazy, for example, for him to think back to another afternoon in May, during the national team training camp in Palo Alto. After practice one day, Yedlin walked into the clubhouse and saw a player crying on one side of the room. On the other side, another player was telling teammates good-bye. Maybe they got in a fight, Yedlin thought. Maybe there had been a disciplinary issue, and now both players were going home. But minutes later, another player walked in, also fighting back tears. Now it was clear: Klinsmann was starting to make cuts. Then another walked in and announced he was heading home. After him, another. One by one, they went around the room, giving hugs and saying good-bye. Yedlin started counting. Six players had been cut. One more, and the roster would be whittled from 30 to the final 23.
In walked Landon Donovan. He told his teammates what the rest of the world would soon find out: For the first time in more than a decade, he wouldn’t be playing in the World Cup. Yedlin was stunned, but in his head, he’d done the math. Seven players gone. Twenty-three left.
He called Dylan, his uncle, the man who’d taught him how to play.
“Oh my god,” DeAndre said.
“Holy shit,” said Dylan.
It dawned on Yedlin: His life would never be the same.