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In the 87th minute of the United States’ U-20 World Cup opener last week against Spain, DeAndre Yedlin was sprinting madly toward his own net, chasing down a blaze of blue named Gerard Deulofeu and knocking the ball away eight yards from goal before the Spanish forward could try for his third goal of the evening.

Sixty seconds later, Yedlin was on the opposite end of the field, cracking a shot 20 yards from Spain’s goal that went wide in what was ultimately a 4-1 loss in Turkey. But the effort from the Sounders FC defender was enough to elicit praise from commentator Taylor Twellman on ESPN’s broadcast.

“You have the feeling that Yedlin’s going to be around for a long, long time,” said Twellman, a former U.S. forward.

If that prediction holds true, Yedlin could look back on a national-team camp two and a half years ago as the catalyst for a career that has already blossomed surprisingly fast. Yedlin, who attended O’Dea High School, had just completed his first season with the Sounders Academy in December 2010 and was called up to his first national-team camp in four years.

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He was a relatively unheralded outside midfielder — certainly in the top tier of his age group, but not a standout on the national level. But the 5-foot-8, 150-pound player, whose speed is just as eye-catching as his hair, caught the eye of Caleb Porter, then the University of Akron coach and an assistant with the youth national squad.

“He just seemed very direct, athletic,” said Porter, now the Portland Timbers coach. “He looked like to me a prototypical outside back.”

From that point, Yedlin became a defender. Porter recruited him to Akron, the defending NCAA champion, to replace All-American Kofi Sarkodie at right back. He was named a freshman All-American by College Soccer News and earned first-team all-conference honors.

“Frankly, I don’t think we had any idea Yedlin would be as good as he was,” Porter said.

After two years with Akron and the Sounders Academy, he’s locked up starting spots with the Sounders and the U-20 team as a right back with a forward’s mindset.

“As a winger, he was probably a dime a dozen,” Porter said. “Shift just to an outside back, and all of the sudden, he’s special. You don’t see that kind of outside back that’s as athletic as him.”

Sounders assistant coach Ezra Hendrickson said he didn’t expect Yedlin’s transition to the professional level to happen so quickly. Yedlin still has weaknesses — one-on-one defending and off-the-ball marking, Hendrickson said — but not enough to keep him off the field.

“We were surprised that he was able to start right away,” Hendrickson said. “We thought it would take him maybe five, six games before we let him loose, but in preseason he just took the job.”

That experience, combined with his attacking tendency, is what Yedlin says attracted U-20 coach Tab Ramos ahead of this summer’s World Cup. Yedlin wasn’t called up until after the team’s qualifying games, but he played all 90 minutes of the World Cup opener.

The Americans have one game left in group play against Ghana on Thursday after tying France 1-1 on Monday and losing to Spain.

“There, it’s just go-go-go all the time,” Yedlin said of the U-20 team. “It kind of took me back to my Akron days, because that’s what it was like at Akron.”

More and more, that’s what it’s like for national squads in the U.S. On the senior team, the outside backs for most of its recent qualifiers were DaMarcus Beasley and the Sounders’ Brad Evans — both primarily wingers with their clubs. Yedlin fits that pressing defensive philosophy, Porter said, but added it’s much too early to assure he’ll make it at that level.

Yedlin has a striking example to follow in Evans, who played in the 2005 U-20 World Cup (for a U.S. team coached by Sigi Schmid) before ultimately carving out, at least for now, a spot on the senior team as a defender.

“For him, I think the transition was rather easy,” Evans said, “and I think we’ll both be the first ones to tell you we’re still learning that position.”

Depending on how well Yedlin continues to improve, it’s not far-fetched to imagine his path converging with Evans’ at the national-level in years to come, Hendrickson said.

“Who knows?” he said, smiling. “Maybe for the next few years we’ll see a battle between two guys on our team for the right back position on the national team.”

U-20 World Cup Group A standings
The U.S. needs a win, a France defeat and some help on goal-differential to be one of two teams to advance out of the group stage.
Team W L T Pts GD
Spain 2 0 0 6 +4
France 1 0 1 4 +2
U.S. 0 1 1 1 -3
Ghana 0 2 0 0 -3
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