U.S. men’s national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann was looking for a game-changer.
Amid a tense and spirited World Cup clash Sunday against Portugal, with the best American soccer talent at his disposal, Klinsmann turned to a 20-year-old from Seattle, DeAndre Yedlin.
It was a decision that raised a few eyebrows, placing such responsibility on someone with so little experience, but the move was validated when Yedlin helped set up a go-ahead goal by Sounders FC teammate Clint Dempsey — even if the lead was relinquished in the dying seconds.
“It’s fun to watch that kid,” Klinsmann said of Yedlin.
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And that was after just 18 minutes off the bench. Try to find a word to describe Yedlin’s past 18 months.
The list of accolades following his homegrown signing in January 2013 would seemingly be far-fetched for a Hollywood script. Yedlin led the Sounders in minutes played his first MLS season, became the youngest in team history to score a goal and record an assist and was the first rookie to play in an All-Star Game since 2005.
Yedlin’s national team career was even more accelerated, getting his first training camp call-up in January, making his international debut in February and ultimately earning a place on the 23-man World Cup roster in May.
Yedlin is a success story, the first homegrown player (signed directly out of a club’s academy program) to make a U.S. World Cup team. He’s from a soccer community that has helped raise the local sensation. But he also is a guidebook for the next generation of American soccer talent on how to make it to the highest level.
And, yes, it has been incredibly fun to watch, especially his thrilling World Cup debut.
Said Sounders FC coach Sigi Schmid: “You’re 20 years old, you’re at a World Cup, you get into your first game and you’re involved in a go-ahead goal. I don’t know if life gets much better.”
Schmid can easily recall the first time he saw something in Yedlin.
In 2010 Yedlin played for the Sounders’ U-17/18 academy team while he was still at O’Dea High School. Schmid was in Los Angeles and had a chance to watch the organization’s up-and-comers play their second of two games over a busy weekend.
In a game against the Chivas USA academy, Schmid noticed Seattle’s tireless right back racing up and down the field as others began to cramp in the California heat. Yedlin played all 90 minutes just a day after playing 90 against the Los Angeles Galaxy academy, a grueling back-to-back assignment shared by just one other field player.
“He didn’t give in,” Schmid said. “He just kept plugging away and kept playing, and I’m going like, ‘Hmm, I’ve got to watch this guy.’ ”
Truth is coaches have never needed long to be wowed.
Yedlin grew up in Lake Forest Park with his grandparents, Ira Yedlin and Vicki Walton, who became his legal guardians around his first birthday. He played youth soccer for Shorelake Soccer Club, Emerald City FC, Northwest Nationals and Crossfire Premier Soccer Club.
Sean Henderson can remember watching an 11-year-old Yedlin buzzing around the field like he does today.
“You could tell immediately he was going to be a very good player, just because of his physical attributes,” said Henderson, who coached Yedlin with Crossfire and in the Sounders FC academy.
Darren Sawatzky was one of Yedlin’s coaches in the Olympic Development Program, then later with the Sounders FC U-23 team in the Premier Development League.
“You knew from Day 1 that kid was special,” Sawatzky said. “You absolutely knew that there was potential. But without his character, there is no way he would have made it.”
Yedlin’s world-class speed and agility are what most often catch the eye, but a humble makeup is the trait that lingers with those who coached him.
Pat Raney, who retired in 2013 after 42 years of coaching at O’Dea, remembers having a star without a me-first attitude.
“He was our team leader for two years — well-liked, very coachable, nice kid,” Raney said. “He didn’t wear his ability and dominate everybody with it. He was just a normal player who used his skills to help everybody else.”
A drive to get better is what has impressed Caleb Porter, coach of the Portland Timbers who coached Yedlin for his two years at the University of Akron.
Porter inherited a quality player but there were still a few things the coach needed to see before he felt Yedlin would realize his full potential: being a more consistent defender and being tougher mentally.
From afar, Porter has perhaps taken the most pride in seeing Yedlin address those areas since graduating to the pros.
Yet amid the lofty praise from all the coaches, Yedlin’s ascent has been far quicker than any would have imagined.
“That’s not to take anything away from the player,” Porter said. “I think if you look at how quickly he’s jumped from college to a starting player in MLS to now a player who is playing in a World Cup, I don’t think anyone could’ve predicted that, including himself.”
Showing the path
Former U.S. international player Taylor Twellman remembers watching the 1994 and 1998 World Cups, hoping, like so many other kids, he would follow in those footsteps.
The path to the highest level, though, wasn’t quite clear.
Was it best to be play club soccer? How important was playing in high school and college? Was it best to go to Europe after? What about MLS?
How long will it take?
Those questions have answers now. Homegrown prospects and other young hopefuls have a very clear example to follow in Yedlin — not just in Seattle, but across the country.
“There is that carrot at the end,” said Twellman, an ESPN analyst, on a conference call. “There is that golden ticket, so to speak, of saying, ‘Listen, that could be me in the next four, eight years.’ ”
With that kind of mentality growing within American youth development, Sawatzky said he expects an influx of younger players on the U.S. national team in the next cycles, following the lead of Yedlin and John Anthony Brooks, 21, and Julian Green, 19.
More money is going into MLS academies, as well, and youth teams are playing in tournaments around the world, exposing players to a higher level of play at an earlier age.
“I don’t think that kids realize how close they are right now to being able to make that next step,” Henderson said. “It’s not necessarily the next step to the World Cup team, but the next step to the pro team, to a reserve team, to a pro roster. I think DeAndre has opened a lot of doors for a lot of young kids.”
Seeing the path is one thing. Yedlin has also showed how to walk it.
Sawatzky has watched a number of players come to the Sounders FC U-23 team and go through the motions in a lower-tier league ahead of the college season. Maybe they will play a couple games, go to a couple practices, and then leave.
Yedlin, while perhaps the best player on the U-23 team in 2012, made every practice and played every minute en route to the national semifinals.
“That’s a mentality piece that a lot of these young guys need to learn,” Sawatzky said. “DeAndre makes it easy. It’s very easy to look at guys and say, ‘Hey, if you want to make it, if you want to make it as a pro, watch the path of DeAndre.’ ”
It’s an almost unfathomable path that has led Yedlin to a World Cup before his 21st birthday.
“If you’re a homegrown player,” Schmid said, “and that doesn’t motivate you to put in work every day to try and achieve the same thing or get close to that, I don’t know what will.”
Joshua Mayers: 206-464-3184 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @joshuamayers.