The Seattle Sounders’ DeAndre Yedlin is the poster boy for a generation of players who have risen through the ranks of the U.S. academy system.
The quotation “Always Remember the Beginning” graces DeAndre Yedlin’s Twitter profile. For the breakout American star of the 2014 World Cup, it’s a daily reminder “to stay humble” as expectations for his career steadily rise. Though one might expect the attention to inflate Yedlin’s ego, the 21-year-old fullback believes humility to be a requisite component of success. “One thing I always remind myself of is that there are always younger players in better leagues doing better things than I’m doing right now,” Yedlin told Eight by Eight. “So if I’m not there, I need to get there.”
For a footballer trying to get there, there’s no greater showcase than the World Cup, and in Brazil, Yedlin impressed on world football’s biggest stage. Making three substitute appearances for Jürgen Klinsmann’s Yanks, the Seattle-born speedster injected confidence and pace into an often bunkered American team. In his final match against Belgium, Yedlin faced a chilling assignment: enter the match cold and mark Chelsea star Eden Hazard. “I just heard Jürgen say, ‘Get up, start moving a little bit—you’ve got to go in right now,’ ” Yedlin recalled. Despite the pressure, Yedlin seemed to have freon pulsing through his veins, stifling Hazard and sparking a listless American attack to life. “I didn’t have a lot of time to think about what was going on,” he explained. “I just had to go in, be confident, and shut down Hazard.”
Yedlin’s quiet, humble confidence isn’t masking a budding ego. Unlike other self-aggrandizing athletes, Yedlin doesn’t need to tell others that he’s good; he knows that he is. For his college coach Caleb Porter, it was Yedlin’s “fearlessness, mixed with a positive attitude, and a refreshing level of naïveté” that allowed him to leap from college to Major League Soccer to the World Cup before he could legally buy a drink. “I don’t think he thinks too much about the magnitude of the things that he’s doing,” said Porter. That might be the young player’s most useful quality.
But for football fans in the U.S. yearning for future World Cup glory, Yedlin has come to represent the first fruit of a reform program set in motion a decade ago to remake player development in the U.S. Seeking to redress a backwards youth system that prioritized winning trophies over creating professional players, MLS and U.S. Soccer both invested heavily to professionalize elite player development in the past decade. Yedlin’s youth career touched every component of those reforms, and if expectations are met, there will be more players like Yedlin flooding MLS sides and U.S. Soccer rosters ahead of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. With a move to Tottenham Hotspur FC scheduled in 2015, Yedlin has become the ideal poster boy for the Klinsmann regime, and if Klinsmann has his way, more young American talent will soon join Yedlin, parachuting into European stadiums and trying to take their game to “another level,” as Klinsmann demands.
Before DeAndre Yedlin’s 12th birthday, the budding footballer had already featured for a dizzying array of Seattle youth clubs, including the West Seattle Magic, Emerald City Football Club, and the Northwest Nationals Soccer Club. Some parents criticized Yedlin’s constant jersey swapping, but Dylan Walton-Yedlin, his uncle, contends that the family “just wanted to do what was best” for Yedlin’s development, and in Seattle’s competitive marketplace for youth football talent, they were able to seek out the best coaching and training environment. “People might have gotten the impression he was some kind of a mercenary,” recalled Walton-Yedlin. “I think he just needed to be challenged a little bit more.”
The youth football marketplace that Yedlin competed in emerged in the late 20th century as the sport exploded across the U.S. With more and more American parents shuttling their kids from pitch to pitch every weekend, top youth clubs grew like weeds to meet the growing demand for a sport that lacked infrastructure. In this competitive environment, clubs were forced to compete for top players, and local youth clubs grew into multimillion-dollar nonprofit organizations capable of paying technical directors six-figure salaries. As professional coaches replaced parent volunteers, the days of halftime orange slices were over for elite American players.
In Europe, clubs like Ajax Amsterdam and FC Barcelona finance their extensive academies with first-team revenues, and players participate for free, but in North America those costs often fall to parents who dole out wads of cash to pay for coaches, travel, field space, uniforms, and equipment. “I 100% agree we should make soccer free,” argued TSN commentator Jason de Vos, a former Canadian international and youth-club technical director in Toronto. “But getting there is a really, really difficult process.” De Vos’s view is shared by many: No one likes pay-to-play programs, but without them, football in the U.S. would be worse off.
In Seattle, Yedlin continued to hop from club to club, landing at Crossfire Premier Soccer Club, one of the Pacific Northwest’s top programs. “Crossfire was kind of that premier team that everybody in the state knew,” said Yedlin. “Everybody wanted to play for them.” As an attacking winger, Yedlin had pace and skill that propelled him onto state teams and into national team camps.
Yedlin’s ability to see a career in professional football would not have been possible if he had been born in the U.S. a decade earlier. “Growing up, I honestly wasn’t even thinking about playing college soccer,” recalled Ali Curtis, a former MLS player and senior director of player relations and competition for MLS, “It’s so different now.” The landscape began to shift with the 1994 World Cup and the birth of MLS in 1996, and elite player development got a jump start two years later when U.S. Soccer and Nike devised Project 2010, a plan to develop a generation of American talent capable of winning the 2010 World Cup. Nike’s initial investment financed the U.S. Soccer under-17 residential academy in Bradenton, Fla. in 1998, nurturing a cohort of players that included future national team stars Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, and Kyle Beckerman. For U.S. Soccer director of scouting Tony Lepore, Project 2010 provided a “thorough investigation of where we were at that time,” but the reform process had only just begun.
Just one residential academy could not produce a big enough player pool to challenge for a World Cup title, so U.S. Soccer launched the Development Academy in 2007, expanding the Bradenton model to the premier MLS youth teams and amateur youth clubs around the United States—like Yedlin’s Crossfire. According to Lepore, U.S. Soccer recognized that elite players and families “were stretched too thin,” playing too many games against poor competition. Studying the best developmental practices around the world, U.S. Soccer set in motion a philosophy that placed “development before results” and identified 63 youth clubs in major markets to join the Development Academy. “The idea was that one club develops a player,” said Lepore. “We wanted to empower the clubs.” While Project 2010 nurtured the growth of one team, the Development Academy targeted approximately 4,000 players. For de Vos, the thinking was simple: “It’s better to teach a man to fish than to give him a fish.”
As a high school player, Yedlin earned a spot on Crossfire’s Development Academy team, which competed against other Development Academy clubs from Northern California to the rainy climes of the Pacific Northwest. As a Development Academy club, Crossfire now had to train at least four times a week, and players competed only in meaningful games against strong competition. “You really felt you were professional,” recalled Yedlin. With matches in California and tournaments around the country, Yedlin’s team traveled often, and his grandparents, Ira Yedlin and Vickie Walton, happily paid for the privilege.
Born on July 9, 1993, in Seattle, DeAndre Yedlin arrived at a troubling time for his parents. With his biological father absent and soon to be incarcerated, his mother, Rebecca Yedlin, moved in with her parents for support. Around her son’s first birthday, Rebecca recognized that she was not prepared to raise DeAndre on her own and relinquished formal custody of her son to her parents. Until he went to college, Yedlin lived with them and his uncle, who is nine years older.
“I grew up with very strong family support,” said Yedlin. “My grandparents raised me, and my uncle sort of played that father-figure role in my life.” For Walton-Yedlin, much of the support came from his mother, Yedlin’s grandmother. “He has a really good relationship with his biological mother,” explained Walton-Yedlin, “But still, he knows, we all know” that his grandmother raised him.
Though all remember Yedlin as a happy child, he quietly grappled with his family situation. “As a kid, that can be a little bit tough to understand,” he explained, recalling how he struggled to comprehend “why my mom wasn’t raising me, why my dad was in jail.” Even as the post–World Cup spotlight shines on him, Yedlin remains reflective and even-keeled. “You know, there’s still parts of it that I’m trying to figure out,” he said.
Yedlin’s grandparents provided the financial and emotional support that has enabled him to reach his peak potential. “It could be practice, games, traveling to Lancaster, Calif., or anywhere, and they would be there, and that hasn’t changed now,” said Yedlin’s Crossfire coach Sean Henderson. Walton-Yedlin said, “I could count on one hand how many athletic events they missed, and we’ve got to be in the thousands now.” As an expression of gratitude to his grandparents, Yedlin plans to send them to India this summer to visit the Taj Mahal, a lifelong dream of his grandmother’s.
As a senior in high school, Yedlin made one final leap, leaving Crossfire for the Seattle Sounders FC Academy, which also competed in the Development Academy. “It took a lot of the financial stress off my grandparents,” said Yedlin. (The Sounders Academy was free for players. Crossfire has recently made its Development Academy teams free too.) The move also allowed Yedlin to sign directly with the Seattle Sounders as a “homegrown” player when he was ready for the rigors of professional soccer.
“I look at youth development the way I look at the tech industry,” said Curtis of MLS. “You see the advances that have been made in the last five years, and those advances have arguably had a greater impact than the advances made in last the last 50 years. And I expect the advances and changes made in the next five years will have a similar effect.”
It’s strange to think of DeAndre Yedlin as a late bloomer, since he featured in a World Cup as a 20-year-old, but Yedlin “was very much under the radar” entering college, said Caleb Porter, Yedlin’s coach at the University of Akron. Although Yedlin attended several U.S. youth national team camps, he never featured regularly, and many college coaches were unsure how his skill set would translate to the collegiate level. He was projected to be a winger, and they wondered if he had the technical skill, tenacity, and size to succeed as an attacker, but Porter had a different idea.
“I immediately saw a potential standout right back,” said Porter, the current coach of the Portland Timbers. “I get kids all the time that are forwards who shouldn’t be forwards, so it’s pretty normal to take a kid out of position.” In Yedlin, Porter envisioned a modern attacking fullback in the mold of Dani Alves.
For players who have not been a part of U.S. youth national teams and are not yet ready to leap into the professional game, college football can be an important (and often the only) developmental path. At the 2014 World Cup, 11 of the 23 players on Klinsmann’s squad spent time playing in college, including captain Clint Dempsey who, like Yedlin, was also an unheralded player when he entered Furman University in South Carolina. “You play real games in front of real crowds,” said University of Maryland head coach Sasho Cirovski. “You don’t get that at the academy level or in reserve-team soccer.” Though some have advocated phasing college soccer out of elite development, Cirovski sees the college game as the “glue” within the American development system.
Yedlin credits Porter for his development into a player who was ready for the professional leagues. “There were times when I absolutely hated him,” said Yedlin. “It seemed like during my freshman year, he’d always be getting on me.” But Porter’s exacting standards forced Yedlin to change the way he evaluated his own play. Porter “made me mentally stronger and judge myself a little bit harder, which is something that I needed,” Yedlin explained.
After two years with Porter at Akron, Yedlin faced another choice: return to Ohio and finish out his collegiate career or accept a contract offer from his hometown club to become the Seattle Sounders’ first “homegrown” player in 2013. Porter advised Yedlin, “If you’re ready to do this, it’s going to be a step up. You’re thrown into this environment where it’s money and it’s business, and mentally you have to be ready for it.” At 19, DeAndre Yedlin was ready for both the glamour and glare of being a professional.
“Who the hell does this kid think he is with this big blond mohawk,” remembered Eddie Johnson, a teammate of Yedlin’s on the Sounders. Yedlin’s hair—a bleached mohawk bold enough to make David Beckham blush—colored many first impressions of the young right back. On a less humble, less well liked player, the attention-grabbing hairstyle might not have been tolerated. But for Johnson, Yedlin’s quiet humility silenced any initial misgivings. Yedlin came to Seattle to play, not to be a distraction. “To have that hairstyle you have to have a certain amount of confidence,” said Yedlin. “I think I have kind of have the same mind-set that Kanye West has. He just likes to do his thing.”
In his first season with the Sounders, Yedlin was not slated to start, but when the first-choice right back went down injured, Yedlin slotted into the starting 11 and never relinquished the position, becoming an MLS All-Star in the process. His play (and hair) attracted the attention of Klinsmann, who inquired about the young right back’s skill and character with the Sounders’ head coach Sigi Schmid, who told Klinsmann to ignore the loud hairstyles: DeAndre Yedlin was a player. Klinsmann invited Yedlin to the annual U.S. Soccer January camp, where the premier MLS talent gathers every off-season to work with the national team. In January 2014, the camp had an added incentive: impress here and earn a spot in Brazil. For Johnson, who moved to D.C. United as a striker and was a fellow January camp participant, Yedlin was “one of the best players in the camp.” In May, Klinsmann surprisingly named Yedlin to the 23-man roster for Brazil, a decision that would have generated more buzz if not for the high-profile omission of Landon Donovan. In Brazil, Yedlin’s pace and attacking prowess were on display for the best clubs in Europe, and teams from all over the continent were interested in his services after the World Cup.
After weeks of rumors, Yedlin chose Tottenham and will transfer in 2015. “I’m a big fan of the style of play that Pochettino has installed in that team,” said Yedlin. “I think it fits my style very well.” To start at right back for Spurs, Yedlin will have to supplant both Kyle Walker and rising English star Eric Dier. While a loan to another club in England or Europe is possible, much of that depends on Yedlin’s passport situation, as he tries to secure a Latvian passport through his mother’s family. “I don’t know exactly what [Tottenham’s] plans are right now,” said Yedlin, but “they want me to come in and battle for a spot.” Which is precisely what Yedlin wants to do.
Some players might be dismayed by the competition at Spurs, but the test entices Yedlin. “I almost got too comfortable in Seattle,” he said. “I want to challenge myself and see what I have and prove to other people and prove to myself.” Yedlin speaks of his talent as if he possesses a potential that only increased competition can unlock.
“The mind is very powerful,” said Porter. “It can either hurt you or help you. Yedlin doesn’t worry about what could go wrong. He just goes and plays.” Somewhere, Klinsmann is smiling.
To make it in Europe, Yedlin will need to improve the underdeveloped areas of his game. Yedlin “still needs work defensively,” said Porter, a sentiment echoed by many who believe he relies too much on natural speed to cover for defensive lapses. If Yedlin can do so, he could become, according to Sounders teammate Brad Evans, “the best right back the United States has seen since Steve Cherundolo.” But it won’t be easy in the unforgiving environment that Europe provides. Former Sounder Eddie Johnson advised, “It’s different in Europe. You’re not just one of the five or six best players within the entire team. Everyone is as good as you. They can always buy new players, so you’ve got to be consistent.”
The cutthroat nature of football abroad has caused many U.S. national team stars to opt against a European odyssey. “You glorify things a little bit,” said Sounders midfielder Brad Evans, “You know you want to play for Liverpool, but at the end of the day, most Americans are not playing at the biggest clubs in Europe.” As MLS shells out major-league money to lure the best American talent, like Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, and Jermaine Jones, to North America, choosing to play in Europe is more of a competitive decision than a financial one. “Maybe that’s not what the national team coach wants to hear,” concluded Evans, “but I think it’s quality of life that matters.”
Klinsmann is certainly hoping to see Yedlin succeed. Since taking over as national team manager in 2011, he has constantly urged the best American players to compete in Europe—only to see many return to MLS. Klinsmann hopes that Yedlin will buck the trend, and if the past is any indication for what Yedlin’s future will hold, it’s clear how he will perform: “He’s got the innate ability to make jumps from level to level,” said Porter. Whether moving from Crossfire to the Sounders Academy or from the Seattle Sounders to the U.S. national team, Yedlin credits his constant success to his confidence. “I think I just have the mentality that I’m always hungry,” he explained. “Even if it is a high level, once I get comfortable and I get comfortable with myself, I know that I can perform.”
A feature article from our 4th issue. Order Issue 04 from our Shop.