PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad — In the world of big-time sports, we sometimes forget that athletes are humans too. When the Paris terrorist attacks happened on Friday, 22-year-old U.S. right back DeAndre Yedlin was about to take the field for his first start in a World Cup qualifier.
He participated in the moment of silence at Busch Stadium in St. Louis before kickoff, but Yedlin didn’t know the details of what had happened until he started reading news reports after the game. Like so many other people around the world, Yedlin was profoundly moved—and shaken. Shaken at the scale of it all. And shaken that one of the terrorist targets had been a soccer stadium, the Stade de France, where France was playing a friendly against Germany before a big crowd.
“It was just awful to hear about,” Yedlin said here ahead of Tuesday’s World Cup qualifier against Trinidad and Tobago. “It’s bigger than soccer. And it can be a little bit scary sometimes. We’re in the spotlight. Not that we’re targets or anything, but events that we’re at could be potential targets.”
There’s no artful way to transition from the Paris attacks to talking about Yedlin’s growing maturity as a soccer player and the U.S.’s game here on Tuesday. But know that the players are thinking about Paris and talking about it and reflecting on it, just like the rest of us.
How do you put a mistake behind you? It’s one of the absolute keys to becoming a successful soccer player. Mistakes happen all the time in a game, and the best players are able to have an instant amnesia. When Bora Milutinovic became the U.S. coach in the early 1990s, he had a habit of asking his players: What is the most important play?
The correct answer was: The next play. Always be thinking ahead, never backward.
In the fifth minute of Friday’s game against tiny St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Yedlin made a defensive mistake, allowing Oalex Anderson to score a stunning goal to put the visitors ahead 1-0.
“I caught myself 1-v-1 with Anderson, who’s a good player,” Yedlin said. “He’s quick, fast, and I didn’t have my feet set right, and he just took one touch and got past me. But this is something I’ve learned in England in my time being there: You’ve got to move on from mistakes. Because if you stick with them, it’s going to kill you.”
“Especially with fans over there,” continued Yedlin, who has made five Premier League starts with Sunderland this season while on loan from Tottenham. “The more mistakes you make, you can tell: They’ll get on you a little bit. So you have to be mentally strong. That’s what I try to do and try to limit the mistakes—and get in the attack and push him back as much as I could to make him defend. And I ended up getting an assist.”
Instant amnesia. Five minutes later, Yedlin raced up the right flank and assisted on Bobby Wood’s equalizer.
“You saw DeAndre Yedlin: It didn’t look good with the first goal we conceded,” said U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann. “But then he worked himself into the game and obviously on the attacking side with his speed, he can always make a difference. Which he did right away.”
Yedlin is still in a deep learning mode, but he’s now starting both for Sunderland and the national team. He also knows nothing is guaranteed. Exactly a year ago, Yedlin was the subject of a Sports Illustrated year-end magazine story with John Brooks and Julian Green, two other young World Cup debutantes who’d had highly promising tournaments in Brazil.
These days, Brooks and Green have been playing not for the senior national team but for the Under-23 team, which suffered two losses against Brazil in the past week.
It’s possible that all of the U.S.’s age-eligible players—including Yedlin, Brooks, Green and Jordan Morris—will be called up in March to give the U.S. U-23s their best chance to beat Colombia in a home-and-home to advance to the Olympics.
Yedlin said he’ll be happy to do whatever Klinsmann wants, and if he has the opportunity he’d like to play in the Olympics as well.
But for now, Yedlin has plenty on his plate as it is. On Tuesday that means Trinidad and Tobago, probably the toughest matchup of the semifinal round of World Cup qualifying. The home team is coming off a big 2-1 away qualifying win at Guatemala, and two wild ties against Mexico this year—a 4-4 in the Gold Cup and a 3-3 friendly result—have been impressive. The hot, humid and potentially rainy conditions here will also make things difficult.
“It’s a game that a lot of Americans look at and say, ‘Oh, it should be an easy win, you know,’” Yedlin said. “But it’s not an easy game at all. Especially coming here. They’ve tied Mexico twice, and obviously Mexico is a great team. They’re very physical and athletic, much like the Jamaica team that we faced [and lost to] at Gold Cup. It’s a game where we have to be on our best game to get a result out of it.”
There have been plenty of questions over where Yedlin should play on the field: At right midfield, wingback or right fullback. Right now right fullback appears to be his station for both Sunderland and the national team.
“At right back, I think when you attack you can see the whole field,” he said. “So in the attack I think it’s a little bit easier, at least for me, but you also have more defensive responsibilities. You have to find that balance. In the midfield, I’m not the most comfortable playing with my back to the goal, and in the midfield you find that ball a lot. So I’m really working on that so I can become a player who can play both positions well.”
Under new manager Sam Allardyce at Sunderland, Yedlin said the team has been playing more direct than he’s been used to, forcing him to focus more on defending than usual. But he added that’s a good thing, since defending is “the part of my game that needs the most work.”
Like Green and Brooks, who’ve had peaks and valleys since their World Cup experience, Yedlin said his first half-season at Spurs was a challenge—and a wake-up call. “From when I started with Seattle all the way through the World Cup, everything had gone pretty smoothly,” he said. “And then there was this roadblock. I’d never experienced that before. So it was a time that I really had to learn about myself and figure out how to get through it.”
Now that he’s playing in Premier League games at Sunderland, Yedlin said he feels like everything is starting to fall into place. Spurs coaches have kept in touch with him, and he’s looking forward to playing the rest of the season with Sunderland, then returning to Spurs and competing for a spot in the team.
The transition to living in England for the first time has also worked out well. Yedlin lives by himself, but his grandparents recently visited for three weeks. His uncle, his girlfriend and other family members are set to come for a spell soon, including during the busy playing schedule around Christmas time.
With Sunderland, Yedlin has already experienced a lot, including the whipsaw emotions of beating archrival Newcastle 3-0 recently and following that the next week with a 6-2 loss to Everton.
But it’s an exciting time. As he sat in a chair here with a gorgeous view of the Caribbean Sea, the forward-looking Yedlin acknowledged that years later he’ll look back on this time and value it.
“It’s unbelievable,” he said. “I’m able to travel all over the world to play and do something that I love. That’s not something that a lot of people get to do. I try to value every day, every training session, every game. It’s definitely a time I’ll look back on and kind of say: Wow.”