CARSON, Calif. – DeAndre Yedlin still hasn’t entirely gotten used to the idea that he’s a professional soccer player. There’s still a bit of awe and still a lot to learn.
For example, the 20-year-old defender, now entering his second season with the Seattle Sounders, smiled as he recalled how excited he was the first time he spent time at Djimi Traoré’s house. They may be MLS teammates, but early on they were hardly equals.
“He’s a legend,” Yedlin told SI.com this week. “He’s won the Champions League [with Liverpool], all these other accolades, and I’m here hanging with him and he’s one of my good friends now. And he’s 12 years older than me!”
There’s been a lot to take in over the past 14 months. Yedlin was a sophomore at the University of Akron at the end of 2012. Since then, he’s signed a pro contract, represented the U.S. at the Under-20 World Cup, emerged as a full-time MLS starter and played in the All-Star Game. Now he’s in camp here with the senior national team, vying for a spot in Saturday’s friendly against South Korea and perhaps, a place on this summer’s World Cup squad.
Despite that meteoric rise, Yedlin has kept his expectations in check. Even his hair, which often is bleached, striped or mohawked – or some of each – looked conservative this week as the U.S. trained at StubHub Center.
“It still hasn’t hit me how much of a job this is. I’m still at a young age. I’m still figuring this out,” he said. “One of my goals here is to kind of get to know these guys. I think that’s one of the biggest things about a team, is that you have to have the chemistry. So that’s one. Obviously it’s getting my name on the radar, kind of showing what I can do, just impressing the staff. I know this World Cup is going to be a tough one to make for me. That’s just realistic. It’s probably not my time. Obviously, I’ll be rooting them on.”
Yedlin is correct. A trip to Brazil is unlikely. He has fewer than 40 professional matches under his belt and remains an unfinished product. He’s skillful, fast and inventive and certainly a danger marauding down the flank. But while the positioning and one-on-one defending required at the World Cup level isn’t there just yet, the potential and intangibles aren’t in doubt.
Just ask Brad Evans, Yedlin’s Seattle teammate and, ironically, the incumbent U.S. right back.
“Personally, I couldn’t imagine being thrown all that stuff. When I was his age I was still in college, still fighting my way through [UC] Irvine. To see where he’s at right now and all the things that have happened and the way he stays even keeled and just a dude who wants to work hard, he’s setting himself up for success,” Evans told SI.com.
“For [Yedlin] to come in and say [that his primary goal in U.S. camp is to learn] is phenomenal. You know that he has that attitude because he works hard every single day. He never takes time off. He’s hardly ever in the training room,” Evans continued. “It makes it easy on me because the last thing you want as a captain is to have to worry about a kid who doesn’t have his head in it. I don’t even think about him working hard because I know he’s going to do it.”
Yedlin is from Seattle and often credits his family’s continuing support for the maturity and perspective lauded by Evans. Raised by his grandparents, Yedlin was inspired both by their devotion and by a soccer-playing uncle. He joined his first soccer team at age four and was on U.S. Soccer’s radar less than 10 years later.
Yedlin said he learned the value of humility as he saw his name appear on recruiting watch lists and youth All-America teams. It was at a U.S. U-18 national team camp that he first worked with Caleb Porter, who thought the attack-minded Yedlin might flourish at right back and then at Akron. Porter, of course, now manages the Portland Timbers and is the reigning MLS coach of the year. His instincts about Yedlin were spot on.
Yedlin told SI.com that he found the jump to the Sounders’ MLS squad to be the most significant during his very busy year. He’d competed with players his own age in college and with Seattle’s academy team, but beginning last January, the stakes soared.
“The most eye-opening thing is probably just how everybody is really fighting for their livelihood. This is the first time I’ve played for money. Well, I’m not playing for money, but I’m getting paid for it,” he said. “Careers, jobs and families, everything you do on the field can either help or hurt, can be either a positive or negative thing toward somebody else’s family. That’s a very serious thing.”
Serious though it may be, Evans, 28, is eager to help even though he and Yedlin– at least on paper – are vying for the same international minutes. Evans typically plays as a midfielder for the Sounders.
“One thing that’s really helped me, especially in this camp, is Brad Evans,” Yedlin said before being asked specifically about his club teammate and U.S. rival. “I honestly wouldn’t want to fight it out with any other guy. He is such a competitor. He wants that spot and so do I, But Brad is a guy who’s going to help me get there and he’s also going to fight himself for it.”
Said Evans, “His ability to attack is what makes him a good defender. He takes chances and he’s fast as hell. He can make a mistake because his recovery is probably the fastest in the league.”
The veteran continued, “We have two completely different styles about how we approach that position. Not to say one is better than the other, but at some point he’s going to master the mental side of it and he’s going to have the physical attributes, which is going to make him into the top-tier player that he will be.”
That will come with experience, which takes time. At some point, Yedlin’s ascendancy will have to slow down. He’d be on his way to Brazil and then the Premier League this summer if it continued at its present pace. There’s more to do in the meantime. There’s a cap to be won on Saturday, a sophomore slump to avoid and a position to master at the pro level. Evans, not to mention the likes of Geoff Cameron, Michael Parkhurst or even Steve Cherundolo are well ahead of him on the U.S. depth chart.
So Yedlin will continue to focus on what go him this far, convinced that his time eventually will come. “I was always raised to stay humble,” he said. “Obviously that’s how you gain respect from people. That’s just how I was raised. That’s the thing. People may say I’m young and doing good things at the professional level, but there are a lot of younger players doing a lot better things in even better leagues. The way I look at it, if I’m not there yet, there’s still more that I can do. So there’s no reason to get all hyped about it.”