This story appeared in the December 23, 2014, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
How do you put the biggest adrenaline rush of your life in the past? That was the challenge facing the three youngest players on the U.S.’s 2014 World Cup team—Julian Green, DeAndre Yedlin and John Brooks—as they gazed around a quiet locker room in the moments after a 2–1 extra-time loss to Belgium in Salvador, Brazil, on July 1.
Make no mistake, the round-of-16 thriller marked the apex of mainstream enthusiasm for a team that won over millions with its resilience in the face of more pedigreed foes: Ghana, Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal, eventual world champions Germany. Tim Howard’s 15 saves, a World Cup record, couldn’t keep the U.S. from losing in 120 minutes, but the packed watch parties in parks around the U.S. revealed a nation that had fallen hard for the Beautiful Game, American style.
Green, Yedlin and Brooks knew that; their social media profiles had blown up over a life-changing month while the U.S. advanced from the hardest World Cup group. None of the trio had been expected to make the national team even a month before the tournament. Too young, most people said. And if they somehow hung on, surely they wouldn’t play much in Brazil. But in the end all three made a difference. Brooks, a 21-year-old defender, came on as a sub in the opener against Ghana and scored the 86th-minute game-winner, celebrating with such delirium that he collapsed facedown on the ground.
Green, 19, found the net in extra time to spark the U.S.’s failed comeback attempt against Belgium. And Yedlin, now 21, injected a blast of energy in three games, including a stirring mano-a-mano battle with Belgian star Eden Hazard. Collectively, it was the kind of breakout display that justifies paying $3 million a year to a coach, Jurgen Klinsmann, who identified young talent and had the guts and imagination to deploy it successfully on the sport’s biggest stage.
And then . . . it was over. The three young men who’d become as close as brothers, who’d gotten one another hooked on Instagram and shared laughs in two languages, faced their coach, who directed them to dive into what he likes to call the cold water. “You have to leave the World Cup behind,” Klinsmann told them. “It’s kind of like pushing a restart button. You will have a nice break. Enjoy the break. But then you have to start all over again.”
On a cool November morning in London, three friends—the Afro-Latvian-Dominican-Native American from Seattle (Yedlin) and the Afro-German-Americans from Berlin (Brooks) and Munich (Green)—greet each other with warm smiles and backslaps. Yedlin: “What up, bro? Sprunggelenk!”
Everyone laughs. During the World Cup, Yedlin picked up on a conversation between Brooks and Green in German, when the two were discussing an injury to an ankle: Sprunggelenk. The American intruder couldn’t stop laughing at the word, so now he uses it whenever he sees the pair.
“Now he’s like 30 percent German,” jokes Green. “He’s not saying What? He’s saying Was?”
Looking back, Yedlin and Brooks both say they thought they had a “10 to 15 percent chance” of making the World Cup team at the start of May. Green seemed like more of a sure bet after declaring his allegiance to the U.S. team rather than Germany’s, which he did only three months before the Cup. The trio had shown promise with their respective clubs, Brooks with Hertha Berlin and Green with Bayern Munich, both of the Bundesliga, and Yedlin with MLS’s Seattle Sounders. But they hadn’t seen the field during the World Cup qualifying campaign; they seemed more like good bets for Russia 2018.
Like almost everyone else, they underestimated Klinsmann’s willingness to take risks with his roster. The coach saw real potential in Green’s one-on-one ability, Brooks’s size and poise, and Yedlin’s aptitude for pushing forward and attacking from the back.
“You try to envision where their talent could take them against the top teams of the world, where the game is played at a very fast pace,” says Klinsmann. “We look for difference-makers in their position, where they would be better than anybody else around them one day if they’re younger—really younger—than what you have in your general pool. What we call a ‘solid player’ gives you his maximum every time, but he doesn’t have the speed of Yedlin, the surprising moment of Green or the vision to see everything and play a clean ball out of the back like Brooks.”
From the day they arrived in Brazil, the budding additions spent their downtime together, listening to music in their rooms, watching other games, fiddling around on social media. The benefit of being young at a World Cup—as Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley learned as 20-year-olds in 2002—is simple: You’re fearless, and you worry less about the magnitude of the event. You start planning goal celebrations even though nobody thinks you’re going to play. “Before everything, we said that when one of us scores—DeAndre, Julian or I—we have to celebrate and we’ll do blah-blah-blah,” recalls Brooks. “But we forgot everything. We just ran around.”
When U.S. center back Matt Besler was pulled with a hamstring injury at halftime of the opening game, Brooks was the first of the new friends to get the call. After Ghana tied the score at 1–1 in the 82nd minute, the U.S. seemed headed for a disappointing draw, maybe even a killer defeat. But four minutes later, almost out of nothing, the Americans won a Graham Zusi corner kick, whereupon Brooks thundered home a headed game-winner that cemented just the fifth U.S. victory in seven World Cups dating to 1990.
Brooks’ delightfully unscripted celebration will be remembered vividly by any U.S. fan: his collapse, the pileup and then teammate Aron Jóhannsson’s failed attempt to pry him from the ground. “It was the greatest moment in my life,” Brooks says. “I was shocked. Shocked. The first couple days, I watched [the replay] like two or three times every day.”
The circumstances were depressingly different for Green’s strike against Belgium, which still left the U.S. one behind and facing elimination with only a few minutes to play. After the gut punch of conceding twice in extra time, though, Green’s goal—a semiscuffed volley off a gorgeous pass from Michael Bradley—gave a nation hope. There would be no elaborate celebration here.
“I just wanted to get the ball out of the net and try to tie the game,” says Green. “Then, after the game, I realized, 'Oh, I scored a goal in the World Cup.'”
Yedlin didn’t score any goals in Brazil, but he did help create one (Clint Dempsey’s go-ahead strike against Portugal), and he played a major part in three games, compared with one apiece for Brooks and Green.
Yedlin’s life changed even more after the tournament was over when the English club Tottenham Hotspur aced out Italian giants Roma, agreeing to a $4 million transfer fee to acquire him from the Sounders. The days after the World Cup were “kind of madness,” says Yedlin, who is set to join Spurs in January. “Tottenham is a big club. I’m excited to get in with those players and their system and learn.”
Green says that he and Brooks are still trying to convince Yedlin to join WhatsApp (“I have WhatsApp!” Yedlin protests), but the German-Americans were willing to spring for international text messages to their friend when he signed with Spurs.
Congratulations! pinged Green.
Sprunggelenk! came Yedlin’s reply.
The flip side of being young at a World Cup hits once it’s over. Just because you scored a goal or had some fantastic moments, that doesn’t guarantee you a club career. Since moving from Bayern Munich to Hamburg on a season-long loan in September, Green has made just one start and four substitute appearances. One game into his stay, the coach who brought him in was fired.
Brooks, too, has had ups and downs at Hertha Berlin: He was briefly demoted to the U-23 team, but he was back starting senior games in late November, and a couple of weeks ago he was named Man of the Match in a crucial win over Borussia Dortmund.
And the jury is out on whether Yedlin will stay with Spurs upon his January move, or whether he’ll be loaned out, perhaps even back to Seattle.
Potential is still, well, potential. Klinsmann has kept bringing the trio into national team camps, but he knows he can’t solve their club problems.
“Swim more or go under,” he says. “I believe in every one of them based on that talent we see. I will keep nurturing them until, hopefully, they are strong.”
When Klinsmann bestows wisdom upon his young Americans, he does so as someone who won a World Cup himself as a player. And he doesn’t focus entirely on what’s happening on the field. He wants them to understand diet and nutrition. He wants them not to be swept away by their World Cup fame, in nightclubs and on social media—even among family.
“One thing to analyze in this process is: What’s the family background, especially with dual citizenship?” Klinsmann says. “Some of them have never had Dad around, then Dad suddenly comes back because they’ve become professional players. It’s really difficult. Everyone is so different. That’s what we discuss.”
Klinsmann says he wants Green to become a man, to bring out his elbows and stand up right away when he’s fouled. (Green recently moved out of his mother’s house for the first time and got an apartment in Hamburg with his girlfriend.) He wants Brooks to gain more consistency in his training and attention span, and to live up to his potential in Berlin. (“You don’t want to play against him, but sometimes he’s too nice,” says the coach.)
And he wants Yedlin to keep things simple with Spurs, not to worry about whether he’d be better there as a right winger or a right back.
“DeAndre goes out in the big world,” says Klinsmann, a former Tottenham player himself, “and I think it would be good for him to say, I go there and give it my best to learn every day and trust in my coaches.”
Every month or so, they’ll have the chance to come together again with the national team. They’ll sink or swim there too. But they’ll also gather as friends over meals and in their hotel rooms, just as they did during a magical summer in Brazil.
“We’ve talked about how cool it would be to be the faces for the national team one day,” says Yedlin. “But we know it won’t come automatically. It’s a lot of work. If we continue on this path, hopefully we can inspire the next generations to do even better than we’re doing.”
So much can happen in the coming years. The World Cup was only the start.