The warning may not have been exactly what DeAndre Yedlin wanted to hear, but mentorship isn’t always supposed to be warm, fuzzy and positive. Love should be tough at times, and truth is essential even if it hurts.
At that time, Seattle Sounders forward Obafemi Martins was with his eighth club. Since moving from his native Nigeria to Italy as a teenager, he’d played professionally in six countries. He’d been around the block. And in Yedlin, he saw a talented homegrown player who’d be going places. So Martins made an effort to describe the journey that lay ahead.
“He told me in everybody’s career, there’s going to be at least one point that you’re just going to hit a wall,” Yedlin recalled. “Whether it’s an injury, whether you’re just stressed out—nothing’s going right. There’s going to be some sort of bad time in your career.”
Yedlin’s trajectory mirrored his game. He did everything quickly and for a time, it seemed he’d simply sprint past those walls. In the fall of 2012 he was a University of Akron sophomore. In 2013 he was an MLS All-Star. And the following summer, he stepped off the U.S. bench and gave Eden Hazard and Belgium fits in the World Cup's round of 16. Six months later, Yedlin, who was born and raised in Seattle, moved to England and joined Tottenham Hotspur on a reported $4 million transfer. He was 21.
Yedlin was soaring. Then he hit the wall. And the manner in which he hauled himself over it looks like it’s going to be the turning point in his career—and perhaps his life—putting him in position to be a Premier League starter and the USA’s first-choice right back for years to come. He's certainly a good bet to start next month’s pair of World Cup qualifiers.
“At the time, [what Martins said] was a bit frightening to hear. I’d been on this run of two years of madness, going from Seattle to the World Cup and to Tottenham,” Yedlin told SI.com. “Now, especially that I’m a bit older, I’m so glad he mentioned that to me. It was huge, and it’s one of those things that stuck with me to this day. If I’m going through a hard time, I think about what he told me just reminds me that everybody goes through this. You just got to get through.”
Yedlin didn’t expect to step onto the field at White Hart Lane right away.
“I knew it was going to be a tough time when I got there and saw the level. I just tried to make the best out of the situation,” he said.
But he also wasn’t prepared to make just one appearance for Spurs’ senior side. The player who’d done everything so quickly now was idle, and the trappings of a pro footballer’s life—especially in London—became too prominent. There’s temptation or diversion around most corners. The capital can make Seattle seem quaint. It can be overwhelming, especially if you suddenly have more money and time than ever.
“It started as a very exciting time for me and for that first month, I was just trying to take everything in. It was a city I’d probably compare to New York—very fast-paced. Everybody’s a bit hectic. It’s massive.” Yedlin said. “Just being in that big of a city, it stalled me, I guess. … The football wasn’t going as I wanted it to. You try to find other things to do, to distract you a little bit. It’s just human nature. If you’re not fully happy doing one thing, you try to do find another thing to take your mind from it. I probably went out a little bit too much. I’m not a huge party guy, but more than I had been in the past.”
That summer, Yedlin and the USA struggled through a miserable CONCACAF Gold Cup. In the meantime, he waited for some sort of relief at Tottenham. It finally came during the final hours of the transfer window in the form of a season-long loan to Sunderland, which had escaped relegation by three points in 2014-15.
He was hurt at first. Spurs didn’t want him. But Yedlin quickly realized what an opportunity he had. He was still in the Premier League, after all. So he settled in and got to work. He made Sunderland’s match-day roster in the second and third weeks of the season and in the fourth, he went 90 minutes in a 2-2 draw against West Ham. Yedlin started seven of the ensuing eight games. Then, on December 12, he was pulled in the 19th minute against Watford. His confidence crumbled.
“That had never happened to me in my life. It was eye-opening. It was embarrassing. I didn’t understand it,” he said. “I needed to make the best out of [the loan]. I was really trying to figure out, what is my problem? What can I do to better myself? I figured out that mentally, I needed to get stronger. In England, especially, mentally if you’re not strong it can eat you up. There’s the media, all the negativity surrounding footballers. If you’re not mentally strong, it can eat you. I wasn’t sure where to start, so I went on Amazon and typed in books about success.”
He ordered Maximum Achievement by Brian Tracy, a Canadian author, consultant and speaker now based in Southern California.
Yedlin dived in.
“I’m not a big reader, either. It was kind of an odd thing,” he said. “But that book will be one of the most important things I ever read. I have such a positive mindset now. One of the biggest things it did was help me set goals. It’s all things I sort of knew before, but I kind of had to see [in print].”
Seeing it made the difference. Yedlin began writing those goals down in detail—one week out, then two weeks, one month, six months, two years. Committing them to paper had the effect of signing a contract with himself, or Tracy, or Sunderland, or the universe. He obligated himself, and only himself, to reach them. He started keeping a journal.
“I was kind of blaming other things and wasn’t realizing it,” he said. “The book said nobody can make you feel a certain way. You always have control … I had to take responsibility for myself.”
He started against Manchester United on February 13 and remained in the Black Cats' lineup for the remainder of the '15-16 EPL campaign. They survived by two points. Then, armed with the a discipline and perspective forged by failure and a transformative year on loan, Yedlin took ownership of the biggest decision of his career.
“Kind of in the middle of July, [my agent] said there was Newcastle interest,” he said. “But at first, I didn’t want to go down a league.”
The Magpies, Sunderland’s arch-rival, played in the Championship. There was no denying it was a step down. But NUFC is hardly a small club. It has a “Premier League culture,” Yedlin said. St. James’ Park seats more than 50,000. Coach Rafa Benítez was a Champions League winner. Promotion to the EPL was anticipated and if everything went well, Yedlin would be starting when they got there. But if they didn’t….
“It was a risk,” he said. “It was a very, very tough choice. But I made it and stuck with it. I kind of took it on myself. Obviously, I spoke with different people. But I tried not to let their opinions weigh on my decision. I sat down with myself. ‘What do you want to do? What are the pros and cons?’”
He signed a five-year contract. Not everyone was happy. Sunderland fans called Yedlin a “snake,” he said. U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann wanted him to stay in the EPL, either at Sunderland or, ideally, by earning minutes back at Tottenham. Following a couple friendlies last fall, Klinsmann ripped Yedlin during a press conference, citing his “drop” to the Championship. He played only 16 minutes combined in the qualifying losses to Mexico and Costa Rica.
But in Newcastle, Yedlin flourished. He rented a house and reveled in living alone and parking in his garage. The city’s big enough to have what you want and need, but not so large that it exhausts you. It’s northern. It’s overcast. And it loves its soccer. It felt like home.
“It doesn’t have the mountain, but it has its nature. It’s a little bit isolated. There’s definitely a more Seattle feel. Living in London and having a lavish lifestyle, it’s not that important to me. I’m fine with just a simple life. That’s what got me here,” he said. “Seattle is bigger, but in terms of the calmness of the city, which is a big thing for me, I think I do a lot better in a city that’s more relaxed.”
Yedlin’s grandparents, who raised him, visit frequently and have mastered driving on the left so they can attend his games while they’re there. It usually was worth going. Yedlin started frequently in the fall and then regularly in January and February before a hamstring injury sidelined him in March. He bounced back to start three of Newcastle’s final four games, during which wins over Preston, Cardiff City and Barnsley vaulted the Magpies past Brighton and to the top of the table. Newcastle will enter the Premier League as champions.
Yedlin won the Supporters' Shield and U.S. Open Cup with the Sounders, but the toll this trophy exacted was much larger.
“The way the whole scenario turned out, it was incredible. There’s no feeling like it,” he said. “I lifted [the trophy], and it was pretty heavy. But it felt real.”
He took a few days off, visited Las Vegas with a friend and expected to be back home in Seattle by the end of this week. He said he was hoping to train with the Sounders for a while—a champion mingling with champions—in order to stay sharp for the upcoming qualifiers.
“I definitely needed a little bit of a break, but I love football. When I’m gone for a week or two, I start to get the itch to get back onto the field. That’s the way I am,” he said.
Perhaps his former Seattle teammates will notice a bit of a difference. They may find that Yedlin now has mental fortitude that matches his physical gifts. For a few years, he represented potential that required refinement. He was a speedy, skillful outside back with an attacking mentality who hadn’t mastered the art or subtlety of defending at the highest level. He could be exposed. And his first 18 months in England exposed him. But that trial revealed someone who was willing to humble himself–who was eager to work and strive to become the player he needed to be on the field and the person he wanted to be off it.
Over the next few months, as the USA tries to enhance its Hexagonal standing, as it looks for Gold Cup redemption and as Newcastle takes its rightful Premier League place, Yedlin will have the chance to show off what he’s learned. It’s an opportunity he’ll have earned.