By John Boyle Herald Columnist
It wasn’t that long ago, 2010 to be exact, that DeAndre Yedlin was excited about a post-practice Gatorade.
Now, less than four years since joining the Sounders academy while also attending Seattle’s O’Dea High School, Yedlin is representing the U.S. in the 2014 World Cup.
Consider that just another sign of how rapidly Yedlin has gone from high school kid to an athlete playing in the biggest sporting event in the world.
“I remember the first academy practice, the big thing there was they had Gatorades and protein shakes for us after practice,” Yedlin said on conference call from Brazil a day before his team’s round-of-16 game against Belgium. “I know we all thought that was incredible. It’s that step like, ‘Wow, I’m getting even closer to being a professional.’”
While it has long been known that Sounders forward Clint Dempsey would be a big part of the U.S. national team’s plans in Brazil this summer, the fact that Yedlin is there with Dempsey — and helping set up one of the U.S. captain’s goals — is one of the more remarkable stories on the national team.
Just last March, Yedlin was a 19-year-old rookie making his professional debut with his hometown team. He turned into a surprise starter at right back, was Seattle’s only All-Star last season, and now just a little over a year into his professional career, Yedlin has achieved one of the biggest goals of any soccer player.
“This experience has been amazing,” Yedlin said. “It’s one of the things that every soccer player dreams of, so to be able to be here now at a young age and to be able to compete with some of the best players in the world, it’s a dream come true.”
Few thought Yedlin had much of a shot of even making the 23-man World Cup roster, even after he was named to the preliminary 30-man roster. Not only did he secure a spot on the team, he has also played in the past two games as a late-game sub. In his World Cup debut, Yedlin helped set up Dempsey’s second-half goal that gave the U.S. a 2-1 lead against Portugal, a play that showed that the moment, even if unexpected, wasn’t too big for the Sounders youngster.
“I was actually surprisingly not too nervous,” he said. “I kind of surprised myself a little bit in terms of that — I thought I was going to be way more nervous. But I wasn’t too nervous. I kind of came in, felt comfortable, and I credit a lot of that to my teammates just making me feel comfortable on the field. As a team we’ve grown so much this past month, month and a half, and I think it’s definitely showing with our games. I wasn’t too nervous. Obviously there was a little bit of butterflies there, but that’s normal. It was good. It was an amazing feeling to get on the field.”
And Yedlin isn’t just contributing to America’s success in this World Cup, nor is he merely living out a personal dream, he’s also represents a very important step in the growth of Major League Soccer. Yedlin is the league’s first “homegrown” player — a player who signs with a team out of its academy — to play in a World Cup, and his rapid accent shows promising American athletes that there is a path to this kind of success without fleeing to Europe (though Yedlin could well end up in Europe soon if that’s his desire).
“Having DeAndre in Brazil speaks volumes for MLS and more importantly to me to the development system in America, and more specifically to the Sounders development and academy system,” Sounders general manager and minority owner Adrian Hanauer said.
“Hopefully that brings more and more good young athletes in America into the fold. It certainly bodes well for continuing to develop really good soccer players in this country, and that’s one of the keys to us competing globally — we have to be able to develop players on a regular basis. We can’t always rely on importing foreign players. And look, the United States has developed good players obviously like Clint and Kasey Keller, but we have to be able to produce more of them, and players who can compete with the best players in the world.”
It’s entirely unfair to ask a 20-year-old to serve as a role model for aspiring players who are only a couple years younger than him, yet that’s something Yedlin embraces even if he’s only four years removed from being wowed by free Gatorade and protein shakes.
“To be able to be that hope or influence that I guess I am on these kids, it’s amazing,” Yedlin said. “That’s what I look to do, just to be able to give them that sense of hope, to be able to do that is incredible. Anytime you can do that in life, whether it be in sports or anything, I think it’s an amazing feeling, and I definitely feel that right now.”
And if you need one more example of Yedlin’s meteoric rise from relative unknown, consider this: last summer, I saw Yedlin walking around the Bite of Seattle. He appeared to be looking for someone, and for a few minutes stood in one place scanning the crowd. Not once did anyone recognize the young Sounder and stop for an autograph or a picture or just to say hi. A year before playing in the World Cup, Yedlin was just a college-aged kid and under-the-radar MLS All-Star who was going completely unnoticed in a big crowd just a few miles from his home stadium.
A year later, it’s safe to assume Yedlin won’t enjoy that kind of anonymity in his own town this summer, especially if the U.S. national team’s World Cup continues beyond today’s game.
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.