By John Boyle Herald Columnist
TUKWILA — As he sat at the CenturyLink Field Events Center watching the U.S. national team lose to Belgium last week, Sigi Schmid watched the World Cup game primarily as a fan.
The Sounders coach also watched the game, and in particular the standout play of young right back DeAndre Yedlin, and had something of an “Uh-oh” thought pop into his head. As quickly as Yedlin was running past Belgians up the right flank, he was also accelerating the timeline on what now feels like an inevitable departure from Seattle.
“The thought sort of briefly went through my mind,” Schmid admitted.
Yedlin was back practicing with the Sounders on Monday, but now you can’t help but wonder how much longer he’ll be wearing rave green. Reports out of both Italy and the U.S. have the Sounders close to a transfer deal with AS Roma that would send Yedlin to the Italian club after the 2014 season. While both Yedlin and the Sounders aren’t confirming any move, nobody is saying it isn’t happening.
In fact Schmid at one point talked as if Yedlin was already leaving when discussing why a young MLS star would head overseas.
“Why does Pau Gasol play in the NBA, why does (Manu) Ginobili play in the NBA? Because the league is better than their leagues in their home countries,” Schmid said. “There are going to be certain players where the right thing to do is to go overseas, because they can deal with that opportunity. Players have done it in the past — Clint Dempsey has done it and Michael Bradley has done it, and now they’ve come back, and at some point he’ll come back as well. It just means the opening he creates means somebody else will be able to take advantage of an opportunity. You have to do what’s right for the player, and the player is always trying to play at the highest level he can play at.”
Maybe it was just a slip-up by Schmid to say “at some point he’ll come back” as if Yedlin was already gone, but it could also be that the Sounders coach understands just how unlikely it is that Yedlin stays in Seattle if Roma or some other big European club comes calling.
As much as Major League Soccer has improved, and as much as MLS players demonstrated that in this World Cup, a young American player with Yedlin’s athletic gifts isn’t likely to stay home forever. That was true even before Yedlin was a surprise inclusion on the 2014 World Cup roster, and before his very impressive performance against Belgium. Yedlin has the type of rare speed that stood out even against the best competition in the world in Brazil, he’s young, and now he has valuable World Cup experience under his belt.
“How many 21-year-old right backs have three World Cup games under their belt?” Schmid said of Yedlin, who turns 21 Wednesday. “That’s a very exclusive market.”
While the reasons for Yedlin’s likely departure are obvious — with Roma he would play in one of the top leagues in the world and make significantly more money while playing for a team that qualified for the 2015 UEFA Champions League competition, arguably soccer’s biggest tournament other than the World Cup — Yedlin acknowledges that he needs make sure any move he makes is right for him.
MLS has sent plenty of young promising players to Europe only to have them get stuck on the bench before eventually returning worse off for their trip across the pond. While playing in one of Europe’s top leagues is undeniably a step up, riding the pine in Europe can be worse that staying in MLS and playing every week. That’s why Yedlin says that while he has the goal of playing in Europe, MLS is still a viable option as well.
“The MLS is such a growing league,” he said. “The MLS is really getting up there and it’s becoming one of the top leagues in the world, so obviously that shifts a little bit as the MLS gets better and better.”
Yedlin admitted that the timetable on pretty much all of his goals has been accelerated by recent events. Last spring, he was a teenage rookie who turned into a surprise starter for Seattle. Since then he’s been an MLS All-Star, been a surprise pick on Jurgen Klinsmann’s World Cup roster, and then played well enough in Brazil to make a name for himself to the point that he did a national talk-show blitz in New York on his way home.
Despite his newfound fame, Yedlin says for now nothing changes. He’s a Sounder now, and likely for the rest of the season, though beyond that seems unlikely now.
“I’m letting my representatives take care of that right now, and they’ll obviously get back to me with that information,” Yedlin said. “But right now I’m just focused on Seattle, focused on hopefully winning the MLS Cup, and just looking to come back and do well.”
And staying focused on the Sounders, even with all this newfound fame and rumors of a move to Europe won’t be hard, Yedlin says: “No, not at all. I love this team; it’s easy to focus on a team when you love them. It’s very easy to do actually.”
As for what a Yedlin transfer would mean to the Sounders, it’s less black-and-white than the reasons for Yedlin to leave. The Sounders would lose one of their best young players, as well as a marketable, homegrown star, but they’d also reap significant financial benefits from selling Yedlin’s rights. Both in terms of money they could spend on anything from facilities to investing in the very academy program that helped develop Yedlin, and also in the form of allocation money that would help the team with salary cap concerns in future years.
The move would also represent a big step, in a sense, for the Sounders and MLS in that they produced a homegrown player who went from their academy system to one of Europe’s top leagues in so little time.
Someday it should be the goal of MLS to keep as much of its young talent as possible, but for now it’s a sign of progress that Yedlin’s stock is rising so quickly.
And in reality, everyone in global soccer is a seller at some point aside from very few European clubs. Even Tottenham, a very accomplished English club that’s popular enough to merit the U.S. tour that stops in Seattle later this month, lost its best player, Gareth Bale, to Real Madrid last year because the Spanish club made an offer that was too good to refuse.
So while keeping Yedlin would be great for the Sounders, losing him because a top European club is making a big offer can also be a sign of progress.
“It’s something that we’re proud of, it’s something that our academy should be proud of — the guys who worked the academy over the years,” Schmid said of Yedlin’s sudden popularity with European clubs. “… All those guys who have been involved over the years with him have a lot to be proud of, because it’s a process, it’s not something that happens over night.”
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.