SALVADOR, Brazil – DeAndre Yedlin wasn’t supposed to see the field in Brazil. John Anthony Brooks took the spot that belonged to Clarence Goodson. And Julian Green? He’s the reason Landon Donovan watched from home.
Those were the neatly packaged narratives seven weeks ago when Jurgen Klinsmann shook up the American soccer community with his 23-man roster for Brazil.
Seven weeks later, after Yedlin played Eden Hazard to a standstill, Brooks delivered the Americans their only win of the tournament and Green scored with his first World Cup touch, the past suddenly seems downright inconsequential compared to the future.
The United States may be going home, Belgium simply too talented and deep in a 2-1, extra-time Round of 16 defeat, but there’s no denying the next four years hold plenty of potential for the Americans.
"This will be an exciting four years. I made a point of saying to a few of them that we have some big stuff coming up,” Michael Bradley said. “The tendency sometimes right after a World Cup is that there's a lull, and there can be a stretch where you're playing friendly games, and it feels like the next meaningful games or the next tournament is pretty far away. It's not like that this time. We have a Gold Cup next summer, two summers from now will be the Copa América [Centenario], three summers from now hopefully the Confederations Cup and then a World Cup. It'll be a big four years for us, but especially for the young players who have had a taste of what it's like to play and compete at this level.”
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Perhaps most impressive was Yedlin, the 20-year-old Seattle Sounders Homegrown Player who showed no fear in 142 impressive minutes against Portugal, Germany and Belgium.
Thrown into the fire when Fabian Johnson went down with a hamstring strain late in the first half on Tuesday, Yedlin took on one of the most daunting challenges in this World Cup – slowing down one of the world’s best young talents in Hazard – and emerged with top marks.
Offensively, he put in perhaps his best ever performance from endline to endline, quality ball after quality ball. Defensively, he kept the Chelsea man from running rampant, matching him physically tit for tat, even if his tendency to get caught forward showed up a time or two.
“I’m proud of him, I’m excited for him,” Matt Besler said. “I’m excited that he plays on our team, because he has tools that other guys don’t. When he ran down Hazard on the sideline, I’m looking over, and you don’t see Hazard get out-run like that. He blew by him.”
“Hazard is no cakewalk, and I thought he handled him really really well,” Tim Howard added. “You talk about one on one, [DeAndre] won those battles.”
Brooks did the same under pressure against Ghana after being called into action after yet another hamstring injury, that time Besler departing early. Lo and behold, he held his own despite limited previous US appearances, scoring the winning goal in a game Klinsmann had equated to a final.
Green, unused until the second extra-time period against Belgium, matched Brooks with a goal of his own, the youngest player to score in the World Cup since some guy named Messi.
“We have to stick together,” Yedlin said, “because we’re going to be the next generation, hopefully.”
As to whether that generation can carry the USMNT flag even farther than the one before?
“Who knows? I don’t think anybody here really knows their ceiling,” Yedlin said. “We all try to have no ceiling. We all know we can get better every day.”
Wherever the US go, it’s clear the likes of Yedlin, Brooks and Green, among many others, will help take them there. The next four years will bring change, both with club and country, but the changing of the guard may yet prove to be Klinsmann’s masterstroke.
“I think the sky’s the limit for this team. This was a good taste for these guys,” Howard said. “These guys got some good minutes and saw what it was about. You learn some lessons sometimes, and they’re harsh. But you learn them, and I think we’ll grow. It’s exciting to see where this team could go.”