SAN JOSE, Costa Rica – “Have I been asked too much about it? Waaayyy too much.”
The reporter posing the question was wondering whether DeAndre Yedlin’s younger teammates had queried him about his experiences of the US men’s national team’s doomed 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign. But at first the Inter Miami CF fullback thought they meant the media’s constant invocations of that star-crossed misadventure, and in that regard, his answer spoke volumes.
“It's one of the things you have to keep a balance, because I think that's also in the past. So obviously, you want to learn from it; a lot of those guys weren't there,” Yedlin said Tuesday during a media availability ahead of Wednesday night’s World Cup qualifier vs. Costa Rica, the final matchday of the Concacaf Octagonal round. “I've obviously tried to share with the group and also with Gregg [Berhalter] kind of what I think went wrong, and where I think we went wrong in that situation.
“But it's also about this group now. It's not about the last group. So it's about having that balance and knowing that we’ve got to focus on ourselves and focus on the job at hand.”
As far as “grizzled veterans” go, Yedlin doesn’t look or act much like the traditional idea of one. An aspiring fashion designer, he’s still just 28, his skin well-decorated with an array of tattoos, and currently sports a freshly-bleached crop that continues his long tradition of eye-catching hairstyles. He is far and away this young USMNT’s most experienced international player, though, with 72 caps for his country since bursting onto the scene as a homegrown teenage phenom with Seattle Sounders FC nearly a decade ago.
Yedlin is the only member of the current pool who’s played in a World Cup. He turned heads around the world as a super-sub in the United States’ run at Brazil 2014, just months after making his senior debut. That exposure helped him earn a multi-million-dollar transfer to Tottenham Hotspur, the start of a challenging, but successful European adventure that took him to four prominent clubs across England and Turkey before his Stateside return this year.
So he’s got plenty of stories to tell his younger teammates, which he occasionally shares when appropriate. Yet he’s by and large absorbed this US group’s forward-looking mindset and said on Tuesday there’s no burden or redemption in need of relief if and when the USMNT complete their task as expected, and clinch qualification for Qatar with the necessary result against Los Ticos.
“I'm pretty good at putting things in the past. I mean, you guys don't make it too easy on me to do that! But I'm pretty good at putting things in the past,” he said with a smile. “I do have a little bit of a bad taste about what happened in my mouth. But I think the excitement and just the proud feeling for this group is going to overtake any personal feelings for me. This is more of like a group thing.
“If we can do that, which I hope we can, then it'll be a great moment for all of us.”
"Still got a job to do"
The quirky circumstances of Wednesday’s match (9:05 pm ET | CBS Sports Network, Paramount +, Universo, Peacock) – anything but a highly lopsided and unlikely blowout loss of six goals or more will punch the USMNT’s ticket via one of Concacaf’s three automatic slots – have forced the Yanks to add those conditions to their statements. They have repeatedly made clear they “still got a job to do,” in Yedlin’s words, and as one of the few survivors of the fiasco in Couva, Trinidad and Tobago on the final day of 2018 qualifying along with Kellyn Acosta, Paul Arriola and Christian Pulisic, he feels this viscerally.
“I know this, and Christian too, better than anyone: It's not over ‘til it's over,” said Yedlin, who looks likely to start at right back after serving a yellow-card-accumulation suspension against Panama on Sunday. “So that's really been the main approach going into this last game, is we can't be too complacent. We can't be too relaxed.
“We're in a good situation, and we know that,” he added later. “But going into the Trinidad game, we thought we were in a good situation as well. So it's just about, again, focusing on what we need to do to make sure when you guys write that headline, it says the US is going to the World Cup. And we're not going to be satisfied until that happens.”
In what is surely music to USMNT fans’ ears, he also cautioned that this is hardly the end of this group’s ambitions.
“At this point, I wouldn't say it's the ultimate goal. I think the ultimate goal is obviously to win a World Cup,” said Yedlin. “But there's steps you have to take to get there. And one of the huge steps is qualifying for World Cup. So hopefully, again, we can do that tomorrow night and take a big step forward in our ultimate goal.”
A vital piece of the puzzle
All this makes Yedlin an understated, but vital piece of the USMNT puzzle. He’s a living thread to the past with plenty left to give, a dependable fullback who still can’t count on regular minutes given the quality and depth in his position, where Sergino Dest, Reggie Cannon and Shaq Moore also give Berhalter ample options. And he can help the kids around him manage the unique pressures imposed on both sides, by the program’s painful past and their own dazzling potential for the future.
“The weight has carried over,” admitted winger Tim Weah as he sat next to his “brother for life” Yedlin on Tuesday. “I wasn't a part of that  group. But the media has classified us as the golden generation and the generation that's going to qualify for the next World Cup. So I think we do carry a lot of that weight on our shoulders.
“This qualifying for the World Cup is not only for us, it's for the group before. It's for the Clints [Dempsey], it's for DeAndre, it’s for Jozy [Altidore], all the guys that didn't get to do it again. We've now taken up that role to get the job done.”
Weah and Yedlin have gotten tight in their time together on the national team, and on Tuesday they sparked laughter among the press corps as they explained their duties as unofficial hype men during the Panama game as they both served suspensions at Orlando City SC’s Exploria Stadium.
“We just knew we had to play the role to keep the guys ready, keep the guys’ energy high, vibes,” explained Yedlin. “And we walked in [the locker room] at halftime and it was dead in there!”
“It was quiet!” marveled Weah.
“We came running in there, slapping everybody up, making sure guys were ready to go out for the second half, because I don't know – we were up 4-0 and it felt like a funeral in there,” said Yedlin. “I don't know what it was. But we got them up again.”
It’s that sort of mentality that has made the USMNT duty feel a lot less like work than in past years, which might be the most encouraging data point among many.
“With this group, there's no egos; everybody respects each other. I don't know, it's just fun to play with these guys,” said Yedlin. “It's competitive, you feel like you're becoming a better player every time you come into camp. And I think another thing is at first, it was difficult, because tactically it might have been different from what you do at the club level, and things like that.
“But at this point, we all now know what we need to do. And there's comfort in knowing what you need to do. It's like when you study for a test: You know you studied, you're confident going into the test that you're going to do well on it. I think that's how all of us feel now.”
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