SAN FRANCISCO – A little more than a year ago, when Jurgen Klinsmann asked Sigi Schmid his thoughts on DeAndre Yedlin, the Seattle Sounders coach had a simple suggestion for the US national team boss when it came to his young defender.
“Don’t let his hair fool you,” Schmid said. “That’s just him.”
The substance was there, Schmid explained, despite that crazy bleach-blonde mane MLS fans have come to know over the past two seasons. The kid had a knack for the game, speed, physical abilities and tons of potential that perhaps one day could make him a World Cup player.
That day came sooner than anyone expected – Yedlin and Schmid included. Last week, the Seattle native was one of the surprise inclusions on Klinsmann’s 23-man World Cup roster, part of a trio of players younger than 23 few expected to make the jump this soon.
As pre-World Cup camp wrapped up this past week in Northern California, it was hard not to notice the absence of color in Yedlin’s hair. The smooth fade was still there, but there wasn’t an ounce of bleach. Perhaps part of the new, Brazil-bound Yedlin?
“I think I’m finally realizing [I made it],” the 20-year-old told MLSsoccer.com after the US’ 2-0 win over Azerbaijan at Candlestick Park on Tuesday night. “It’s still kind of coming – it’s not all there. But it’s coming. It’s just been an unbelievable ride and I’m so excited to be here and so honored to be here.”
Let’s be honest: Klinsmann’s final roster has raised more questions and controversy than arguably anything he has done in his near three-year tenure. Landon Donovan’s cut. The exclusion of two other World Cup veterans. The Julian Green inclusion, among other German-born players.
But lost in the shuffle is one of the better stories that should be giving fans some hope for the future, regardless of your feelings on the coach.
Yedlin has become the first MLS Homegrown signing to make a US World Cup roster.
In a somewhat turbulent time when we’re still talking about how player development in this country needs to be better, that we need to produce our own stars here at home, Yedlin is walking proof that something is going right.
And he’s not the last. If you look to the roster Tab Ramos called in last month for US Soccer’s first Under-21 camp – a gathering of players that hopefully will fight for a place in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro – there are loads of players with lots of potential that could collectively signal a turning point in player development in the United States.
Fellow Homegrowns Wil Trapp, Kellyn Acosta and Shane O’Neill, among others, could be in the running for that Olympic qualifying squad. And the hope is that they’ll make good on their potential and find their way to the senior US national team. Perhaps as soon as the 2018 World Cup.
Yedlin was not a member of that U-21 camp. That’s because Schmid got Klinsmann to admit that he was thinking of calling in the young right back for his 30-man senior roster for camp in Stanford, and the Sounders coach convinced his fellow German native to let him hang on to him until then.
For Yedlin, the future is now. It’s been only 13 months since Ramos first called him for the U-20 national team, which he parlayed into a starting role for last summer’s FIFA U-20 World Cup. From there he won Klinsmann’s eye, and the USMNT coach gave the Sounders star his first senior cap this past February.
Just one cap later, and an ostensibly good showing in this recent camp, and Yedlin is going to Brazil. That accelerated time frame is mind-blowing.
“Yeah, it really is,” he admitted Tuesday night after his third cap, a 28-minute appearance off the bench. “It’s hard to believe. But it’s one of those things that you’ve just got to kind of go with the flow and take it day by day, because you can get caught up in too much stuff and get distracted.”
Is Yedlin’s Homegrown to Brazil-bound story perfect? Not quite. So many dominoes fell perfectly for him that it would be foolish to say categorically that he is the shining example for the success of domestic talent, the Homegrown program and the revamped US Soccer Development Academy system.
He hasn’t come all the way up the ladder in the US youth set-up, largely ignored at the U-17 level and only called up to the U-20s after an unlikely star turn his rookie year.
And even his breakout 2013 was almost by accident. The Sounders were impressed enough with their academy star’s two years at the University of Akron to make him their first Homegrown signing in club history that January. Schmid figured the right path was 25-30 games a year by some combination of spot duty, Reserve League action and US Open Cup play.
A starter for the first team? He likely wasn’t ready.
“But timing certainly is everything,” Schmid explained to MLSsoccer.com by phone on Thursday. “In DeAndre’s case, when we signed him, our expectation was that we thought he had the talent, and the right makeup to be a fullback to develop. … And then [former Sounders defender] Adam Johansson got injured. He came in and played well, and he never looked back.”
By the end of 2013, Yedlin finished second on the team in appearances, made the MLS All-Star team and had a major international tournament under his belt. He was good enough and talented enough to have fans, coaches and pundits considering him as one for the future.
All this, this soon? Maybe so. Maybe Yedlin won’t see many minutes, if any, in Brazil. Maybe he’ll be there for the experience, and hopefully his youthful energy will help push the veterans harder.
But regardless, he’s a symbol. He’s plain evidence to any young, aspiring player in this country that you don’t have to dream of jumping to Europe or Mexico to get a shot at playing at the highest level. He’s proof that the system that is now in place – though still not perfect – is a mechanism that works.
“It shows the kids in the Seattle area and kids in other areas that there’s a pathway that leads from the academy system into the first team and into the national team if you’re good enough,” Schmid said. “And that is a path worth pursuing.
“We’re very proud to be the club that has the first Homegrown to make a US World Cup team.”
Regardless of your club allegiance, you should be, too.
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com.