ST. PETERSBURG, Russia—With his season-long stint at Sunderland now in the final stretch, DeAndre Yedlin is not the same player as when he arrived on loan from Tottenham last September.
The obvious difference regards the Black Cats' relegation fight, the first of Yedlin's career. After a 1-1 draw on Saturday against Geoff Cameron's Stoke City, Sunderland are just barely above the trap door on goal differential. This kind of stress can change a man, but he is staying cool to help the club stay up.
"Obviously, it's a lot of pressure," Yedlin admitted to MLSsoccer.com by phone, after a training session at the Academy of Light. "It's a little tense, but you can't put too much pressure on yourself because then your performance goes down.
"People are going to be tested by it. Some people, feeling the pressure makes their performance better, but I like to stay relaxed. That's when I put in my best performance, I think."
The same can be said for the team, who have recorded three shutouts in the last four games to finally poke their heads above water with four matches to play. Sunderland will close the season with tilts against Matt Miazga's Chelsea, Everton and Watford, but hold a game in hand over two of the teams below them in the table.
"Our last stretch of games have been good performances, especially this last one, getting the clean sheet against Arsenal," Yedlin said. "I'm very confident [Sunderland will stay up]."
Yedlin is also growing and evolving as a player. Though still capable of providing excitment moving forward from his right back slot, the 22-year-old Seattle native is no longer freewheeling up the wing at every oppurtunity.
"My focus has switched a little bit: I'm a defender first, and then I can join the attack," Yedlin explained. "I think, before I was a little bit too young to understand it. I got punished for being too high up and had to realize you can't always go [forward]."
The transformation is apparent. Earlier this season, Yedlin spent too much time recovering, as Sunderland leaked nearly two goals per game in his first seven starts for the club. During his current nine-game run of starts – which began with their February 13 upset victory over Manchester United – Yedlin has averaged a little over seven total defensive stops per match and the team has conceded just eight goals.
Two weeks ago, Yedlin posted a career-high 11 clearances in a 3-0 win away to relegation rivals Norwich City. This past weekend, he contributed seven defensive plays inside the Sunderland box, including a first-half line clearance, to help the hosts hold Arsenal to a scoreless draw that lifted Sunderland out of the bottom three.
The youngster credits Sunderland manager Sam Allardyce and his veteran teammates for helping to raise his defensive game, specifically in the area of positioning.
"It comes with experience, so the times I've gotten to play helps me with that," Yedlin said. "Playing alongside guys like John O'Shea, Wes Brown and Younes [Kaboul], who are very experienced, helps a lot."
Once the relegation scrap is done, the US international hopes to display his improved defensive chops at this June's Copa America Centenario.
"It will be very exciting, getting a chance to play against some of the best teams in the world," Yedlin said. "And it's in America, which is always my favorite place to play. It will be an unbelievable experience if I'm chosen."
After that, he's slated to return to Tottenham, who are close to clinching a Champions League group stage place for the fall. Yedlin still believes his permanent place should be with Spurs, but they've yet to give feedback on his play and progress with Sunderland. He knows anything can happen, but the time to ponder things like a role at White Hart Lane can wait for later.
"It has to be in the back of your mind a little bit, but right now my focus is on helping Sunderland stay up and this fight," Yedlin said. "There's time to do that after the season. I'll weigh out the options, see where they're at and come to decision at what's best for me."