YEDLIN EMBRACES UNDERDOG ROLE
The US U-20 team has arrived in Turkey ahead of its World Cup opener on Friday and no other American player is playing better than DeAndre Yedlin.
Yedlin, 19, is a late addition to the team as he was not part of the World Cup qualifying roster in February. He appeared the team's first gathering in January, 2012 and quickly fell off the team's radar after struggling at the camp.
2013, however, was a completely different story for Yedlin who signed with Seattle as the club's first ever homegrown player. He excelled from the preseason and earned the starting right back spot in place of an injured Adam Johansson. After a series of strong performances, Seattle felt enough confidence in Yedlin to cut Johannsson, a Swedish international, and give Yedlin the job.
Yedlin's success was not lost on US U-20 head coach Tab Ramos who brought Yedlin to the team's first camp after qualifying in Los Angeles. Ramos told Yedlin that his improvement was noticeable and the former Akron standout credits his situation in Seattle as being a significant factor in his transition to being a consistent professional.
"He just said he was really impressed with what I've been doing against Seattle," Yedlin told YA on the feedback he was given by Ramos. "I'm growing as a player and he could tell. I think the things that have been great for my growth is the guys in Seattle. Everyone's been really supportive even with me being so young. It's a very good situation. I definitely played with a lot more confidence in the March camp and my play with the Sounders really helped give me what I needed to be able to perform well. Once you have a good day you keep building on it."
It's not just his growth as a player on the field, Yedlin also credits the improvements he has made mentally that has helped in his transition to the professional game. Most notably the change in focus it takes in going from college to the CONACAF Champions league where he first made an impact early in the season.
"Mentally, I've grown a lot," Yedlin explained. "From everything from my diet to how I take care of myself physically and I can start to recognize how I am recovering or need to get more rest. It's also made me more humble than I was before. In college you're kind of a top guy and you're pretty confident. But now you play against teams like Tigres and Santos Laguna where the players expose you. It definitely makes you a lot more humble."
The task ahead for Yedlin and the rest of the US team is difficult. The team was drawn into the "Group of Death" along with Spain, France, and Ghana. The opener is against Spain and the U.S team will be without starting central defender Shane O'Neill who is out with a red card suspension he picked up in qualifying.
Yedlin acknowledges that the U.S team is the underdog in their group as Spain and France have among the most powerful soccer programs in the world. Despite that, he is confident in the team's ability to not just advance out of the group, but also to challenge for the title.
"Obviously we're going in as underdogs but I think we're pretty well prepared," Yedlin said. "We're ready to face them and we're all very confident. Nobody is intimidated by these teams. We have to go into these games knowing we can win, get out the group, and hopefully win the World Cup."
This U-20 World Cup will be the first appearance for the United States in the tournament since 2009 when it failed to advance out of group play. In 2011 the team failed to qualify after it lost to Guatemala in Guatemala City in the quarterfinals of World Cup qualifying.
Central defense is still the primary area of weakness for this team but the rest of the positions occupied mostly by professional players. In fact, this is one of the most professionally experienced US U-20 teams ever. Along with Yedlin at right back, Luis Gil, Jose Villarreal, and Shane O'Neill all see consistent playing time in MLS. Wil Trapp and Mikey Lopez have signed professional MLS contracts and Alonso Hernandez and Benji Joya have played in Liga Mx this past season.
In addition to the professional nature of the team, Yedlin is also impressed by the highly technical nature of the team's skillset.
"Most of the guys here are professional," Yedlin said. "Everybody here is a lot more technical based on the style we like to play. Obviously in MLS, players are a little bit smarter but that comes down to experience. But the level here is very, very good. It's good for me to get into this environment because sometimes in MLS you don't get this kind of technical work."
Following the U-20 World Cup, Yedlin will return to Seattle to continue his rookie season. The team advanced to the semifinals of the CONCACAF Champions League earlier in the year but struggled early in the MLS season and was mired in last place in the first month.
Lately the team has been one of the best in MLS and has lost only once in the last nine games. During that stretch the team's attack has been lethal and Yedlin has been among the best right backs earning a spot on the league's all-star voting ballot this summer.
"I think the whole team realized we needed to wake up," Yedlin said. "We have some of the best players and talent in MLS. We were finally able to put it all together these last few games."
Seattle forward Lamar Neagle has also been one of Seattle's best players with 10 goals across all competitions. Like Yedlin, Neagle is a native from Puget Sound area and he realizes that Yedlin as the ability to be one of the best players in MLS.
"DeAndre Yedlin is a treasure for Seattle," Neagle said. "To be the homegrown player and to be doing so well right off the bat at his age is special - a humble kid, a great kid. He's like my little brother on the team. It's just up from here for the kid. He has everything that a world class right back would need. He attacks and he's so dangerous for us. Every single game he's been so solid for us. He just took that position over right away."
For now, however, Yedlin is simply focused on the task at hand with the US U-20s at the World Cup. He recently played a half in the U.S team's 3-0 exhibition win over a local Portuguese club team and went a full 90 in a 3-1 win over Portugal. The World Cup will be the first time he has ever represented the United States in a major competition and he is excited for the opportunity to make a name for himself on the international stage.
"It's definitely a big honor to be back here to represent my country in the World Cup," Yedlin said. "We're ready."