SEATTLE — He was on a crackly phone connection from nearly 7,000 miles away, but DeAndre Yedlin’s excitement was conveyed loud and clear.
He’s living a dream in Brazil at the tender age of 20, and representing his various constituencies — the Seattle soccer community, the Sounders, MLS, and youthful players everywhere — with aplomb.
All it has taken is 26 minutes on the World Cup pitch for Yedlin to not only justify Jurgen Klinsmann’s decision to put the callow defender on the U.S. team — amid considerable skepticism about his readiness — but to set himself up for an increased role in the knockout stage.
And as a midfielder, no less, a position Yedlin hasn’t played with any regularity for four years. In a conference call Monday with Seattle media, Yedlin succinctly summed up his marching orders:
“My role is to come in and create stuff, which I love to do,” Yedlin said.
Yedlin always had a knack for precisely that as he came up through the ranks of youth soccer in Seattle, including a stint with the Sounders Youth Academy in 2010-11 that was his first taste of big-time soccer.
“I remember our first academy practice, the big thing was they gave us Gatorade and protein shakes after practice,” he said. “We all thought that was incredible. Wow, we’re getting even closer to being a professional.”
Now Yedlin has hit soccer’s ultimate stage. He sat out the opening win against Ghana but made impactful appearances off the bench late in the matches against Portugal and Germany. In the former, Yedlin delivered a cross that eventually resulted in the belly goal of Sounders teammate Clint Dempsey. Yedlin was rewarded with a kiss on the head by Klinsmann, who put him back in against Germany in the 84th minute. Once again, Yedlin made his presence felt with his speed and energy.
Now some are even calling for Yedlin to get a start in today’s round of 16 match with Belgium. But there’s also something to be said for the renewed vigor he provides the U.S. coming off the bench, especially going up against defenders who are already tired and beat up. Either way, Yedlin is enjoying being on the attack, in contrast to his customary role as a right back.
“I love it,” he said. “It’s a little pressure off my shoulders defensively. I’m in a more comfortable position, a more attacking position. It’s been great, a lot of fun, especially with Fabian (Johnson) behind me. I’ve learned a lot from him.”
Yedlin, in fact, has nothing but raves for his teammates, all of whom, except 19-year-old Julian Green, are his elders — some by a decade or more. Yet hazing has been nonexistent, he said.
“It’s been the same as when I went to Seattle,” he said. “They’ve been very supportive and trying to give us (the younger players) the most confidence they can, really pushing us along and making us feel we belong here.”
Yedlin said he had some butterflies when he made his World Cup debut in the 72nd minute against Portugal, but nothing excessive.
“I surprised myself a little bit,” he said. “I thought I’d be way more nervous. I felt comfortable. I credit my teammates. As a team, we’ve grown so much in the past month, and it’s definitely showing in our games.”
Yedlin plays down the much-criticized comments of Klinsmann prior to the World Cup in which he said the U.S. couldn’t win.
“I think as players we didn’t really take a lot from that,” he said. “I know Jurgen has the utmost confidence in us. He pushes us each day to be the best we can be. We all know he believes in us, and we believe in ourselves.
“That’s all we need, and we showed in the group round we’re not a team that’s going to come in and get beat up on. We’re going to be a team that fights and is looking to win this thing.”
And, Yedlin believes, they’re a team that can earn the four victories necessary to do just that.
“I’m confident we can,” he said. “Everyone here believes. That’s the No. 1 thing you need to have, to believe you can win. Everyone here has bought in and believes.
“One thing that makes it so great, we might not have as talented players as others, but we play as a team. This reflects the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA.”
Meanwhile, Yedlin is proud to carry the support of his hometown, which he says has been palpable even across all that distance. He’s been in contact with many of his Sounders teammates and was touched to watch a video of the raucous reaction back home when he first entered the Portugal game.
“It’s an indescribable feeling to see how much passion Seattle has, and how much they’re supporting not only me and Clint (Dempsey), but the whole team,” he said.
Speaking of Dempsey, who has played the last two games with a broken nose, Yedlin said, “I always knew Clint was a warrior, but the last couple of weeks has put a cherry on top of that.”
Yedlin knows all about those cherries on top. It was only a couple of years ago he was at O’Dea High School. Now he’s in the middle of an event that has always captured the rapt attention of the world and now is building an ever-growing buzz in America.
“This experience has been amazing,” he said. “I think it’s one of the things every soccer player dreams of. To be able to be here now at such a young age, and to compete with the best players in the world, is a dream come true.”