'There’s no substitute for skill', the old football saying goes. But if there were, it would be speed. Good coaches know the value of pure, blinding, A-to-B pace. If you were to do an Internet search for 21-year-old American right-back DeAndre Yedlin, you would find a feat of speed so rare it might make Usain Bolt smile.
A Seattle Sounders corner-kick came to nothing. Worse still, it sent Philadelphia Union flying up the other way on a counter-attack that was sure to end in a goal. The Sounders over-committed, but young Yedlin, whose mistake caused the break, began to pump his fists and legs, working his way up through the gears. He became a blur. He turned the rest of the world into a slow-motion movie. Cristian Maidana had a 15-yard head start. But like a racehorse charging down the backstretch, Yedlin passed the stunned Argentine, snatched away the ball and passed it off calmly to a team-mate. No desperate tackle. No professional foul. Yedlin knew he would get there and with how much time to spare.
It all happened so fast.
One coach seduced by this searing, un-teachable speed is Jurgen Klinsmann, The former striker has a soft spot for pure pace up the flanks. Klinsmann relied on an unknown David Odonkor when in charge of his native Germany at the 2006 FIFA World Cup™. Odonkor lacked finesse. His career amounted to little. But his blazing run up the right against Poland kept the hosts from going out in the first round.
Few knew much about Yedlin when Klinsmann included him in his Stars and Stripes squad for the World Cup in Brazil this summer. Those close to the Seattle football scene spoke of his potential, but also of all he still had to learn. Journalists had him pegged as a Klinsmann indulgence, not ready for the big-time. But the iconoclastic coach had other ideas. “We didn’t bring you as a practice player,” Klinsmann told his new speed merchant. “We want you to compete now.”
Yedlin had just two caps to his name and barely more than a full season as a professional under his belt. He was barely 21 and he was heading to the World Cup. “It all happened so fast,” Yedlin told FIFA.com.
He came off the bench against Portugal, setting up Clint Dempsey for a goal. He nearly repeated the trick against eventual champions Germany in a rainstorm in Recife. By the time he replaced injured Fabian Johnson in the Round of 16 against Belgium, Yedlin’s uncommon athleticism in the right-back position had Chelsea star Eden Hazard sitting back on his heels.
A blur in Brazil
“I was just talking about how I wish I could go back and re-live some of those experiences now,” Yedlin said about his meteoric rise to world football’s biggest stage. “These are moments that will stay with me forever. Overall, as a team, we had a pretty good World Cup. I think we definitely could have done better but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I grew a lot as a player there.”
Those watching in the States took notice. He became an instant sensation. His coiled energy, his wild hair - lines and angles carved into his scalp, a frosted strip of blond - were endearing. Born in Seattle, in the Pacific Northwest, Yedlin was raised by his grandparents. His mother was 19 when she gave birth. His father was absent. Yedlin, of Native American, African American, Latvian and Dominican Republican descent, watched his uncle play amateur football from the sidelines. He was taken with the game. The sport got into his blood early.
A month after the World Cup, Yedlin caught another coach’s eye. Mauricio Pochettino raced to get the wide man’s signature for Tottenham Hotspur. “He’s a young player with great potential who has already achieved a lot,” the Argentinian said of the Sounders youth academy product. It took months for Yedlin’s work papers to go clear – a lumbering governmental bureaucracy perhaps the only force able slow his progress.
“It’s important for his development that he is given the time to adapt to his new surroundings on and off the pitch,” added Pochettino, the latest to be seduced by the speed that has Yedlin ranked 20th-fastest out of the thousands of players in EA Sports’ latest edition of the FIFA video game franchise. There is still much to learn for this young American. The defensive side of his game will be put to the test in the English Premier League. But if the last six months are anything to go by, Yedlin will be quick to catch up.