Finally fit, Yedlin fills USMNT’s longtime void at right back

Photo credit: U.S. Soccer / @ussoccer
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The right-back position has proven a crippling quandary for the U.S. national team ever since Steve Cherundolo’s international retirement in 2012. (Left back was — and remains — an issue long before then, but that’s a different story for a different day.)

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So many were asked to fill the career-long Hannover star’s boots — Eric Lichaj, Michael Orozco, Geoff Cameron, Brad Evans, Fabian Johnson, Timothy Chandler and most recently Graham Zusi each played the position in significant stretches over the last five years — only to come up woefully short of Cherundolo’s lofty standard. The 2014 World Cup provided a perfect jumping-off point for the most promising prospect of the post-‘Dolo era: DeAndre Yedlin.

“Especially being so young and not really expecting to go [in 2014], it was a crazy feeling,” Yedlin said this week. “I can’t obviously thank Jurgen enough for putting his trust in me and bringing me into that, and that’s really what jump-started my career.”

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Like those who came before him, even the dream of Yedlin becoming the instant answer fizzled out for a period before landing at Newcastle United last summer, at the age of 23, where he’d reclaim his form and fitness in the Championship. Following his failed move to Tottenham Hotspur the winter after Brazil, Yedlin spent most of the next two seasons unavailable due to injuries more often than not.

“I’ve had to grow up pretty quick, but I’m glad that I chose to make this step to kind of move away from what I’m comfortable from.”

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Now 24, and having been fit for much of the last 15 months, Yedlin is an integral piece of the Magpies’ puzzle, and returned to the USMNT in its most desperate time of need: needing wins in each of their final two 2018 World Cup qualifiers to assure their place at next summer’s tournament in Russia.

Friday night in Orlando, Fla., Yedlin reassumed the starting spot from Zusi and flourished, helping the Yanks to a vitally important 4-0 victory over Panama. He alone stood out as the star performer along a sometimes-shaky four-man backline, flashing the recovery speed and open-field marauding that earned him a move to the Premier League at the age of 21. According to Yedlin, much of what he brings to the team is an energy level that’s unmatched and confounds his teammates.

“Everybody tells me they don’t know how I have so much energy, and I think people feed off that, which is great.”

More importantly, playing under Newcastle manager Rafa Benitez has matured the mental side of Yedlin’s game immeasurably. His ability to recover serious real estate in the blink of an eye remains, but Friday’s performance was largely born out of a newfound ability to read the game around him.

“It’s a very physical league. It’s a league that if you lose focus for even a little bit of time, they can punish you,” Yedlin said. “Working with Rafa has taken my game to another level.”

That tactical growth, so perfectly exemplified by noticeable restraint and an understanding of when he can and can’t take risks, are precisely the signs that have USMNT fans counting on Yedlin to come better than good on his second trip to a World Cup.