There were a lot of surprises when Jurgen Klinsmann announced the final 23-man World Cup roster more than a week ahead of the deadline. None of them were bigger than the DeAndre Yedlin's inclusion.
The Seattle Sounders right back has been on the short list of promising American prospects for several years, but his inclusion in the 30-man preliminary roster was mostly seen as a nod to that potential. Perhaps even more than fellow too-young-to-buy-a-beer-er Julian Green, Yedlin was largely seen as a player who just had too much learning to do before he could be difference maker on the international stage. It was only a couple weeks ago, after all, that Yedlin was repeatedly torched by the likes of Diego Fagundez during the Sounders' 5-0 loss to the New England Revolution. (Or at least that's the national narrative; the reality is he was just part of a defensive nightmare on that particularly day.)
Clearly, Klinsmann saw something the vast majority of pundits missed.
With right back being perhaps the least settled among positional several question marks, Yedlin is a particularly bold choice. The 20-year-old is in just his second full season as a professional and he only has two international caps to his name. To say there are doubts about Yedlin's ability to perform on soccer's biggest stage would be a dramatic understatement. But what might Klinsmann see in Yedlin that many of us are missing? Here's a few possibilities:
Fast as the wind
The United States is going to have its hands full with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and the assortment of world-class left mids occupying the rosters of Ghana and Germany. That was going to be the case no matter who was playing right back. The safe pick would have been to go with someone like Geoff Cameron or Brad Evans, guys who have proven they are at least capable of performing the job either at the club level or in World Cup qualifying. But neither of those players were going to be able to keep up with the pace they'll be facing in Brazil.
It's still hard to see Yedlin starting over someone like Fabian Johnson or Timmy Chandler, but there's no doubt that he can at least run with the guys he'll be matching up against. Yedlin is often criticized for relying on his speed to cover up for his tendency to push forward, but he does have the speed to actually recover and he might be the only player in the USMNT pool capable of doing that.
There's clearly a massive risk with playing Yedlin, but there's an equally clear upside of being an extra attacker. Having an extra attacker may, in the end, be the United States' best hope in keeping their opponents honest. There's no one in the USMNT player pool who was going to just shut down Ronaldo, so that clearly wasn't the way Klinsmann was going to choose his roster. The best the American right backs can do is to neutralize Ronaldo's effectiveness and by forcing him to at least be aware of a late attacking threat, there's the possibility of that happening. Yedlin, at least in theory, offers that potential without totally selling out the defensive side.
Change of pace
Heading into training camp, the buzz was starting to build that Fabian Johnson was the likely starting right back. That Chandler was invited was a bit of a surprise, but only because he had seemingly fallen out of favor with Klinsmann. Klinsmann apparently felt comfortable that his full-time starter is one of those two. Off the bench and used only in specific situations, Yedlin may make more sense.
If the United States is chasing points late in a match, Yedlin has proven himself plenty capable of joining the attack and causing all kinds of problems for defenses. One needs only to go back to the film of the penalty he drew against the Portland Timbers where he comes from no where to win a ball in the area and set up the game-tying goal.
He also provides Klinsmann with some tactical flexibility, possibly even permitting the U.S. to go to more of a three-man backfield late in games. While the Sounders play a 4-4-2, it is often more of a 3-5-2 whenever Yedlin is on the pitch as Sigi Schmid has given him license to get forward with near impunity. Klinsmann clearly wanted attacking options out of the back and Yedlin will absolutely give him that.
The chances that Klinsmann is basing his decisions on anything other than who will best help the U.S. compete in Brazil are slim, but there's some logic to bringing guys like Yedlin, Green and John Anthony Brooks. Even if they aren't the absolute best picks for 2014, there are worse ways to use the bottom end of a roster than to fill it with players whose best years are still ahead of them.
Let's consider, for instance, that even if Evans or Michael Parkhurst -- to name two players Yedlin directly beat out -- went to Brazil they were unlikely to play. If Klinsmann has decided that Johnson or Chandler are his starting right back and Cameron is the player he's most likely to use as a backup, chances are Evans and Parkhurst were both destined to sit on the bench during the entire tournament. Sure, making a World Cup roster is a fine feather in any player's cap, but Klinsmann can't be concerned with that right now.
Even putting aside all that Yedlin potentially offers Klinsmann in Brazil, the experience he'll gain just by being with this team for the next couple months is invaluable. There's every possibility that Yedlin, Brooks and Green will be cornerstones of the U.S. program for the next two World Cup cycles and this could very well be a bet on that future. Might there be an immediate cost? Of course. But the United States' performance is unlikely to be determined by the last few spots on the roster, anyway.
This move has some intriguing upsides for 2014, probably can't be fully evaluated by the time the United States returns from Brazil. Maybe that's just what Klinsmann wanted.