DeAndre Yedlin's game has changed, and anyone who watched his performance at right back against Guatemala should know it if they've watched the defender for any amount of time over the past couple of years. Yedlin has always been a bundle of energy bouncing around the field, but against Guatemala he looked more controlled, cooler, and focused on his defensive responsibilities first. He just looked different on the field, and people noticed.
For some reason, DeAndre Yedlin’s hair inevitably comes up in conversation about his growth as a player. It’s actually kind of incredible how many times announcers and interviewers, when talking about his perceived growth and maturity, continue to throw something like "he’s not doing crazy things with his hair anymore!" into their analysis of his on-field play. Taylor Twellmen even mentioned it on in-game commentary during the USMNT’s 4-0 victory over Guatemala.
Lol Taylor Twellman just said DeAndre Yedlin is getting better because he didn't die his hair.— Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan) March 29, 2016
DeAndre Yedlin is a better player because his hair's not dyed. Uh, okay.— Gavin Ewbank (@GavinEwbank) March 29, 2016
Twellman's comment, however, had more to do with Yedlin's attitude and demeanor than just a matter of highlights and razor cuts. Yedlin has been a welcome injection of youth and pace into a side that, in the last couple of years, has looked fairly old and slow in its most competitive iterations, but he's also been a liability at times. His far-ranging pace invites him upfield into space vacated by attacking wingers, but that offensive instinct often left a mediocre U.S. defense stretched. He looked like a kid playing pickup. But the player fans saw on the field against Guatemala (and in Sunderland’s game against West Brom before that) was a far cry from the raw, vibrant talent they saw against Portugal and Belgium in the summer of 2014.
Many people find it hard to recall the exact excitement that accompanied Yedlin’s rise in the wake of some lackluster performances following the World Cup in 2014 and his struggle to find playing time following his move to Tottenham in 2015, but it still looks impressive even after so much time: in about six months, Yedlin went from a youth team option to all but shutting down Eden Hazard at the World Cup. Roma and other European teams soon came sniffing, but it was Tottenham that eventually snapped Yedlin up.
The steep climb to the top of the hype train was matched by a corresponding fall. After his time finished with the Sounders, Yedlin didn’t see any consistent playing time with Tottenham. Klinsmann kept giving him minutes with the United States, but he seemed to see him more as a winger than a defender. The results were mixed: while Yedlin clearly could make an impact in the offense as a late-game sub, his starts on the wing often didn’t yield nearly as much success. He was fast, yes, and his ability to get to the endline and cut the ball back to the penalty spot has led to more than a couple goals for the U.S., but he also looked like that was his only idea in the offensive third, and he never really nailed down the tactical nuances of the wing in the myriad different formations Klinsmann rolled out. The question of his best position became more and more muddled. He moved down the hype pecking order from one of the most promising players the U.S. had produced in several years to a young luxury player, one who looked like he might be yet another cautionary tale. He was a defender who couldn’t defend; he was a winger unsure of how to attack. At times he looked positively electric, and the promise of his athleticism and his moments of brilliance, like the Belgium game, were still evident. But he certainly didn’t look like the future.
Sunderland are a bad team with a worse culture. When I say this, I’m not really referring to their history, or their fans, or even their results. Sunderland spent many, many years as one of the best teams in England, and their academy continues to produce international-caliber talent at the youth level. Their fans are also wonderfully passionate about the club. You have to be to keep supporting a team so committed to underachieving. And despite their constant relegation battles, they manage to stay in the Premier League more often than not.
Sunderland are a bad club because it’s clear they don’t know what they’re doing in putting a team together and care far more about money than the actual on-field product. They’ve had six managers in the last five years and thirteen in the last ten. They have consistently spent money on players that succeed elsewhere, only to see that talent whither or quickly move along. Worst of all, the sense you get while watching the team is that relegation battles are inevitable for them, and they only have it in them to escape the relegation mire at the ends of seasons as opposed to striving for higher climes. This is preposterous for a club with a stadium capacity of 40,000 and the ability to sell that stadium out. The problem is not money. The problem is the people who call the shots.
American fans’ trepidation at Yedlin joining Sunderland was understandable, then. Jozy Altidore had just spent a miserable stretch with them, in which initially promising performances shrunk until the man looked like a shell of the player who had exploded in the Netherlands and for the U.S. in the previous couple seasons. And those fears were pretty well-founded: almost like clockwork, Dick Advocaat resigned from his managerial position and the Black Cats brought in Sam Allardyce. Yedlin subsequently lost much of the playing time he had received under Advocaat, as his defensive positioning still lacked severely at times and Big Sam wasn’t about to hand time to the American for Spurs’ development needs. His job was, and is still, clear: keep the club up.
The English relegation grind is brutal. The pressure-cooker of fans, media, managerial staff, and the boon of new-found cash that North America and Asia have injected into the Premier League weighs on players every single week as you lose or draw yet another game, looking at the dwindling list of fixtures and trying to see where you can possibly pick up points. Lesser teams lock things down tactically, conceding the fact that they are not as good as the clubs higher in the table at this point in the season, and prefer to grind out results through defense, counterattack, and every soccer commentator’s favorite meaningless word, "grit." Relegation battles grind down players, but those that can survive (and even thrive) in those situations often find consistent work in the Premier League. Those are the players that never had the highest ceilings athletically, but have the intelligence and personal drive necessary to continue to succeed even in poor situations. Those are the people DeAndre Yedlin has played with this season.
Yedlin made his way back into the Sunderland’s starting lineup because of injuries initially, but has shown the resolve and mental strength necessary to stay there. He drew plaudits for his performances against Crystal Palace and Manchester United, and firmly re-established himself as Sunderland’s starting right back once again. He still has the flash of pace and ability to get forward when necessary, but Yedlin’s confidence on the field has looked more and more like the confidence of a relegation-hardened player. He knows how to keep his man, how to stick into hard tackles in a smart way, and how to cover his teammates, alternately allowing them to cover for him. He looks like an honest-to-God right back, not just an athlete to play anywhere on the field, using his speed as a cheat code.
Yedlin’s positional questions for the U.S. look to be coming to a close following the two World Cup qualifying games against Guatemala. In Guatemala City, he played on the wing, where he once against looked dangerous and lost in turns. In the return leg in Columbus, however, Yedlin’s performance at right back looked like his play at Sunderland: cool, calm, and defensively strong, preferring to maintain a good defensive shape than sprinting forward at every opportunity.
The book is not closed on Yedlin’s development, and he still has his naive moments on the pitch. While SB Nation's Roker Report didn't go too harshly on him in their player ratings, Yedlin was at least partly culpable for Jamie Vardy's brace against Sunderland on Sunday. Whether he can gain real playing time on Tottenham’s squad is still anyone’s guess, and he still looks like he’ll be at the very most a backup option at right back for Spurs when he returns this season. But he will return to Tottenham a very different player than when he left. Yedlin has packaged the exciting elements of his game with a more well-rounded understanding of his own position. He has been ground down by the relegation battle, but instead of allowing himself to be crushed, he raised his game and forced himself back into Sunderland's starting XI. And as he continues to grow in confidence, who is to say where his game goes from here? I’m still holding out hope for his hair to get a non-Twellman-approved resurgence. If he keeps the path he’s on, I doubt anyone will care very much either way.