Before we can truly look forward, we must go back in time, to a marvelous place where the United States men’s national team missing the World Cup was such an afterthought, it would be equal to falling into the abyss. Yeah, a few CONCACAF rivals like Panama and Costa Rica were rapidly improving and belonged in the discussion for a World Cup berth every four years. The USMNT couldn’t falter far enough to watch the international event from the sidelines? Of course not! Until it happened in 2018.
DeAndre Yedlin is the only American with previous World Cup experience that was named to Gregg Berhalter’s 26-man roster for Qatar. It’s an odd place to be. Even as the USA missed every World Cup between 1950 and 1990, six members of the 1994 World Cup squad had previous tournament experience, including Tab Ramos and Tony Meola. Yedlin is on an island by himself in that category. John Brooks and incredible longshot Julian Green appeared to be the only other 2014 participants to be considered for selection this year.
Yedlin’s place on the team despite the hard-roster reset of 2018 never went away. Even though it feels like he’s been around too long, he’s only 29. Yedlin was days shy of his 21st birthday when the USA got knocked out in the Round of 16 by Belgium in its last World Cup game to date. He was a young kid back then. Only Green was younger than the 23 men selected for the 2014 World Cup by the Yanks. Now, he’s the fifth-oldest member of the team, months shy of besting Walker Zimmerman for No. 4 in time spent on Earth.
Yedlin isn’t expected to start in Qatar, as Sergino Dest and Antonee Robinson have locked down his outside back spot for most of World Cup qualifying. He’s one of the more intriguing options off the bench, however. Remember his appearance at the 2014 World Cup against Portugal? His pace on the right side helped turn the tide of that game, bringing the USA from down 1-0 after an early own goal to up 2-1 late. Cristiano Ronaldo had a moment of brilliance to keep the USMNT to one point that day instead of three. Without Yedlin, the Yanks likely don’t advance to the knockout stage.
What should we expect from Yedlin in this World Cup? If you tuned out for eight years, basically the same thing he did in 2014, but a more mature version. While his speed and vision toward goal from defense stood out then, the USMNT is loaded with that style of player on this roster. His defensive ability has improved a little, and he’ll likely have to cover more at the back with the USA’s guaranteed opponents in Wales, England, and Iran. Relying on the center backs to solely do that grit work will lead to the Americans leaving Qatar after three games.
“There’s a state you can get in called flow state, which is basically when you’re not even thinking about what you’re doing. You’re just doing it and almost, you don’t know how. And (at the 2014 World Cup) I was in that state,” Yedlin said in a recent US Soccer video. “For whatever reason, everything was just flowing for me. And it was obviously a life-changing experience.”
In recent days, some experts, including former USMNTer Landon Donovan, have called for Yedlin to start Monday’s World Cup opener against Wales over Dest. Their reasoning is while Dest is a better version of 2014 Yedlin in attack, his lack of recent play due to injury and defensive missteps have made some clamor for experience to be the deciding factor. I’d still give Dest the first chance at starting in Qatar over Yedlin. Dest’s best is worth the risk over Yedlin, which would be the safer move. When you’re guaranteed, you go with the best possible path, even if a crash and burn may occur.
The U.S. has had eight years to think about a return to the biggest stage in the sport. It has 270 guaranteed minutes to prove itself. Dest still provides a top-level quality Yedlin hasn’t shown consistently. The AC Milan right back may have an incredibly short leash to remove his starting tag in Qatar, as most players not named Christian Pulisic should. It’s impossible that Yedlin doesn’t touch the field in Qatar. Providing a super-sub spark will be ideal if the USA wants to advance out of the group stage.
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