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Yedlin's evolution gives USMNT a lock-down right back

12:18 AM IST 09/10/17
DeAndre Yedlin USA Panama 10082017
The Newcastle United defender has made the U.S. national team's right back position his own, giving the team its best option since Steve Cherundolo

ORLANDO, Fla. — DeAndre Yedlin is an attacking player at heart, from his earliest days as a youth standout through his time in college at Akron, where Caleb Porter first sold him on the idea of a future as an attacking right back.

The defensive side of his game often felt like a bit of an afterthought early on in his career, as a standout for the Seattle Sounders and as a surprising inclusion on the 2014 U.S. World Cup team. Generally speaking, Yedlin focused more on getting forward, and letting his world-class speed cover for inevitable defensive mistakes.

That wasn't going to cut it in England, though, not at the top levels, and it wasn't going to be enough for him to become the regular starter at right back the national team had needed since Steve Cherundolo retired.

If that doesn't sound like the Yedlin you watched masterfully neutralize Panama's dangerous wingers in the World Cup qualifying win against Panama on Friday, it's because Yedlin is no longer that player. His time at Tottenham, Sunderland and now Newcastle have helped him hone his defensive game to the point that he is no longer a liability, but instead arguably the most reliable defender in the U.S. pool.

Now, the player who used to live for bombing forward finds himself liking the defensive side of the game in a way he didn't used to.

"I enjoy it more now. Once you start to become OK at something, you learn to enjoy it more," Yedlin said after Friday's win. "I don't think I was the best defender before so it wasn't fun for me. It's getting better."

Experience as a starter for then-Premier League side Sunderland in 2016 helped Yedlin begin his progression as a defender, but the full year spent playing in the League Championship with Newcastle under Rafa Benitez really helped him hone the defensive instincts he used to lack.

"(It helped) massively," Yedlin said. "I think it's one of the things that we work on a lot in training. It's a bit boring, but you don't really realize when you're doing it as well, but when you get into the game situations, it's much easier and things get slowed down for you and you see situations that you've seen before in training, so things just become much easier."

Yedlin hasn't missed a beat since Newcastle's jump to the Premier League, and has enjoyed an impressive start to the new season. He brought that form into Friday's match against Panama, during which he read the game well and consistently put himself in good positions, both to support U.S. right winger Paul Arriola and contain Panama's speed on the flank.

"I've always been fast, it's God-given talent," Yedlin said. "I just try and use that to my advantage, but I'm learning more and more positionally so I don't have to rely on my pace so much."

"He played against some good players (on Friday) and did well," U.S. coach Bruce Arena said. "He's a good player that continues to grow. It's great to get him back in."

Yedlin was sorely missed by the U.S. during the September qualifiers, when Costa Rica and, especially, Honduras enjoyed success going after Graham Zusi. Yedlin's presence not only limited Panama's options, but he also continued to develop a partnership with Arriola, forming a tandem Arena could very well stick with in the near future — and potentially when the World Cup rolls around.

"He's got the wheels, he's a hard worker, and for me he makes my life easy at times where there's times I can't get back and he can deal with it," Arriola said. "But the way he flies forward it's funny that we're very similar characteristic-wise. But it's just a matter of learning when I go in he's going to be flying up, and I think that the confidence that we have is continuing to rise and I look forward to building it."

Yedlin will be vitally important to a U.S. team that — if it can qualify for the World Cup  — will be hoping to advance past the round of 16 for the first time since 2002. Right back had become a position filled by those better suited in other roles, with the likes of Fabian Johnson and Geoff Cameron headlining the list of players who have helped fill the void left when Cherundolo — the best right back in U.S. national team history — faded out of the national team picture in 2012.

Now the U.S. has a true right back who is developing into a two-way difference maker, and at 24, still has plenty of room to grow even more. Three years after being seen as a major surprise on the 2014 World Cup roster, Yedlin will head toward the 2018 World Cup as one of the team's best players, and Tuesday's World Cup qualifier against Trinidad & Tobago will provide one more opportunity how much he has improved, and how important he has become.