When Sounders FC signed DeAndre Yedlin as the club's first Homegrown player in January of 2013, there was a lot of risk involved. The club wanted to be sure that at 19 years old Yedlin would be prepared to make the jump to the professional level, and that he would be comfortable enough to shoulder the questions of being the first Academy alum to sign with the first team.
Now, 18 months later, that notion seems laughable as Yedlin prepares with the U.S. National Team for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. That is a testament to Sounders FC's youth development programs, the work that the club has put in with him at the first-team level and the commitment Yedlin has shown to continue his development at every step along his path.
It's no wonder the club has celebrated his inclusion on the World Cup squad so fervently.
"It's fantastic for DeAndre and his situation as young as he is and inexperienced as he is on the international level to get that opportunity and to get that exposure. We all have a lot of faith in DeAndre's talent level and his ability and I think he's made great strides," Sounders FC Head Coach Sigi Schmid said. "I think there are still things he can become better at. He's continuing to grow, he's continuing to develop and this is just another step in that development."
Yedlin's development is an early return on the investment the club has put into its youth programs. Each year the Academy has grown more and more, and now features teams all the way down to the U-14 level.
Yedlin spent just one year in the Academy system, joining in the inaugural season of the Academy in 2010 before enrolling at Akron in 2011. Between his freshman and sophomore seasons at Akron, he played one season with the Sounders FC U-23s.
Now three years removed from playing for the Academy, young players around the region are seeing just how fruitful the Sounders FC development system was for Yedlin.
"It's huge for our club. We've been putting a lot of money and resources into our Academy system. We have a big focus on that and when you see it's successful in the way it's been with DeAndre it opens people's eyes," Sounders FC Sporting Director Chris Henderson said. "We're doing the right things and making the right moves and the players that are coming behind him see that it's a pathway."
A year ago, Seattle spoke in the same tones as Yedlin earned a spot on the MLS All-Star team and was a finalist for MLS Rookie of the Year. Now, as the first Homegrown player in league history to be named to the U.S. World Cup roster, he trains alongside fellow-Sounder and USMNT captain Clint Dempsey in preparation for Brazil. Yedlin is blazing trails for players all around the league, but the torch that he bears for young players in Seattle is distinct in its glow.
"I think it's something for all the kids in our Academy and in the Seattle area to look at and see that there's a path here," Schmid said. "It's a path that leads not only to professional soccer, but there's a path that leads to the World Cup."
Along the way, Sounders FC has seen Yedlin gain more and more confidence as his experiences become more challenging and vast. His game has expanded as he learns the nuances of the professional game in Major League Soccer, just as it has with each appearance and training camp he plays with the U.S. National Team.
"Each step you gain more confidence and you can see that in DeAndre's game. If he had an off game last year, it was a one-off and then he was back at it," Henderson said. "I'm not surprised because of his character and the environment he's in.
Each step he's playing with better and better players. He went through it last year and he was listening and watching and learning, picking things up from veteran players. Now he's doing the same thing at another level with the National Team."
The Sounders take a lot of pride in the success Yedlin has had early in his professional career. However, the club also knows that it takes a special talent and a unique personality to make the transition as quickly and successfully as Yedlin has.
"We're really proud of him. His mentality and his attitude have opened him up to his success," Henderson said. "I wouldn't be surprised if people around the world start noticing him."