ISTANBUL, Turkey — It was six o’clock on a December evening. Inside his apartment in one of the wealthiest areas of Istanbul, DeAndre Yedlin gestured toward the view out his floor-to-ceiling windows. Twenty-four stories below, one of the world’s grandest, most fascinating cities twinkled in the twilight.
But Yedlin didn’t leave his apartment on this night, not even to take his baby daughter for a stroll. His team, Galatasaray, was coming off a discouraging loss to Sivasspor. It hardly mattered that Yedlin performed well; until the club won again, it wouldn’t be prudent for him to be seen in public.
Playing for Galatasaray was different than playing in the Premier League at Newcastle or Sunderland, two of his previous stops. It was a world away from well-behaved Seattle, where Yedlin grew up and his professional career began. Wherever he went around Istanbul, someone recognized him. “There are so, so many Galatasaray fans,” Yedlin said. “And all of them have something to say.”
The city’s emotional connection with the club created a difficult enough situation after a win. When Galatasaray didn’t win, Yedlin understood that it was better to lay low. “I don’t like confrontation,” he said.
A buzzer sounded. Dinner arrived. Turkish meals are typically constructed around sizzling slabs of meat. That’s been difficult for Yedlin, who adopted a primarily vegan diet two years ago. On this night, he and his partner, Crystal Rodriguez, had ordered in from the Istanbul outpost of Eataly. The pastas and salads they arranged on their kitchen island were identical to those that the Italian chain turns out in Las Vegas or Seoul or Stockholm.
Yedlin, 28, arrived in Istanbul during last January’s transfer window, almost exactly a year ago. It was a surprising step in his career. After a standout performance during the 2014 World Cup, he was among the first MLS academy products to sign overseas, with Tottenham in the English Premier League. He spent seven seasons in England, mostly in the northeast. Turkey, where only a handful of top Americans had previously played, wasn’t on his radar.
Every American who has spent time with a Turkish club, from Brad Friedel to Freddy Adu, came away with an uncommon experience. “The most magnificent eighteen months of my life,” is how Friedel, who spent the 1995-96 season at Galatasaray, describes it. Yedlin’s experience took place during a pandemic, during the rule of the increasingly autocratic president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It also coincided with Galatasaray’s worst domestic season in its 116-year history. When Yedlin’s contract was terminated on Sunday so he could sign a four-year deal with MLS’s Inter Miami — a move that will be finalized by the league as early as Friday — the 22-time Super Lig champions stood only six points clear of relegation.
Even after nearly a year in Istanbul, Yedlin woke up every morning astonished at the vast city thrumming below him, at the unfamiliar rhythms of its language, at the calls to prayer that echoed through the streets. “I feel so fortunate to have had these experiences,” he said. “To come from the Islamophobia at home, where people see Muslims on a plane and freak out, to a place where I saw mosques on every block. It’s amazing. I loved it.”
Yet each day, Yedlin lived inside a different reality. His high-rise apartment could have existed in any metropolis. As much as he wanted to immerse in the local culture, he spent most of his time in a professional bubble, commuting through the overwhelming traffic in a limo with curtains on the windows, a video screen, WiFi and a dedicated driver. With Galatasaray’s bad results piling up, he ate most of his dinners at home.
He also spent a lot of time in his head. Yedlin is uncommonly introspective. “Everything has a meaning to me,” he says. “Every tattoo, every song I listen to, everything.” Much of it references his childhood, which was decidedly unconventional.
Yedlin is the product of a brief relationship between his mother, Rebecca, and a man named Larry Rivers, Jr. Rivers went to prison two weeks before Yedlin was born. He remains there, serving a life sentence as a habitual offender after charges that included robbery, cocaine distribution and kidnapping. Yedlin has never met him. A teenager when she gave birth, Rebecca was also “in and out of the wrong things,” Yedlin said. Before Yedlin was two years old, a court had awarded custody to his maternal grandparents. “I’ve learned to accept it, and that’s why I love it so much,” he says. “It makes me who I am. It’s what was supposed to happen to me.”
As he ate his pasta, ’50s and ’60s music played on an endless loop. Janis Joplin gave way to Millie Small’s “Lollipop” on Spotify, then Johnny Mathis. Some of the songs were those that his grandparents, who raised him, played at home. Others, Yedlin associated with road trips with his grandparents down the Pacific coast to visit Southern California theme parks. When the first chunky piano chords of Teresa Brewer’s 1950 hit “Put Another Nickel In (Music, Music, Music)” came on, his eyes went far away. “This is Disneyland, 100 percent,” he said.
Yedlin has spent the past few years finding ways to cultivate happiness. He has pored over self-help books and studied the world’s religions. Since the birth of his daughter, Seneca, in September, he has thrown himself into fatherhood. Somehow, though, he never seems quite as content as when he’s reliving his past. “When you see kids happy, it’s such a genuine happiness,” he explained. “That’s so nostalgic for me. When I hear music that reminds me of that time, it makes me happy, too.”
Yedlin’s thoughts were thousands of miles away. “We’re ready to go back,” he said. “We’re more than ready.”
Yedlin spent much of Monday and Tuesday at Istanbul’s airport, trying to get a flight out during an epic snowstorm that collapsed part of the roof of a cargo building. He was headed to Columbus, Ohio, where the USMNT is playing El Salvador tonight. He hung out in the lounge as the delays piled up. “On Monday, I think every flight got cancelled.” His ride home in the snow took five hours. He didn’t get out until Wednesday, when the weather cleared.
His efforts to leave were symbolic. For the past few weeks, since Fatih Terim was fired as Galatasaray’s manager at the start of the January window, Yedlin has been negotiating with several MLS clubs in an effort to get back to America. The process was tortuous. “There had been talks,” Yedlin said. “You hear it around, what the options might be. But I’ve learned over the years that nothing’s official until it’s official.”
As late as Sunday, he played for Galatasaray. After that game, in which Galatasaray conceded the losing goal in the 90th minute, the deal was completed to make him a free agent. That meant he was eligible to play in any country, but only one country made sense.
Yedlin wanted desperately to return to Seattle, where he began in 2010 as an academy player, but Miami emerged as a better fit. (When it appeared that Yedlin was possible, they traded for the top spot in the MLS Allocation Order, which gives them priority when it comes to USMNT players returning to the league.) Unlike the Sounders, the team needs a starting right-back. Rodriguez has family there, including her grandfather, and Yedlin’s family has relocated to the East Coast. “For all of us, Miami was definitely the best decision,” Yedlin said. And for a footballer interested in the fashion industry, which Yedlin is, there can be no better mentor than David Beckham, Inter Miami’s part-owner. “I’m fortunate to already know that that’s what I want to do after my career,” Yedlin said. “So to be able to absorb a bit of his knowledge would be incredible.”
Yedlin was raised in a middle-class Jewish home in Seattle. Since then, he has embraced Buddhism and the idea of reincarnation. He is half-white and half-African American, with some Native American blood. “Everyone who meets me says, ‘You’re not like I thought you would be,’” Yedlin says. “People stereotype me a certain way, based on how I look. My tattoos. The way I dress. They don’t understand who I really am.”
In Istanbul, he kept stacks of books inside the front door of his apartment — Colson Whitehead novels; studies on the workings of the subconscious mind; the Bible, the Quran and Bhagavad Gita. One of his tattoos, THE GENTRY, extends across his neck. Yedlin says it makes people think he “wants to be a gangsta.” It’s actually the name of the menswear shop his great-grandfather used to own in Phoenix.
Rebecca Yedlin’s father, Ira, worked as a nurse for the Navajo tribe in New Mexico before settling in Seattle. Ira Yedlin’s wife, Vicki Walton, who is actually Yedlin’s step-grandmother, was an avowed Communist. “I tell people, look up the definition,” Yedlin says. “I don’t know if it’s possible today, but if you’re talking about equality, it’s the best system. Money has never been something that our family uses to measure success.”
Dylan Walton-Yedlin, Ira and Vicki’s son, was nine years old when Yedlin arrived. Dylan was an athlete who became a NCAA Division III All-America as a defensive lineman, so Yedlin became an athlete, too. When Dylan played on a soccer team, Yedlin was the ballboy. When Dylan lifted weights with Ira, Yedlin did too. For Yedlin’s 12th birthday, he asked for, and received, a pass to the local 24 Hour Fitness club.
Yedlin was tiny. He barely topped 100 pounds as a freshman at Seattle’s O’Dea High. Nevertheless, he played football, soccer and even basketball. He found time to run track and wrestle. Soccer didn’t emerge as his primary sport until his junior year. “But even when he was playing high school football, he didn’t miss a practice,” says Sean Henderson, who coached Yedlin at Crossfire, his club team. “He was keeping up with guys who were playing nothing but soccer.”
The Sounders became an MLS expansion team in 2009. When they established an academy the following autumn, Yedlin was 17. Henderson, now the club’s director of scouting, was hired to run it. He brought Yedlin with him. After two years of college soccer at Akron, Yedlin signed with the Sounders before the 2013 season, their first homegrown player.
Yedlin was an MLS All-Star during his rookie season. He debuted for the USMNT in February, 2014, against South Korea. And when manager Jurgen Klinsmann made his selection for the World Cup, the 20-year-old Yedlin was on the list. “I look at players and think, ‘Where can they go from where they are right now?’” Klinsmann says now. “I was amazed by the characteristics he already had. His speed was a weapon, but it wasn’t just his speed. He had an instinctive way of dealing with situations. He saw the game ahead of him. He was a very good listener. And I loved his enthusiasm and positivity.”
Yedlin played in three of the four U.S. games in Brazil. Against Belgium in the Round of 16, which happens to be the last time USMNT played in a World Cup, he came on when Fabian Johnson pulled a hamstring after half an hour. That gave him the responsibility of marking Eden Hazard.
It was a mismatch. Hazard was England’s reigning Young Player of the Year following a breakout season at Chelsea. If Yedlin had an international reputation, it was as a defensive liability. Their difference in standing was so profound that it dispelled any pressure Yedlin might have felt. “If he passes me, everybody’s expecting him to pass me,” Yedlin remembered thinking. “If I miss a pass, everybody’s expecting that. There was just so little expectation of me to do well. And I did very, very well.”
Hazard was ineffectual. Belgium’s two extra-time goals eliminated the United States, but the game introduced Yedlin to a global audience. “Certain moments can serve as a catapult,” Klinsmann said. In the aftermath, he sat down with Yedlin to explain the ramifications. “You’re going to start getting a lot of attention,” he said.
11/12/21 10:33 p.m. @EklavyaChawla16: Yedlin is one of the worst footballers I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching
11/12/21 10:33 p.m. @WillParchman: If you told me yesterday DeAndre Yedlin would be the US’s best player against Mexico, I’d immediately assume the US lost by 12 goals.
DeAndre Yedlin is good enough to have played more games for his country than anyone else on the USMNT, but he’s not good enough to stop the criticism of his game that follows him wherever he goes. “People have very varied opinions,” Sean Henderson said. “I don’t know why.”
Yedlin’s strengths and weaknesses appear evident. “You know what you’re going to get,” said Paul Arriola, his U.S. teammate. But Yedlin’s effect on a game can be subtle. He can make a run without the ball and never get near it, but his speed serves to push the opposing full-back deeper. “Very few people notice when DeAndre’s run has created that bit of extra space,” Henderson said. “But it can lead to a goal.”
It happened in Cincinnati in November. Sergino Dest, the starting U.S. right back, was out with a lower-spine strain for the match against Mexico. Projected XIs across the internet had Shaq Moore, Reggie Cannon or 18-year-old Joe Scally in Dest’s place. Instead, when national team manager Gregg Berhalter’s team sheet was announced an hour before the game, his right back was … Yedlin.
Reaction was predictable. The last member of that 2014 U.S. team still playing internationally, Yedlin’s continued presence is an ongoing reminder that the USMNT never made it to the next World Cup. “There’s a whole thing right now around the U.S. team,” Yedlin said. “Anyone who was part of the team that didn’t qualify for the World Cup should be out and wiped away. And I get that.”
In Cincinnati, Yedlin clamped down on Mexico’s left winger, Chucky Lozano. He occasionally gave the ball away, but he worked intuitively with Tim Weah on the right side, creating room for Weah to operate.
In the 49th minute, Yedlin threaded a pass to Weah that led to the best U.S. chance to that point. By many accounts, Weah was the best offensive player of the match, which the United States won, 2-0. “And I couldn’t have had that performance without having DeAndre there at my side,” Weah said. “He was doing all the dirty work.”
11/12/21 10:57 p.m. @USMNT_Thoughts: I want apologies from everyone who didn’t think Yedlin would have Chucky in his pocket…
11/12/21 11:15 p.m. @USMNTFAN6: Player grades…Yedlin: C-
The last time the football world had a consensus about Yedlin might have been in 2014, when he blanketed Hazard. Within a week, the Sounders were fielding offers. Yedlin wanted to go somewhere he would play, but he was told it would look bad if MLS lost talent to anything other than an elite club. Given the option of Roma or Tottenham, he chose Tottenham, even though Kyle Walker was ensconced there at right-back. He figured the adjustment would be easier in a country that spoke English. And if it didn’t work out, he’d have the Premier League on his resume.
On his second day in London, Harry Kane had him over for dinner. He watched NFL games with Ryan Mason. But in the changing room, Yedlin looked shell-shocked. As one of MLS’s fastest players, he’d been confident that if he made a sprint, he could hustle back if his team lost possession. In the Premier League, everyone seemed just as fast.
It wasn’t just the speed. “The intensity was mind-boggling,” Yedlin said. He practiced poorly, which meant he wasn’t close to playing in games. When Walker got hurt, the hulking central defender Eric Dier replaced him at right-back. “I’m not in the squad, I’m not in the conversation,” Yedlin remembers thinking. Living alone in an unfamiliar city, he was going out every night as a distraction. He obsessed about social media. “They were saying, ‘What happened to him? He’s going to be another guy with potential who just crashes out,’” Yedlin said. “I started to believe it.”
Klinsmann saved him. He brought Yedlin into the USMNT for seven matches between January and June, though Yedlin wasn’t playing at all for his club. Yedlin was in Washington, D.C. with the USMNT in September, 2015, when Sunderland acquired him on loan. Sunderland hadn’t yet started the freefall — so artfully chronicled in the documentary “Sunderland ‘Til I Die” — that would send them tumbling from the Premier League to League One, but the signs were there. Like so many other clubs desperate to avoid relegation, it turned to Sam Allardyce.
By then, Allardyce had a particular way of doing everything, and it didn’t involve a right-back who would race down the sideline when the spirit moved him. During a training session, a ball came to Yedlin with nobody near. It was his kind of moment. He started up the right side at pace, then played a pass forward to a winger. Allardyce stopped the session. “The next time you don’t put the ball in the f—–g channel, you’re going to be out,” he said.
“I wanted to play,” Yedlin said. “So that’s what I did.” He evidently didn’t do it well enough. Against Watford on December 12, Allardyce pulled him after 19 minutes. Over the next eight games, Yedlin appeared once, as a late substitute. “Sam’s the kind of guy, when he doesn’t trust you anymore, you’re out,” Yedlin said. “I was miserable. I knew something had to change.”
Yedlin typed “books about success” into a search engine. In school, his reading comprehension had been below grade level, but when he read the book he’d ordered, Brian Tracy’s “Maximum Achievement,” he said, “I understood everything.”
Tracy suggests that his readers write down their achievements over the coming weeks as if they’d already occurred. Yedlin’s list predicted he would somehow get into the game against Liverpool. He’d play well enough to start the next game, against Manchester United. He would remain in the lineup for the rest of the season and help Sunderland survive relegation. The scenario seemed preposterous, but Yedlin had the conviction of a desperate man. And as it turned out, that is exactly what happened.
With 15 minutes remaining against Liverpool and Sunderland down, 2-0, Billy Jones told Allardyce that he had “tired legs.” Yedlin replaced him and changed the dynamic. Sunderland scored twice in ten minutes. Yedlin was in the lineup against Manchester United. “At that point, I really started to believe,” he said.
He started every one of Sunderland’s last 12 games. The club rallied to stay up another season, just as Yedlin’s imagination had scripted. It could have been coincidence, but it saved his career.
“He’s a good boy,” Fatih Terim said. Terim was sitting on a couch in an office at the Galatasaray training ground in late December, talking about the back he’d signed a year before from Newcastle. “Sometimes he’s very good as an attacking full-back. I say, ‘Come on, DeAndre! Go! Go! Go!’ I want him to go. And sometimes he goes.”
Terim shrugged. “And sometimes he doesn’t.”
Terim is Turkey’s most renowned football figure. He managed the only Turkish team to win a European trophy, Galatasaray’s 2000 UEFA Cup champions. In 2008, he led Turkey to the Euro semifinals, losing on a late goal. He managed at Fiorentina and AC Milan, albeit briefly.
At Galatasaray, where he won eight Super Lig titles, Terim favored a dynamic style that includes mobile full-backs. Yedlin had been playing at Newcastle under Rafa Benitez, who used a measured approach to mitigate his team’s lack of talent. Then Steve Bruce arrived and made Benitez look like Marcelo Bielsa. “In England, I played for Sam Allardyce, Rafa Benitez, and Steve Bruce,” Yedlin said. “These are guys who like to sit back. If I wanted to play, I had to adapt my game. Of course, I tried to put a little flair into it when I could. But most of the time, I’m playing with teams that had 30 percent possession.”
Still, Terim noticed him. “I don’t listen to what anyone says,” Terim said. “I just see what I see.” Crucially, too, Terim had nobody else to play Yedlin’s positon. One right-back had been seriously injured in a fireworks accident. The other had an ailing hamstring. Yedlin’s price was right: no fee, a $2 million salary. “We wanted him,” Terim said. “So he came here.”
As currently constituted, Galatasaray is a curious blend. There are young Turkish players and local veterans, foreigners who have established a foothold in the country and others passing through. Mired in third place when Yedlin arrived last year, Galatasaray ended up winning its last six games and nearly edging Besiktas for the title. Over the summer, club president Burak Elmas asked several Americans he knew to help find a move for Yedlin, whom he deemed too expensive. Yedlin resisted — he’d only been there a few months, the pandemic was raging, Rodriguez was primed to give birth. September came and there he was, starting at right-back.
Super Lig games were unlike any Yedlin had experienced. “I would think it would be one of the most exciting leagues to watch,” Yedlin said. “The games are crazy.” At any moment, several players could be strewn across the field. Injury time often extended into double-digits. Home crowds were fierce and fanatic, especially against Galatasaray, which is the de facto national team. “The transition was much, much harder than I expected,” Yedlin said.
With little help from center-backs who prefer to stay in their own box, Yedlin was uneasy going too far forward. When he did, and then had the ball in a position to make a cross, he often hesitated, giving the opposition time to recover. “I know that,” he said, abashed. He holds a hand out at eye level. “It’s what takes me from being here,” he said, then drops the hand down a foot, “to here.”
“But every player here has some kind of problem like this,” Terim said. “Why is DeAndre in Turkey? If he was perfect, he’d be somewhere better.”
Against Sivasspor, on a cold night in an austere mountain city, Yedlin started one of his last games for Galatasaray. It was also one of his best. Left winger Max-Alain Gradel, the Ivoiran international, is Sivasspor’s most dangerous player. Backed by shrill whistles whenever Galatasaray had possession, Gradel raced back and forth looking for the ball and an opening.
Yedlin gave him nothing. In a memorable encounter in the 61st minute, Gradel had the ball in the corner of the box with Yedlin to beat. For several moments, they remained at a standoff. Gradel faked. Yedlin held firm. When Gradel finally made a move to his left, Yedlin poked the ball out of bounds. “I don’t know if I could have done that before I came to Turkey,” Yedlin said.
After Galatasaray lost, the flight home felt funereal. “If you lose one game,” said Arda Turan, the Turkish international who played at Barcelona and Atletico Madrid before returning to Galatasaray, “it is terrible.” At training the next day, Yedlin knew the mood would be somber.
Not long ago, Yedlin would have been devastated; instead, he watched videos of Seneca that he has stored on his phone. “True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future,” wrote the famous Seneca, Seneca the Younger, a first-century stoic philosopher and playwright whom Yedlin referenced when naming his daughter.
Before Seneca was born, a single bad pass would deflate Yedlin’s confidence. Now he plays with her name on a piece on athletic tape on his wrist. “I look down, I see my daughter’s name, and I know that when I walk in the door, she’ll be smiling at me,” he said.
Seneca’s name has additional resonance. While studying the African-American experience, Yedlin learned that Seneca Village was the name of a predominantly Black settlement on Manhattan’s West Side that was destroyed during the construction of Central Park. Seneca Street is also a thoroughfare in downtown Seattle. Yedlin grew up seeing the sign on I-5 each time he entered the city from the south. Every time he says her name, it’s another reminder of his hometown.
After nearly a decade as a professional, Yedlin has a comfortable relationship with soccer. He describes it like a long marriage. If some excitement is gone, he still can’t imagine living without it. “I’m not somebody who’s going to go to training and then go home and watch two Premier League games, and then go on my computer and watch a game in Spain,” he said. “I don’t play FIFA. I’m not following all the scores. But I care when I’m in the game, giving 100 percent, seeing where it takes me. That’s what I’ve done my whole career.”
In the coming months, he hopes to start a clothing brand called Roselle. It’s his middle name, but the significance transcends that. For Yedlin, it’s another talisman of the past, another representation of difficulties overcome.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Rosell Ellis gained renown as a basketball player for Seattle’s Rainier Beach High. Rebecca Yedlin knew of him and liked the name. She added a final ‘e’ and gave it to her son. “It’s a name I hated my entire life,” Yedlin said. “But I learned to love it because it was different, which is exactly my story. I was smaller than everyone and they made fun of my height. I was colored in an all-white school. Father gone, family’s got tension. And I had trouble putting the pieces together. Now I’ve learned to accept that story and to love it. It’s a true story, and it’s me.”
Roselle stands for all of that. This season, he used it in place of Yedlin on his Galatasaray jersey. As the Roman Seneca writes, “Man is affected not by events, but by the view he takes of them.”
Exactly an hour before each game, Crystal sends Yedlin a video of Seneca’s latest escapades. Yedlin watches it. Then he puts on headphones and starts to write lyrics based on whatever it inspires. He has more than a dozen raps saved in his iPhone. Many of the raps involve Seattle, where he still longs to return. His family has moved away and the city has evolved; perhaps Yedlin is more enticed by linking his future with his past than with the city itself. Nevertheless, his thoughts keep returning there. After four seasons in Miami, he notes, he’ll still only be 32.
“I’ve spoken with Crystal about it,” he said. “We’ll definitely move back to Seattle, whether at the end of my career or after my career. Yes, it’s about my childhood, but I was also the first homegrown of the club, the little baby who grew up and moved on. From the beginning, I’ve always said that I would go back.”
Sitting in his kitchen in Istanbul, he opened the file he’d written before the Sivasspor game. Quietly, so he wouldn’t wake Seneca, he recited it in cadence:
Seattle known for the Subarus
But when I bring the Hellcat to the 206 it gets shifty
They show love like they miss me; they probably do
Only been gone eight or nine years, it feels like fifty
Child at heart like kids be
Don’t mean to get all soft, but I got love for the city
He looked up. He was smiling, but his eyes were glistening. “I’m manifesting this,” he said. “Putting it out there into the universe. We’ll see what happens.”