DAVID SMITH - Thursday, June 2, 2011
While the the press and fans of any sport are often infatuated with finding the next young starlet which is ready to make their stamp as a superstar in the making, the calculated and measured route of a player successfully approaching the highest levels often gets lost in the fray.
In the world of soccer this is particularly true, with countless examples of players that never lived up to the immense expectations piled upon them, continually replaced by a constant stream of new faces expected to meet the ever-rising pressure on young players.
Consequently, it can serve as a positive example for burgeoning talents to see examples of players who have steadily built a successful career on careful, thought-out choices, ultimately taking a trajectory which leads them to towards the highest levels.
MSV Duisburg keeper David Yelldell is one such player who has reaped the gains of a well-considered approach, benefiting over his professional career from an early learning period under the tutelage of the ageless Brad Friedel, all the while slowly rising through the ranks towards the more recent accomplishments of his first international cap with the US National team and a recent appearance in the final of the German Cup.
As with many players in the soccer-obsessed country in which he grew up, the German-born American had his beginning in the sport at a very young age, although the path to the position where he's made his successful career did take several years.
"I first started playing [soccer] when I was five or six years old," Yelldell explained "but when I was around 12 or 13 I decided to start playing in goal."
"I don't know exactly why, maybe I had fun jumping in the mud or maybe it was because of my size, but it was a good position for me."
Spending his early years in Stuttgart, he had his eye towards the international game from the beginning, pointing out Arsenal as one team he particularly admired in addition to his local team.
"I [followed] a few teams but I looked more to the English game like Arsenal London," he notes. "I always liked Arsenal and also Stuttgart as well."
Yelldell started his professional career in his home town with local club Stuttgart Kickers, who were competing at the time in the then-third tier Regionalliga South. However after just one season as a regular starter for their second team, he jumped at an opportunity to head to England to hone his skills under the tutelage of one of the great America goalkeeping icons.
"I was at Blackburn with Brad Friedel for two years," he explains, continuing, "I trained everyday with him and for a few games in the first year I was on the bench [for the first team]."
He credits his time at Blackburn with Friedel as a formative period in his career, where he began to refine many of the skills which would benefit him in the subsequent years.
"I learned a lot and he helped me in every aspect," he assesses of Friedel's effect on his development. "I worked everyday there with Brad and their goalkeeping coach so it was very good for me. Before this time I did not have a regular goalkeeping coach or goalkeeping training. I always studied him when we were in training or in games, and he became a role model for me in my two years [there]."
Having served his two-year apprenticeship at Blackburn and facing the likelihood of only having reserve games or the occasional cup match a realistic possibility for playing time for the next few seasons, Yelldell eventually decided it was time to put his skills to the test as a consistent, everyday starter for a team. Fortunately the the door to such a situation was open along with the chance to return to a familiar setting, as he found a perfect opportunity waiting in Stuttgart.
"I learned a lot from [Friedel] and I am very thankful for this experience. But I was away from home and I was young," he explains. "I had played [previously] in the youth team for Stuttgart Kickers and I just wanted to go back to playing regular first team [soccer]."
The following season saw him return to Stuttgart, however this time he assumed a starting role with Kickers' first team, which was still competing in Germany's third-level Regionalliga.
"I knew the coach there, Robin Dutt, who is now the coach at Freiburg, and I chose to go back [to Germany] through the third league," he recalls, adding "It went very well for me."
"I always wanted to play at a higher level," he concedes, "but first I had to play regularly and demonstrate every week as a number one keeper what I could do, then I could look for higher leagues."
After three seasons of proving himself as one of the top keepers in the Regionalliga, his next step up the ladder was at 2. Bundesliga team Koblenz, whom he joined along with American Matt Taylor prior to the 2008-09 season and spent the next two seasons learning the ropes of the German second-tier.
While always considered the undisputed starter in his two seasons there and having no problems to personally excel at the level of play around him, it was often a mixed experience for the American. Too frequently, he was put into the position of having to be the last barrier behind a shaky defense, with a league's worst goals-allowed record ultimately dooming Koblenz to the drop in May 2010. Making matters worse, he suffered two long bouts with injury, one of which turned out to mark the end of his time with the team.
"Unluckily the last season [at Koblenz] was very bad for me," he admits. "I was injured for a very long time and Koblenz got relegated so it was very bad year both for me personally and for the club."
"First I injured my medial collateral ligament," he elaborates. "Then after that I came back and after six games, in Aachen I twisted my ankle and ruptured two ligaments. I had to have surgery and the season was over for me."
Regardless of the defensive failings of the team as a whole, there was no question as to whether he would be joining them in the drop, as his two strong years at the club put his services in demand within the division.
He didn't wait long to secure his next home, signing with nearby club MSV Duisburg, a highly ambitious team which had been playing in the 1. Bundesliga as recently as the 2007-08 season, and was looking to return to Germany's big dance as soon as possible.
The American's first, just completed season with the Zebras has been a stark contrast to the rest of his career, with the team's expectation to be a promotion contender combining with a remarkable run through the German Cup to give an entirely different feeling of urgency.
"It's been a different season for me," he ruminates, "when you look back at my time with the Kickers and Koblenz [the team] was always playing near the relegation places and it was a different pressure."
"Between being in the Cup final and trying for promotion, this season is the most success I've had so far in my career, so it's totally different than the others."
"When you're down, the pressure is very hard because it can be the situation that if you lose [a certain] game the team gets relegated," the Stuttgart native continues. "This year there has still been pressure because we want to win something or win games for promotion, but it's still better to have this pressure when you're in the first six."
The spring months also saw Yelldell's continual hard work in the 2. Bundesliga pay dividends in an entirely different way, with the American receiving the call to don the US National team jersey for the first time. Yelldell was one of three German-Americans named to Bob Bradley's squad for the pair of exhibition games in March, having the opportunity to play the second half of the team's game against Paraguay.
"The whole experience was great for me," he beamed, adding, "it was nice to be able to play one half against Paraguay. It's like [coach Bradley] said to me, just enjoy it, and I tried to do that."
"The team made it easy for the new guys to come in since there were several of us there. We had a lot of fun and it was a great experience for all of us."
With the last months having seen Yelldell attain arguably the biggest successes in his career to date, he can finally put his earlier choices into perspective and see how they have contributed to his current standing.
Although steadfast that his desire to emphasize playing time has proven beneficial in his own case, he recognizes that others in a similar position might not have the humility to work more from the ground up.
"The way I did it was very good for me personally, but for another keeper maybe it's better for him to try to go straight away to the first league."
"But I always wanted to play, so it wouldn't have been good for me to sit on the bench or not be on the team. Therefore I chose the path over the third league and I think it went very well for me."
Even if other teams in Germany's top division come calling for his services over the summer, the American is insistent that he will make his next upwards steps along with his Duisburg teammates, who will surely enter into the 2011-12 season as favorites for promotion.
"I'm very happy in Duisburg and I want to stay here a long time. I'm 29 years old, so I'm coming into the best years for a goalkeeper. I can imagine that I will play a very long time for Duisburg. I'm very satisfied here, my girlfriend and my dog are both very happy here, and we all like it very much, so I'm not looking [elsewhere] for the future."