The Curious Case of Devann Yao

Discovered at the age of 10 in New York. In an elite American residency program in Pennsylvania at age 11. Three seasons at FC Metz youth academy in France at 13. A year in Italy as an amateur on AS Livorno’s reserves at 17, followed by a spell in Scotland at St. Mirren. This surely sounds like a film-worthy life!

A soccer vagabond by the age of 19, Devann Yao is now back home in New York, and that’s where he wants to stay. What’s a kid got to do to get a little attention around here?

His agent is trying to build him up. “As far as I’m concerned, you’re three for three,” Rob Ross says to his newest client, signed on a two-month contract to see if they could get a Major League Soccer team to bite. “Just kill it in New England and we’ll be looking good.”

In two weeks Devann Yao, 19, has had three unofficial trials with the New York Red Bulls. The first two were with the club’s U18 academy team. He played well enough initially that USSF National Staff Coach and U17 Scout Juan Carlos Michia, who happened to be in town, came by the Meadowlands practice bubble for the second go-round. Red Bulls assistant coach Richie Williams was there too, as well as Alfonso Mondelo, MLS Director of Player Programs. Playing with the U18 bench players against their first team, Devann showed some flashes of brilliance, taking it to defenders with a creative and technical style rarely seen in young American players. It was the first look I got; he seemed promising. Devann nabbed a goal or two and an invite to play with the Red Bulls professional team, albeit as a substitute in an exhibition match between the Red Bulls bench players (there are no actual reserve teams in MLS as of this season) and the University of Virginia, scheduled after New York’s home opener against the New England Revolution.

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Tonight, he had about 35 minutes to make his point against last year’s 19th-ranked college team, and Devann again played well, placed in a forward role along side John Wolyniec, on the field with Seth Stammler, Mike Petke and others. He dribbled through two UVA players who had him pinned in the corner. He came back into the midfield for the ball, sped up the run of play, and even stuck his defensive foot in here and there. He wasn’t beyond the occasional errant pass or missed touch, he’s not game-fit, and he did occasionally appear lost, but any player thrown into a team like that, not to mention he is just 19, would be happy with the performance. “For the short period of time I had seen him,” Red Bull assistant coach Richie Williams wrote in an e-mail, “and for him being a very young player, with not a whole lot of experience, I thought he did a fairly good job.” Perhaps the most that can be said is that an unknowing attendee, save for Devann’s generic jersey, would not have realized him as anything different from the salaried players.

Ross is trying to make that point, give some positive post-game reinforcement, and focus Devann’s sight on the goal at hand—his upcoming trial in New England, hopefully a MLS first team or Generation Adidas contract, and an invitation to the U20 national team training camp, which will convene in May ahead of the World Cup in Egypt—the last of which Ross considers top priority. Devann listens but doesn’t have much to say—he admits to being a little nervous and thinks he played just okay. He asks to borrow a cell phone, because he doesn’t have one, and calls a friend to figure out where they’ll meet later. It’s almost 1 AM on a Saturday night, his calf, hurting from a knock he took on the field, is wrapped in ice, but he doesn’t want to lose out on a weekend night. As we drive toward Manhattan we banter back and forth, but the conversation is rarely about soccer. Devann’s inquisitive yet soft spoken, and when questions are posed to him, it’s as if he draws a blank. His answers are delayed and short; he’s humble damn near to a fault (rarely a good sign for elite athletes). His big eyes and bright smile light up when I ask about his friends. When he extols on his cultural experiences in Europe he almost gets chatty. As for soccer, what is there to talk about? He wants a stable team to play on, a living wage, and playing time. That’s that. He doesn’t want to go home to rest; he’d rather be out with friends.

At 19, Devann is now too old for a youth academy and any hope of a pro career in the United States this year hinges on these tryouts. Since he was 12 he has essentially lived overseas, raised by coaches and teammates and dorm supervisors, first at FC Metz, then Livorno, then St. Mirren. You can easily understand why letting another Saturday night in his hometown pass without a party would be hard to do. At 10 he was a hailed prospect but somehow he dropped off the American soccer map. And now, at 19—did I mention he’s 19–it’s as if he’s washed up, going from trial to trial trying to catch a break while playing pick up games at a local field. If going through the United States’ soccer system—youth clubs, high school, college, USL, MLS—puts a player on the path for a staff salary position somewhere within a domestic professional league, Devann has gone the freelance route, known only to those teams he contacts. But he doesn’t want to have to care about or even understand why he can’t just play soccer—he just wants to play, even if that means hopping around Europe to do so. But for the moment, he’s giving the U.S. a try. He limps out of the car into the Harlem night and back off the map.

It was a drizzle-spitting Saturday last autumn. Leaves blanketed the artificial turf at Harlem’s Jacob Schiff field as winter settled in for its long goodnight. FC Harlem was holding its weekly scrimmage, offering players some structure during the long soccer off-season. I went to practice, as I occasionally do, to check in with the young club’s explosive growth.

“You’ve got to see this one kid,” Irv Smalls, the club’s director, told me in passing. It always starts with that doesn’t it? Marcus DiBernardo, who coaches at both Monroe College and FC Harlem and who says Devann is the best player he has ever coached, told Smalls the same thing a few weeks earlier. This kid, who had been in France or Italy or somewhere, was back home and had showed up at Monroe College, in the Bronx, playing soccer on his brand new indoor soccer shoes and was tearing up the community college’s would-be talent while he figured out his next move.

The first thing you learn about Devann Yao is that it has always been about moving.

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Raised by an Italian mother and Ivorian father in a Harlem brownstone turned bed and breakfast run by his mother, Devann grew up cleaning up after travelers who made his home their home for a few days. He attended a private French elementary school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, became tri-lingual by learning Italian, and has held multiple passports since birth. (His father became a French citizen while playing semi-professional soccer there).

The real moving began at the age of 11, when, after a few years of recreational and club soccer, Devann packed his bags for the first time and headed to the United Sports Foundation’s soccer program outside Philadelphia, where he was one of three players (the other two were 13 years old) selected for residency scholarships by ex-pat Englishman, coach, and urban soccer activist Tony Williams. “The first few months were hard,” Devann told me about his time in Pennsylvania. “It was obviously the first time away from family. But I wanted to make the sacrifice.”

How much Devann sacrificed over the course of his teenage years only he knows, and he’s not saying much. Under a spiky afro, set upon a slim 6-foot athletic frame, it’s hard to tell whether he’s being shy or coy during our talks. My questions often come back with one-word replies (always said softly and politely) and trailing thoughts. Did he just tell me everything or nothing at all? Girls who love the mysterious must come swooning. You get the feeling he isn’t saying everything that he could, and during the long pauses you wonder if talking at all is in his best interest. Over the few days—an hour here, an hour there—I spent with Devann, I only learned two things that are without question: he has lived much of his life alone, and he is very good at soccer. Just how good he is in the eyes of those that open doors in American soccer, however, is the only thing that matters. And they are just now finding out about him.

Of the soccer, this much is known. One year after Devann arrived in Pennsylvania, the residency program folded. Coach Williams, apparently believing in the boy, helped Devann’s parents set up a few academy try-outs in Europe. “I ended up moving to France the next year,” Devann says. “I was 12, 13. I tried out at a few places but FC Metz offered me the best. They took care of housing and food and everything.” For three years he lived in France, training with the club where players like Emmanuel Adebayor and Franck Ribery spent part of their early careers. He returned to New York just two or three times annually for holidays or summer or fall break. His parents never visited. “It was just too expensive for them,” he says. He can’t really think of a good story about life in France. “I just played soccer and went to school,” he says while shrugging his shoulders. “There wasn’t really anytime to do anything else. But it was fun.”

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The reason he left Metz? Devann chalks it up to burn out. “The last year wasn’t going that well,” he says. “I wasn’t getting a lot of playing time. The coaches changed; I kind of grew out of it, lost confidence. They still wanted me to stay because they saw some potential, but to stay on the bench for another year – I didn’t want to do that. So I decided to come back to New York and cool off for a year, I got my GED at this little alternative school in SOHO, because I really wanted to pursue soccer.” He was burned out, but he really wanted to pursue soccer? It was my first glance into the personal side of the growing enigma.

By the fall of 2007 he was playing in Italy. “I stayed six months at Livorno reserves and six months at Piza,” he says. “And then came back to New York and was supposed to go back to Italy, but I went through a phase of being depressed and not wanting to do soccer anymore.” He would later tell me his coach at Livonro was racist. Devann says the coach once told him that, “If you answer back to me, I’ll change the color of your skin.” The other side, and the team’s understanding, is that Devann left because he was homesick. And to some degree, he was, again. Devann felt he was missing out on his youth, torn between his love of soccer and the pressure put on him to succeed. “When I came back in the summer, I had so much fun with friends and everything,” he says. “I was thinking maybe I wanted to try the college life or find a new path. So I didn’t go back that August like I was supposed to. Because I didn’t go back I had problems with my family.”

Up to this point, Devann’s mother has basically acted as his agent and is a proponent, he says, of him staying in Europe. He says their bond is good, but his relationship with his father, who now works in “some kind of factory—putting light bulbs together maybe, I don’t know,” is another story and one Devann won’t address other than to say the two are “distant.” Attempts to contact his parents were unsuccessful, but Devann says his parents want him in Europe. “You’re ruining your life,” he remembers them saying when he left Livorno last year. “They were like, ‘You’ve been doing this since you were nine years old—made so many sacrifices, and this and that.’ But I didn’t want to hear that. I felt I had to experience this new idea to see how it is.”

And for a few months he did, but after a partial season at Monroe junior college and weekends volunteering at FC Harlem, the itch to return to a higher caliber club fanned the soccer flames. Finding himself outside of soccer did not turn out to be the easiest path. “I was burned out and thought I wanted something different,” he says. “But when I started playing again, I found I really missed the competition in Europe. It was then that I realized I did want to push this.” Here we go again.

So the day after I first met him, he was off to Scotland. “I have this guy, Jake Duncan, who acted as my agent of sorts over there,” Devann says. “But I don’t have anything signed with him. He got in contact with his friend in Scotland and got me a tryout at St. Mirren.” Devann did well, signed an amateur contract, played 2 reserve games and 4 or 5 U19 games then came back to New York.

The coach sent you home for eating an egg sandwich? “It was a misunderstanding,” Devann tells me after he returned. “I missed breakfast and grabbed something before training—a sausage and egg sandwich. I went into the training room and was eating, and the U19 coach and technical director came in, noticed what I was eating, and was like, ‘I’ve had it. You’re not training today. Go back to your hotel.’ I got a phone call from him later that day. He said I did well on the field but off the field I didn’t show enough enthusiasm, that I didn’t want to be there. I mean, I missed Christmas, missed New Years. I wanted to be there. But he let me go.”

Duncan attempted to get him on another team in Scotland—“on almost every team in the first and second divisions,” Devann says—but each time the team would follow up with St. Mirren and then reject him on the grounds that he had a bad attitude. So he came home, back to his friends and FC Harlem.

Irv Smalls takes up Devann’s cause, hoping he can use his connections in MLS and elsewhere and at least get Devann a trial that didn’t involve another chancy and expensive trip to Europe and at most find him the stability that he’s yet to find—be it from his meandering enthusiasm or any so-called misunderstanding. “Everyone always is saying this kid or that kid is so good,” Smalls says, “but then I saw him play, and you look at his resume. I mean, how does no one know about him? From my standpoint, I want to help Devann reach his dreams, and at the same time I see the potential inspirational impact on other Harlem kids if one of their own could make it.”

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Two years ago Devann tried the MLS route, which is how his mom originally found Rob Ross. It was the summer between FC Metz and Livorno, and Devann figured he could make something happen. “Rob told me it would be hard to break into the U.S. system, I needed a resume and this and that, and then they might consider looking at you.” It was a rude awakening for the talented kid who found a team via a phone call by his mom in the past. “She’d call and say, ‘My son played here and here, you want to see him?’ And they’d say yes. They have nothing to lose and only something to gain.”

It isn’t that simple in America. MLS teams aren’t often focused on players at the age of 16, certainly not ones they’ve never heard of, no matter the previous European academy experience. Take away the reserve squads and teams have fewer players—development is now officially on the backburner with years of slack for youth academies to take up (with their own system-wide priority issues in placing winning above development). But Devann is of the age where its pro contract or bust, so he’s giving MLS another shot—but there is still that little problem of notoriety. He has an agent making phone calls now, not his mother, but until a few weeks ago, nobody knew who he was. The top Google hit for “Devann Yao” is a Big Soccer forum wondering where he is playing, linking to the last known article about him, a Soccer Times piece archived at Sports Illustrated detailing his selection for the residency program in 2002. Part way down the message board Devann himself logs in and confirms other posters’ mentions of him at Livorno. Clearly MLS and U.S. Scouts aren’t trawling Big Soccer message boards for players, and it would be sad to think that they should be.

Upon Devann’s arrival back from Scotland, Smalls reached out to Ross, not knowing Devann’s mom had contacted him before. Ross remembered the young player and agreed to sign him to a short-term, two-month contract, which would give Devann some much needed support while at the same time not tying him to anything until his career, if there was going to be one, settled out. Smalls and Ross, who knew each other from when they both worked in MLS’s business offices, set about reaching out to their contacts. The Galaxy passed first. Then New England passed, then put in a discovery claim, then invited Devann for a three-day trial, then passed and dropped the claim. New York, after seeing Devann on three separate occasions prior to his going to New England, promptly invited him for a three-day trial with the first team, which happened last week. “What I am impressed with,” Smalls says. “Is their response time to it. Because the season is already going, they aren’t looking as hard for players, but I’m impressed that so many people took an interest.”

Red Bull again passed. Ross said RBNY coach Juan Carlos Osorio told them that he wished Devann had been available during the preseason, but looking at his team’s roster and style, he wasn’t going to take Devann. “Nobody wants to take a flyer on a kid they’ve never seen before,” Ross tells me after the last disappointing decision.

The Red Bulls would have had to drop a current player in order to sign Devann—someone like first round draft pick and college standout Jeremy Hall—and his agent knows the difficult reality that poses in the present MLS climate. “No reserve team,” Ross says. “24 instead of 28 players. Most of these teams are not going to take a chance on a 19-year-old player who has not gone through the typical programs. There really is no place to bring in a guy, have him play some reserve games, and get a real good look at him. A lot of the coaches are being judged on real-time. Did you win this week? Ok, you’ve got a job. It’s hard to develop players based on that kind of model. That’s not their job to develop talent. Maybe a general manager has the incentive—the money made on a transfer fee of say a Jozy Altidore—but the coach doesn’t.”

The major goal for Ross is not MLS, but more simply having Devann playing—contract or no contract. “The first thing we talked about,” Ross says, “was about 2014 and him playing in Brazil on the national team. And in order to get there, the easiest process would be to play on the U20 team, so the USSF knows who you are. We wanted him to get on the radar, and I think he has.”

Radar, yes. Embraced? Not yet.

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So where does he go from here? “Based on his background,” Ross says, “he should have been welcomed with open arms by any American team. But I should have known better. With him not having a solid foundation in American soccer and its particular systems, it wasn’t going to be as simple as that.” Thomas Rongen and his U20 men’s national team is, for now, passing on Devann, according to e-mails I exchanged with Juan Carlos Michia. The still-amateur player could go back to college, maybe even a Division One soccer school, and then enter the MLS draft after a year or two of making some American footprints. And Ross still might find a MLS team interested enough to add a young project midseason—both LA teams have been contacted since Red Bull and Rongen passed. But if a contract offer doesn’t come soon Devann will again pack his bags, move again, back to Europe, where FC Metz offered up yet another trial, one that will likely last weeks not days.

On the field and throughout his resume, Devann Yao has so many things going for him that so many American players do not—a childhood in the prestigious youth systems of Europe, a creative technical flair—but it hasn’t made him special, just different. He’s a really good player who has done some good work without gaining the right connections. He should probably be in MLS but is instead an unknown outcast forced to work harder to get the attention that most likely would have been his had an elite youth career kept him in the United States where his chances to stand out would have been easier and more numerous than a three-day trial with a MLS team. And though his resume should continue to open doors, keep Big Soccer message boards wondering and agents calling, it’s now up to his play on the field during short trials that will determine his greater fate for another year. You gotta light it up, not just fit in. Or yeah, try again next preseason.