David Yang never felt like an underdog. Since he started playing football, he’s always felt as if his progression from youth to college-level soccer has been mostly meritocratic. Beginning his career at the age of eight, Yang simply started out as the one player that coaches instantly knew had the potential to make it somewhere. “I progressed very quickly at a young age,” Yang exclaimed while sitting outside that balmy morning at a local Southern California Starbucks.
Yang is pretty far from his childhood hometown of Ann Arbor, the famous home of the University of Michigan. Iced latte in hand, Yang carefully retold his story about the dream season Michigan men’s soccer had in 2010. “We took it one game at a time and won” he recalled. Putting intense focus into each individual match, his team progressed after defeating the likes of UCF, South Carolina, and Maryland to reach the Final Four. On closer listen, Yang’s story of the Wolverines’ NCAA tournament run began to sound more and more like a microcosm of his soccer career.
The Early Years
One by one, Yang went through nearly every step on the highly complex, highly complicated ladder that is the American youth soccer system. Since the age of eight, he’s played in youth tournaments and participated in youth camps throughout the United States. Yang worked his way up from a local team to a local club, Ann Arbor Arsenal, within one year. The attention he received at this club allowed him to garner the interest of scouts that would eventually introduce him to the Olympic Development Program.
In his seventh and eighth grade years, Yang participated in an ODP showcase where young talents demonstrate the skills they’ve honed over their long careers. Yang, representing the Midwest region, found himself in camps where he remembers seeing notable soccer figures including then-USMNT manager Bruce Arena. Coaches regularly commended Yang for his general athleticism and for the first time, Yang looked to be on track to the highest of heights in American soccer.
Growing up with a brother five years his senior, Yang was exposed to a variety of sports at an early age. When it came time to finally carry on the family’s athletic torch, he proved himself immensely. It was during this time that he experienced an exponential increase in skill while becoming “quicker and bigger.” The relaxed attitude of his earliest fans also played a role in his continuous progression as a young player.
“David loves doing this, why stop him?,” Yang said while playing the role of his parents in their decision to allow him to continue pursuing his dream. While many of his peers were under the strict scrutiny of their parents, it seemed as if Yang enjoyed the freedom to pursue his career the way he desired. After years playing with Ann Arbor’s most promising soccer talents, Yang joined Michigan Wolves after middle school under his parents’ permission.
The Wolf of Ann Arbor
The next few years involved more traveling than the Ann Arbor high schooler could have ever envisioned. Like his father did for work, Yang would find himself commuting regularly from Ann Arbor to the Detroit area for travel team practices. From there, he went far and wide, representing his home state’s most promising teenagers in soccer. His travels took him to tournaments throughout the country against the best from other states and even friendlies against international opponents.
By his sophomore year, Michigan Wolves had made it to a national championship tournament in Texas where they would eventually fall late to the team nearest to him today, SoCal United. Despite the crushing defeat, Yang was adamant that his team would have been ranked among the best in the nation that season. “That’s where my career really shot up,” Yang asserted. By then, Yang had one more step to climb to determine the longevity of his career.
At this point, ODP was still a significant part of Yang’s development, having made every cut for U14/U15 teams in his path to the USMNT. At the final hurdle, however, Yang had narrowly missed the cut at the U.S. Soccer Residency to make it to the IMG Academy, competing for a spot on the U17/U18 USMNT. This opportunity would have allowed him to spend the remainder of his high school years in the Sunshine State. Unfortunately, at this stage, the competition grew fierce, and Yang had finally met his match. A direct route to a professional career was out of the picture.
Derailed, not Done
Yang, still high on talent, concluded his senior year of high school as captain and best player on his varsity team. Although missing the cut at U.S. Soccer Residency, he still believed he had the potential to make the cut for a Major League Soccer team through a prosperous collegiate career. Yang originally desired a move to California, but his connection to Michigan Wolverines men’s soccer then-head coach Steve Burns convinced him to stay in Ann Arbor.
Burns originally found Yang by literally walking to games across the street at Pioneer High School. Devoting several weeks out of the year to scouting, Burns was keen on making Yang a part of his program, which had only been around for less than a decade. To Yang’s amusement, he encountered a situation in which he surprisingly found his next coach at his high school girlfriend’s graduation party. It was there that he found out that Burns was part of his girlfriend’s extended family. It was almost as if Yang was destined to be a Wolverine.
Despite being in the city where he had lived his entire life, Yang found a distinctively new home within Burns’ program. Part of one of the best recruiting classes in the country, he entered a UMich team with an incredibly high ceiling of potential. Accompanied by astonishing new teammates such as current Atlanta United forward Justin Meram, Yang began to realize that his talent wasn’t as unmatched as he initially believed. “It was a humbling experience,” Yang confessed. His dream professional career was beginning to look just like that: a dream.
Winning the Big Ten and Living in Korea
After an average freshman season, Yang found himself playing with a similarly talented recruiting class the next season. One of these incoming players, Dearborn native Soony Saad, would eventually find himself on the roster of Sporting Kansas City the following season. Yang’s sophomore season was a magical one that saw his team finish second in the Big Ten standings and first in the Big Ten Conference Tournament. The team lived up to its hype with a Final Four finish at the national NCAA tournament, while Yang would finish the year with an improved 14 appearances.
“I call my Mom; she has no clue what’s going on. I tell her we just won the Big Ten Championship. All she asked was if I was eating well,” Yang explains. Even for his highly supportive parents, games proved difficult to follow from across the pond in Korea. Still, Yang had his head held up high for the future. Along with a thriving college soccer career, he also spent offseasons with a local semi-professional team and even had a training session with Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors FC.
While the Jeonbuk players were in season, Yang was on Summer Break, unsure of what to expect. “They did 20 laps around the soccer field [on the side of a mountain]. I’m like “what are we doing right now?” This is insane,” Yang remarked about his first practice. For the first time that Summer, while simultaneously learning Korean, Yang was able to formally exercise his passion for soccer in his parents’ native country.
Coincidentally, the first era of UMich men’s soccer and Yang’s career would both conclude quite disappointingly. Steve Burns, along with the rest of the coaching staff, would resign during Michigan’s awful downfall of a 2011 season. After making 15 appearances that disappointing season, Yang would suffer an ankle fracture that prevented him from returning to Michigan Soccer for his senior year.
For the first time in his life, Yang had to figure out life beyond the pitch. He expected his sporting career wouldn’t last forever, but he never anticipated the end to come so soon. Yang used his senior year to find a new direction in his life, claiming “that injury sucked, but I’m thankful it happened.” After graduating from college in 2013, Yang found solace in his family background in the auto industry. He would soon find a corporate job with Hyundai and leave for Orange County in California.
Yang regularly finds himself spending time ruminating over his soccer past. There’s always a “What if I could do this again?” Despite this contemplation, however, Yang was unsure whether he would have ever made it. Judging from positions of current friends in professional football, Yang knows firsthand how difficult it is to make a career out of “the beautiful game.” But the hope was always there. So much so that Yang struggled previously to even talk about his career because he deemed it a “failure.”
But Yang and his parents knew at an early stage of his career that his development wasn’t “normal.” In fact, for him to have been so focused on having a professional soccer career in America wasn’t “normal” either. Throughout his childhood, Yang saw race mostly as an afterthought. It never crossed his mind how much being Asian-American may have affected him on the pitch when he was younger. “There wasn’t much discrimination. I don’t know if I was oblivious to it at the time, but I don’t feel like there was,” Yang admitted.
But upon further reflection, he realizes that his racial background may, in fact, have helped him stand out on his youth teams. “Being Asian-American, it did make me stand out a little bit more,” Yang concluded. Whatever the case may have been, Yang broke barriers in his local community as the only Asian-American on his youth soccer teams growing up. In an age where many Asian-Americans feel bound to few plausible paths to success, Yang discovered a unique one. To be representative of that is far from a failure.
Today, Yang expresses an interest in coaching to help improve training to the growing population of young American footballers. To this day, Yang argues that one of the biggest pitfalls of American soccer lies in the system’s failure to provide talents with earlier quality training. He also wants to use his position to become a representative for young Korean-American soccer talents, especially in heavily Korean-populated Southern California.
Ann Arbor, the home of the Big House, is no stranger to stories in the world of sports. David Yang’s story is a small one in that expansive list. But it’s a story nonetheless that needs to be told. There might be a David Yang reading this today who needs to know that he isn’t alone in his ambition to become the next Major League Soccer star. And little by little, like the road to the NCAA Final Four, with stories like this, maybe he can find the inspiration to become exactly that.