STANFORD, Calif. – Of all the “50-50” battles coach Jurgen Klinsmann referenced as the US national team World Cup hopefuls convened at Stanford University this week, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone putting center back Matt Besler in that category.
Unless, of course, you’re Matt Besler.
“Who says I’m not one of those 50-50 guys?” Besler asked of a reporter at practice Friday. “For me, I’m not saying that. I’m not looking at it like that. I really feel that Jurgen’s made it clear, no matter who you are, you have to come out and prove yourself in this camp. So that’s my approach. ... No one’s guaranteed a spot in Brazil. If you don’t come out and do the work, then you’re not going to make the team.”
All of that said, the US squad without Besler is hard to envision, especially given his importance in terms of helping to marshal the forces on an American backline which features no defenders with any World Cup experience. (DaMarcus Beasley, the leading candidate to play left back, has earned all his previous World Cup minutes in the midfield.)
“In that part of the field, the way the back four works as a unit, communication is probably the most important thing,” Besler said. “So that’s what we’re working on here. We’ve been doing it for the past year. There’s been different guys stepping in, but I think for the most part, everyone’s familiar with each other.”
It also helps tremendously, as Besler is quick to point out, that the US has goalkeeper Tim Howard, a veteran of the 2006 and 2010 World Cups – the latter as the Americans’ No. 1 – providing instructions from the back.
“He’s directing us,” Besler said of Howard. “He’s been there before. He knows how to play in certain styles of games. So he knows what he wants from us. And he tells us, communicates with us. Once we hear that from him, we try and direct everyone else in front of us.”
Besler feels he’s growing into the role of relaying Howard’s instructions as his appearances continue to pile up; since 2013, only Beasley, Jozy Altidore and Omar Gonzalez have earned more minutes among US field players. And he’s added to his level of responsibility by taking the armband in Kansas City from retired goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen.
“Matt’s always been a great leader in Kansas City,” said Graham Zusi, Besler’s club and country teammate. “I think him getting the captaincy now is just the culmination of all that. ... Some of the reason [the American defenders] are under such a microscope is that they’re just new.
"They don’t have that World Cup experience that everyone would ‘like to see.’ But I think their relationships are growing at a great rate and Matt’s communication, whoever he’s in there with, has been great.”
Arguably, that’s never more true than when Besler partners with Gonzalez, another former MLS Defender of the Year winner with the LA Galaxy.
“I feel like we’re at a good level of understanding,” Besler said. “We’re not starting from square one. We’ve had a year of experience and we’ve played in some big games together. ...
"I think there’s a feeling of excitement to be here, to be able to work together again. But I also feel like there’s a trust now, and an understanding that we have with each other. And we can use that to go forward.”