National Writer: Charles Boehm

Kyle Beckerman ahead of 20 years in MLS: "I'm gonna go until the wheels fall off"

Kyle Beckerman - Real Salt Lake - high five

Later this month, during Real Salt Lake’s MLS is Back Tournament group-stage slate in Orlando, Kyle Beckerman will officially mark the 20th anniversary of his professional and MLS debut.

It was on July 15, 2000, a couple weeks after signing his Project-40 (now known as Generation adidas) contract at the then-tender age of 18, that he appeared as a second-half substitute for the Miami Fusion during a 3-0 loss to the Dallas Burn at Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

His first club no longer exists, and old Lockhart is long gone, replaced by Inter Miami’s training facility and temporary stadium. The Burn have since been rebranded, of course, and the 12-team league with three conferences and names like MetroStars, Wizards and Mutiny looks significantly different – bigger, faster and younger – today.

Beckerman is still going.

“I never thought I would play for 20 years,” the holding midfielder told recently. “There's not really a ton [of other players] to look towards that are doing that. I think for me, being 38 now and still playing, I guess I had the bonus of being in the league at a time when it wasn't that crazy. I mean, I saw Robin Fraser win Defender of the Year at [38], I saw Preki win the MVP at 40.

“Guys when I was younger, they would always tell me, ‘Play as long as you can, play as long as you can.’ So I guess I just took little notes, trying to learn as much as I could as a young player, taking a little bit from this player, taking a little bit from that player. And then, just kinda work, work and it was really about every day coming to work, being a good teammate, trying to get better individually, trying to get better as a team. And then, just by doing that, time flies.”

Beckerman’s now the second-oldest player in MLS, and already holds a commanding lead atop the all-time appearances list for field players at 488 regular-season matches. Though he’s not quite a nailed-on everyday starter like the past 20 years, he could reach the 500-game milestone if and when MLS gets back to a regular season of some sort.

His recently-retired teammate Nick Rimando’s all-time record of 514 appearances would be within reach, though the numbers don’t seem to matter all that much to “KB5.” He signed a one-year deal to return to RSL over the winter but remains content with living in the moment, reminding himself to “make sure you soak it in” during the 2019 campaign.

“I tried to really look at it like last year, all throughout the year, that this could be your last,” he said. “There's no guarantee you're coming back next year, since my contract was out. So, enjoy it the best you can … I was okay with that, mentally. But after taking a little break, I felt like I still had some stuff left and then it was just about if Salt Lake wanted me to come back. And then once I found out that they did, got the deal done and here we are.”

Beckerman is the last man standing from the remarkable US U-17 national team squad that competed in the 1999 FIFA U-17 World Championship, the experimental first class of U.S. Soccer’s Bradenton Residency Program that achieved a fourth-place finish at that tournament and rescued American soccer from the doldrums of the disastrous 1998 World Cup.

“A lot of things I took on throughout my whole career came from that Under-17 squad,” Beckerman said.

“Even though we were an Under-17 youth team, we didn't really look at it that way. We looked at it like we're fighting for American soccer, to gain respect. We want to show these other big soccer countries that we can play, we can beat you guys. And so just those little lessons and just the fight and trying to earn respect and show respect for the badge that you wear, and you're playing for the front, not the back, and you're gonna have to be a team to beat teams, all those little things I've carried with me.”

Beckerman, Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley and Oguchi Onyewu were the brightest stars from that crop, though most reached the professional level, the products of a collective whose lessons still motivate him to this day.

“I remember back when, I think we were 15, 16, and one of the things that they constantly reminded us of was, ‘Most of you guys are not going to make it. The statistics show that most of you won't.’ And so I think when they told us that, they kind of put us on guard,” Beckerman recalled. “You haven't done anything yet. This is just the beginning.

“I think that really set the tone in a lot of us, mentally, that you’ve got to work every single day, every practice, every game. You've got to show up, you have to perform. And we came from that.”

The federation organized a reunion of the 1999 squad at last year’s USMNT-Canada Concacaf Nations League match in Orlando, at which point his old teammates lobbied him heavily to stay the course.

“It was great, everybody's super supportive,” he said. “All the guys that stopped playing a while ago, they're all super excited to see me out there. They were all pleading for me to play again. I said ‘Well, we'll see.’”

As it turns out, he’s the late bloomer of the bunch. While Donovan and Beasley skyrocketed into the senior squad and starred at the 2002 World Cup, Beckerman toiled for years to find stability and distinction at the club level. When he finally made it to a World Cup of his own, becoming a surprise standout at Brazil 2014, he was 32, having honed a keen soccer intellect at the base of midfield that’s more than compensated for his aging body.

“The most important thing is just to keep trying to improve, keep trying to evolve your game. Even though I’m 38, I'm still trying to get better,” he explained. “As time goes on, the experience can help you out in times when your legs go.

“It's just the way professional sports goes. You're constantly learning, learning, learning, and you're also putting miles on your body at the same time. You got to figure ways to keep improving while you're getting older.”

Beckerman expects the sport to tell him when it’s time, rather than the other way around. He cites the example of his former RSL and Colorado Rapids teammate Nat Borchers, who kept cranking at a high level until a ruptured achilles tendon forced him to retire at 35.

“In my mind, the last five years or so have been like, any day could be my last. I could go into practice, something could happen. I could go in the game, something could happen,” said Beckerman. “This last year especially, I'm thinking, ‘Alright, I'm probably gonna get taken off in a stretcher at some point in the season, and then that'll be the end. That’ll kind of make your mind up.’ And my mindset’s been, I'm gonna go until the wheels fall off.

“Any day could be your last, so go in and attack that day the best you can. And then when the season ends, we'll reevaluate.”

Beckerman considers himself lucky to have mostly dodged serious injuries so far. He tore a tendon in his foot near the end of preseason, and thus missed RSL’s first two matches of 2020. Now, he seems to be right in the mix for minutes at MLS is Back, the format of which is expected to test RSL’s depth and rotation in Group D.

Beckerman’s a father, too, his 18-month-old son Constantine adding a new perspective to the daily grind. Every training session, every game minute is one more chance to persist, to improve, to excel, to play for his child.

“I'm hoping we can have a chance to go try and win some games and have a fun season for everyone,” he said. “But my outlook hasn't changed. It's just day by day.

“The next thing you know, you're in your 20th year and it’s like, wow. And it really went by super fast. But I guess that’s just life.”