"The Word" is MLSsoccer.com's weekly long-form series. This week Sporting Kansas City beat writer Steve Brisendine offers a look at a formative year for Matt Besler, who despite a pull from Europe, stayed put in Kansas City and used his success to make his mark in a historic game for the US national team.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. – So long as he wears Sporting blue, so long as he loads that chip onto his shoulder before every match against a big-market glamor club, Matt Besler will never stop being a hometown hero.
He knows he's fortunate to play the game he loves in the city he loves, a city he's still discovering after moving north from the suburb where he grew up. He never gets tired of fans coming up to him to wish him and his club well, of hearing the fans who make up Sporting Park's raucous and passionate Cauldron sing his name to the tune Biz Markie made famous:
Oh Besler, you ...you got what we need ... and you anchor our defense, yeah, you anchor our defense …
When he talks about all of these things, his eyes widen. His face opens up in a grin. When he recounts the “Flyover Country” digs he's heard, or stories about college classmates who thought Kansas City was located in the South, it's with a headshake that says, "Are you kidding me?"
So have no worries, KC – Matt Besler loves you, every square mile of you on both sides of the state line, and he's here for you. Didn't he just prove that by signing a three-year extension with Sporting Kansas City in the offseason, turning down a chance to play in Europe?
“If they would have told me to sign a 10-year deal,” he said, “and I would have known that Sporting would be competitive as it is now for all 10 of those years, I would have signed it.”
Sporting Kansas City defender and Overland Park native Matt Besler is hopeful people have moved on from the "hometown hero" storyline. Says Besler: "The first couple years... I did probably 15 stories just about that."
– USA TODAY Sports
It's just time for him to be more. Time for the local kid made good to step to the side a bit, and for the player that kid has become to take the spotlight. And with his standout World Cup qualifying debut for the US national team, in one of the most hostile away environments in the world, Besler is making the most of that time.
“The first couple of years, it was really easy for me just to play that role as 'the Hometown Guy,'” he told MLSsoccer.com on Wednesday, during a sit-down over lunch near his Country Club Plaza apartment. “I did probably 15 stories just about that. I think this may be the year where it's the transition – where it's not just 'the Hometown Guy, and it's pretty cool that he's playing pretty well,' and all that stuff. Now I feel like it's 'Matt Besler, the defender for Sporting Kansas City.'
“Maybe now it's the second story, the hometown thing,” he went on. “The first story is the playing ability. The defender for Sporting Kansas City. Then the secondary story is, 'Oh, did you know that he's actually from Kansas City?' That's an additional, 'That's cool.' I think now, maybe nationally, people don't know that. I think in Kansas City, everyone knows that.”
Besler, who grew up in Overland Park, Kan., and was the then-Wizards' first-round MLS SuperDraft pick out of Notre Dame in 2009, isn't an overnight success story. Still, he's had his share of detractors despite those achievements.
When fans voted him an All-Star in 2011, the naysayers called it stuffing the ballot box for the Hometown Guy. When he was named MLSsoccer.com's Breakout Player of the Year, Defender of the Year and a member of the First XI in 2012, online commentors wondered what might have happened had LA's Omar Gonzalez been healthy all year, or whether flamboyant Frenchman Aurélien Collin – the other half of Sporting's center-back tandem and a First XI selection in his own right – should have been selected instead.
One night last week, with just 11 hours' advance notice and making just his second appearance for his country, Besler put that talk to bed.
Estadio Azteca sits at 7,200 feet, more than a third of a mile higher than MLS' highest venue. It is the fifth-largest stadium in the world, with a capacity of more than 105,000.
And when El Tri are at home against any opponent, especially the archrival Estados Unidos, their legions of supporters are not shy about hurling their derision – and sometimes, more tangible things – at the opposition.
Even being on the bench for a qualifier at the Coloso de Santa Úrsula, named for the Mexico City neighborhood in which it sits, can be both daunting and exhilarating.
– Illustration by Gabriel De Los Rios, MLSsoccer.com
Besler had already been there once before, as an unused sub for the Nats in their historic 1-0 friendly victory last summer – the United States' first win on Mexican soil. So when he learned that he'd be starting last week's qualifier because of a hamstring injury to Clarence Goodson, Besler was not entirely on unfamiliar ground.
“It helped, but the qualifier was a different level,” he said. “The energy, the pressure that you kind of felt, it was way different. But I could say, 'I've warmed up on that field. I've been in that locker room. I've walked up the stairs onto that field.' That feeling of being there before helped out a lot. It wasn't all new.”
The sheer volume of sound was, though. Azteca was about half-full for the friendly. For the qualifier, it was packed to the top row.
“You know like, after a concert, when you sit too close and you leave and you have that feeling in your ears? It's like that,” he said. “There's a buzz afterwards.”
For Besler and Gonzalez, the buzz lasted well after the ringing in their ears died down. The two young center backs, paired together but largely untested in a scoreless January draw with Canada, shut down Mexico's Javier “Chicharito” Hernández and Giovani dos Santos. When World Cup veteran – and Besler's former club teammate – Omar Bravo came in, they shut him down, too. The US walked out with a 0-0 tie that felt like a win, and Besler was a huge reason why.
Sporting manager Peter Vermes saw the result as a payoff for Besler's work with his club, learning to put a more street-smart edge on the structured, suburban game he learned in his youth days.
“He's had a lot of progression here, and a lot of that stuff is stuff we talk about every day,” Vermes said. “He kind of has that in his world, and I think that's why he's there now. The credit you've got to give him is that he's open and willing to learn and he absorbs it quickly into his M.O.
"On the game itself, I don't care if you have tricks of the trade or not, playing at that stadium at any time – whether it's your first or last – it's always a big-pressure game. Having done it for his first, and done as well as he did, is a big feather in his cap.”
One of the lasting impressions of the match was of Besler gaming Chicharito, looking over his shoulder and getting the striker to move early into an offside position. It was a heady move, especially against such an unpredictable opponent.
“The way he moves – it's unbelievable, his movement,” Besler said during a club news conference shortly after he and winger Graham Zusi – who also starred in the match – returned home. “He makes runs where you're not running. So wherever you go, that's where he makes his run off of. He doesn't go to the near post or the far post. He waits for you to make your movement toward the ball, and then he'll go the other way.”
For a while this past offseason, Sporting fans worried aloud whether Besler and Chicharito, who plays for Manchester United, would be leaguemates. Premiership side Queens Park Rangers were among his suitors when his previous contract ran out, along with Birmingham City of the second-tier Championship and Belgian side KAA Gent.
Early on in the process, Besler was listening.
“I was going to be a free agent,” he said. “I was not under contract. I think 99.9 percent of anyone in my situation, you have to see what's out there, and you have to go and look at other places, at all of your options. So, yeah, I looked into it. And part of me got excited. When you hear that QPR really likes you as a player and they want to bring you in, yeah, that's pretty cool. And so of course you're interested and you want to find out more, but at the end of the day I had a very big desire to stay in Kansas City.”
Besler says he's happy in Kansas City and that he has not been approached by US national team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann about potentially taking his career abroad. "Right now," he says, "we haven't had any conversations."
– USA TODAY Sports
And while the city itself figured into that decision, as did Sporting Park and the fans who pack it game after game, Besler's top reason for staying had nothing at all to do with sentiment.
“The club is No. 1. Kansas City, the city, is No. 2,” he said. “You know I love the city, but you can live somewhere else. You can enjoy another city. But if you're somewhere and the club is awful and you're not having fun, you're not enjoying it, then it's pointless to go there. That's why I like Kansas City so much, soccerwise.”
Besler loves his league, too, and believes MLS has a significant role to play in Jurgen Klinsmann's player pool not only for qualifying, but also for the World Cup in 2014.
“I don't need to go and play somewhere else,” he said. “Why can't MLS be one of the top leagues? Of course I want to stay here. I think it's good to have MLS players in the mix. At times, maybe MLS prepares you better for some of these games. Maybe other leagues prepare you better for the big games. But when you're going down to Honduras, or you're going down to Antigua, maybe some of the MLS guys – with their experience in the way MLS plays – maybe they're the guys.”
Klinsmann has been vocal, though, in challenging his players to get to the highest club level possible. Still, Besler doesn't anticipate that he'll be told to move abroad or risk being left out of future call-ups – for now, at least.
“I haven't thought about that yet,” he said. “The whole national team thing is kind of new, you know? And so, thinking about it just right now, if Jurgen came up to me and said, 'The only way you're going to make the World Cup roster is if you go overseas,' then maybe I'd have to think about doing it, if that's what I wanted to do. But right now, we haven't had any conversations. My opinion is that he probably wouldn't do that.”
Besler can't afford to waste any energy worrying about that now, anyway. After two straight finishes atop the Eastern Conference standings and last year's Open Cup win, Sporting have set their sights on bigger prizes this year: reaching the knockout stage of the CONCACAF Champions League and making the MLS Cup final.
Besler says Sporting Kansas City's fans are one of the biggest reasons he's happy in his hometown. "The people love the team,” he says. “They're involved. They love their players, and you can feel that. I can feel it every day."
– USA TODAY Sports
“This team is really good, and I think we can be very successful,” he said. “That's what makes me really happy. That's where I want to be in five or six years, looking back. It's really cool to say, 'This was awesome. I played in Kansas City this whole time,' but it would even better to say, 'Look what we did with Sporting KC.'”
And if that's going to happen, Besler said, he can't afford any letdowns.
“I have no excuse now to have a bad game or to take a play off, to have a bad half or to have a bad three-game spell,” he said. “I think I should hold myself to the highest standard.”
Shortly after that exchange, near the end of the hour-long interview, a stranger stopped by Besler's table. He congratulated the defender on his performance at Azteca and Sporting's 2-0 win last week over Montreal, then wished him good luck in Friday night's home game against D.C. United.
Besler smiled and thanked the man, and he left. The encounter left Besler grinning, energized.
“That's why I love Kansas City, he said. “That right there. It's fun when people come up. It's not just the fact that they recognize you. It's what they say. It's not – and I think it comes back to the hometown thing – 'Oh, that's the kid who's from here, and he's on the Sporting team.' It's like, 'You guys crushed Montreal on Saturday night. I can't wait for the game Friday against D.C. United.' They know it. It's awesome.”
He smiled again.
“The people love the team,” he said. “They're involved. They love their players, and you can feel that. I can feel it every day. When that happens, it's like – now I want to go play for that guy. That guy pumps me up. He does.”
Steve Brisendine covers Sporting Kansas City for MLSsoccer.com.