FOX Soccer Exclusive
Right place, time for USA's Besler
Soccer careers are, without fail, a product of time and place. All the talent in the world won’t get you anywhere if you don’t get your blend of timing and luck just right. Yet perhaps no player currently on the United States men’s national team has been the beneficiary of coincidence as much as central defender Matt Besler has.
“Absolutely, I’ll be the first to admit that for you to advance in your career a lot of things have to fall the right way,” the 26-year-old, who plays for his hometown Sporting Kansas City, said in his slow, quiet and deliberate brogue. “For me, I’ve been lucky that the timing has been right on a certain number of things.”
Two years ago, when Jurgen Klinsmann took over the national team program, Besler was merely a solid Major League Soccer defender, three seasons out of the University of Notre Dame. Last year, he won the league’s Defender of the Year award, yet by this March, his only appearance for the United States had come in the annual low-key post-January camp friendly. Those are generally intended as an open tryout of sorts for domestic players with no national team track record. Appearing there is hardly a noteworthy feat.
And yet, heading into the Americans’ final 2014 World Cup qualifiers on Friday and next Tuesday, Besler is an undisputed and indeed much-appreciated starter and a good bet to remain one for the long term.
So how, exactly, did that happen?
Besler was in the right place at the right time. Klinsmann has reintroduced a willingness, which had steadily eroded over the last four World Cup cycles, to rely on MLS-based players. From the 1998 through the 2010 editions of the World Cup, USA head coaches had decreased their reliance on home-based players, falling from bringing in an average of 16 MLSers to four, and from starting an average of seven of them per game to 2.55. Klinsmann has typically started four or five MLS players of late.
Klinsmann has also put a premium on defenders who can play the ball out of the back, especially centrally. That rebuilding of his back line put Besler squarely in Klinsmann’s crosshairs. The German’s predecessors might not have even considered Besler; in fact, most other coaches might not have even considered Besler.
Klinsmann first called Besler into his squad for the away friendly against Mexico in Aug. 2012 and brought him back to the Azteca for the Mar. 26 qualifier, throwing him into the lineup for his first competitive start. Besler distinguished himself as El Tri laid siege on the US defense throughout an arduous 0-0 draw, and has started every qualifier since, save for the Sept. 10 2-0 home win over Mexico, when he was suspended (because of this dive). He was also called in and deployed for the knockout stages of the Americans’ triumphant run to the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup.
Playing strong one-on-one defense and deftly distributing out of the back -- he was converted from a midfielder in college -- Besler has formed a cohesive partnership with his usual sidekick Omar Gonzalez, whose aerial strengths complement him well. But that didn’t make starting him in the toughest game in the entire qualifying cycle any less daring of a leap by his coach.
“He’s given me opportunities,” Besler said. This is the fourth trend: Klinsmann’s taste for taking risks others might think outlandish. “Some people were surprised that I got a chance to play in the Mexico game at Azteca, but he came up to me and he said I’m ready and he’s fully confident in me and that’s why he’s going to start me. Even though it was my first qualifier ever, he wasn’t afraid to do that. Just looking at that, you can gain a lot of confidence from it.”
Sporting KC defender Matt Besler (L) has flourished under Jurgen Klinsmann's guidance for team USA (Image courtesy of Getty).
An unorthodox coach had found in Besler an unorthodox solution to his persistent problems at centerback -- Klinsmann has handed 10 different players starts there in his 40 games in charge. Besler’s path to the national team is at once old-school and new age. Out of high school, he didn’t forego college for a leap straight to MLS or Europe, like so many of his generational peers, but played all four years.
He got more than the eighth overall 2009 MLS SuperDraft pick out of the experience. With a 3.5 GPA as a psychology pre-med, he earned a $15,000 student-athlete grant from the NCAA to put toward graduate school tuition. He’d pondered becoming an optometrist, like his father, or perhaps going to dental school, like some of his friends. “Playing professional soccer was definitely my number one goal and I did pretty much everything I could to make it happen,” Besler said. “But behind the scenes I was also preparing for a career out of soccer just in case I didn’t get to play or I was injured or something like that.”
He did and he wasn’t, so off to the pros he went. He eventually stood out and played out his rookie contract. But last winter, he eschewed offers from Belgium and the English Championship -- he had trials in the Premier League, too -- and re-signed with Sporting for a modest annual salary of $180,000, reportedly a good bit less than his European offers.
The genesis of that decision can once again be traced back to Klinsmann. “I think that there’s not really a recipe to get on the national team,” Besler said. “Maybe in years past players might have felt that the only way to get on the national team was to try and go and play overseas. But I think since Jurgen has taken over, he’s proven to give guys a chance to play no matter where you’re playing or what club you’re playing for. That’s obviously really helped me and helped a lot of guys get into the picture.”
He liked it in Kansas City. He’d only had a whiff of the national team, but if he didn’t need to leave to pursue his World Cup dreams, why would he? “At the end of it, it was pretty clear that for a number of factors, Kansas City was the best place for me right now to be successful,” Besler said.
So he got further entrenched in his hometown, involving himself in the fundraising for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. And by the time the 2013 season was well underway, he’d become a full-time national teamer. He’d gotten his mix of talent and timing and luck right.
And a few trends had swung his way.
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