Above Kyle Beckerman’s Real Salt Lake locker, there is a saying affixed to the wall. The TEAM is the star. Below it, the USA midfielder slips into one of the plaid shirts he always seems to be wearing off the field. He ties his bundle of thickly-roped dreadlocks up snugly, turning them into something of a peacock’s plume.
He and his peers have just booked yet another carefully-crafted victory over FC Dallas. It was classic RSL – dominant, patient, meticulous. RSL play a short and slow and deliberate passing game, lulling opponents to sleep by denying them the ball. Pass by little pass – a few balls square, one back, one forward, another square, another forward, and so on – this lavish exercise in geometry gets them where they want to go. Or it doesn’t and they start all over.
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It’s been remarkably effective. It took RSL three years to figure out who and what they were going to be. By the fourth, in 2008, they reached the conference final. The following year they won the MLS Cup. The year after that, they became the first American team to reach the CONCACAF Champions League final. In 2011, they reached another conference final and in 2012 they set a club record for wins with 17. Last year, the league’s destructive salary budget rules – which punish success and reward weakness – forced them to dump several core players and rebuild with younger ones. They got back to MLS Cup anyway, and didn’t lose to Sporting Kansas City until the 10th round of penalty kicks.
Jason Kreis, the head coach since 2007, left for 2015 expansion team New York City FC before the season. Jeff Cassar, who had been Kreis’s assistant for the duration of his tenure in Salt Lake, was promoted and became just the third head coach in the club’s history. Nothing seems to have changed at Rio Tinto Stadium. The style is the same, as is the culture of discipline and labor. After 27 games, RSL are a lock to reach the playoffs in the Western Conference for a seventh year in a row, having lost just five games, tied for the fewest in the league.
What RSL figured out sooner than just about any other club, even though many had a nine-year head start on them, is that a continuity in method and spirit will protect you from the turnover imposed by the stringent salary restrictions. The team being "the star" sounds like corporate-speak found on tacky posters in conference rooms, but here that claim has a fundamental merit to it. Through the inevitable change, the team has somehow stayed the same. Beckerman, at the club since 2007, embodies that sameness. He shows up every day and carries on the RSL way – diligence and passes. And when he does, everyone around him, whoever that may be, seems to follow suit.
"We had the philosophy of how we wanted to play so it was fairly easy to bring in new guys," says Beckerman. "The philosophy is kind of known now. When you’re an American player coming up or you’ve played in the league, you know what we’re kind of about. There’s not much that we have to say. When they come here, they see the way that I’m working; the way [playmaker] Javier [Morales] is working. They catch on quick."
"He’s an extension of the staff out on the field," says Cassar. "If I ever want to get something relayed to the team I go to Kyle and then he makes it happen."
Beckerman establish his presence with his steady play and his vocal leadership.
Beckerman is RSL’s captain in name and act, shouting when there is a need for shouting, and showing when there is a need for showing. On the field, he connects dots both near and far, but mostly near, with his utilitarian passes. Last season, he completed more passes than any other player in the league who was on the field at least half the time – something Beckerman didn’t know until it was pointed out to him. As the deepest in a foursome of midfielders deployed in a narrow diamond, he covers vast swaths of ground, cleans up his teammates’ messes and, without fail, opens up for a troubled peer to pass out of pressure. It isn’t glamorous work, but he does it quietly and happily. He resigned himself to this role a long time ago. "I think I fought it for a little bit, but then I really learned to love it," he says. "It’s fun. The way we play, everybody touches the ball. You’re not left out."
It worked out for him. At 32, he has had a late and unexpected national team resurgence, playing every minute of the group stage at the 2014 World Cup and standing out for his unimpeachable play. Head coach Jürgen Klinsmann appreciates his total discipline. He tells Beckerman to stay put in front of the defense, deferring all attacking aspirations to others, and he complies.
Only very close scrutiny reveals Beckerman’s impact for whatever team he plays on. During games, he mostly recedes into the shadows of his teammates, if that makes sense. He’s there, but he’s not there. Like a referee, he is having a good game when he goes largely unnoticed. It means he’s doing the necessary, dirty stuff well. Only failure at it would draw the eye. He is appreciated though, as the second-highest paid member of the team.
"He’s our leader and our best player," says defender Nat Borchers. "He brings the energy and he’s also one of the smartest soccer players I’ve played with. He’s able to read the tempo of the game: when to go forward; when to put his foot on the ball and keep possession. He’s got an innate understanding of where to be. When teams try to disrupt us, they put a guy on him."
Adds striker Robbie Findley: "He knows how to win games. He knows what it takes and what each one of us needs to do in order for that to happen. He holds it down back there and makes sure we’re in a good formation. He’s the best at it."
To wit: before Beckerman left for the World Cup, RSL went 5-0-5. They were the last undefeated team in the league, holding out until Week 13, seven weeks longer than the next-best team – FC Dallas, incidentally. They were 1-3-2 in his absence. Since his return, RSL is 6-2-3. Granted, star goalkeeper Nick Rimando was away with the USA as well, but Beckerman’s absence was plainly painful.
Against Dallas, he is having his kind of night. They are playing an opponent with no interest in possession but armed with an eagerness to pounce on of the counter. He needs to be on point, ensuring that they push the play forward, yet being in the right spots when FCD bombs forward on a turnover. As ever, he delivers. Beckerman completes 37 of his 41 passes; creates two chances; and makes five interceptions, two blocks and two clearances, according to Opta. He wins two-thirds of his tackles while committing just one foul.
Now, in front of his locker, it’s hard to get Beckerman to acknowledge any of those contributions or how foundational he’s just been to RSL’s 101st league win since his arrival seven years ago. He artfully steers his responses back to the team. It’s never him, always the team. Beckerman is the team. As such, confirms the writing on the wall, Beckerman is also the star.