Making history at Azteca Stadium is becoming commonplace for Sporting Kansas City’s Matt Besler and Graham Zusi.
By TOD PALMER
The Kansas City Star
Well, as commonplace as making history ever becomes.
Zusi, an All-Star midfielder and finalist for MLS MVP last season, entered the game for the U.S. men’s national team in the 60th minute during a 1-0 win Aug. 15, 2012, at Azteca — the first win on Mexican soil in history for the U.S.
Besler, an All-Star centerback and reigning MLS defender of the year, also was on the bench for that match.
Flash forward seven months to Tuesday night, both Zusi and Besler were back at Azteca, starting for the red, white and blue in a 0-0 draw during the final round of CONCACAF qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil.
It’s only the second time the U.S. had received a point in Mexico during World Cup qualifying. The U.S. also drew with Mexico at Azteca during the 1997 qualifying cycle.
“For us to go in there and get a point is something I’ll never forget in my career,” Zusi said. “We definitely knew the history, and we take pride in getting a point. To be part of history, there’s such a small list of times we’ve succeeded there, it’s special to be part of one of those teams.”
Zusi has started the last six World Cup qualifiers going back to the semifinal round last year, but Besler was making only his second appearance with the U.S. men’s senior national team.
“That’s definitely the biggest soccer game I’ve played in my life,” Besler said. “That would be true of any World Cup qualifier because of what’s at stake, but you add on the fact it’s against Mexico, our biggest rival, and in Azteca Stadium — yeah, that was definitely the biggest game I’ve ever played.”
Besler found out less than 12 hours before kickoff that he would get the starting nod anchoring the U.S. defense along with LA Galaxy defender Omar Gonzalez.
He admits to battling a swarm of butterflies, though his play belied any anxiety.
“When you hear that national anthem and there are 100,000 people, every player was probably a little nervous,” Besler said. “But once the game starts — and I’ve said this before — all the nerves go out the window and you just do your thing, relax and play the game.”
Both Zusi and Besler — who were joined on the field by three other former Wizards/Sporting KC players, Eddie Johnson and Herculez Gomez for the U.S. and Omar Bravo for Mexico — weren’t merely along for the ride either.
Zusi snuffed out a chance for Mexico during the first half with a surgical tackle in the left channel against Andres Guardado before he could send a cross into the box. He also nodded away a promising chance for Mexico with a brilliant 40-yard run from the midfield to the back post in the 77th minute.
“It was a do-or-die situation,” Zusi said. “I saw it developing from afar and put my head down and ran as hard as I could to get back. Luckily, the ball was right in my path at the end there, so I was able to clear the chance for them. It was an important point in the match, so I was happy I was able to help the team out.”
Meanwhile, Besler blocked several shots in the U.S. box and cleared many more threatening balls from danger in a performance that drew rave reviews from coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
“I kind of had a feeling I might play,” Besler said. “The night before, we were going through our walk-through practice at the stadium and I knew Clarence (Goodson) was struggling a little with his hamstring. Basically, I was preparing myself to play just in case.”
If he keeps playing like he has — and the U.S. has allowed a goal in his two starts — Besler might need to prepare for a trip to Brazil next summer, too.
“It’s too far off to start thinking about that,” Besler said. “I just wanted to make sure that, with every opportunity I get, I make the most of it.”
He certainly did Tuesday night.
To reach Tod Palmer, call 816-234-4389 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.