The day before the U.S. mens national team battled Panama last month in a key World Cup qualifier, Sporting Kansas City defender Matt Besler and his family took a stroll to Seattles famed Pike Place Market.
By TOD PALMER
The Kansas City Star
It was probably 1:30 in the afternoon and somebody slides open a window on the second floor of a building as we walk by, Beslers dad, Greg, recalled. Matts just in his USA warm-up and the guy hollers down, Hey, Matt Besler, good luck tomorrow. Go USA. As a group, we all kind of looked at Matt and started laughing.
This is Matt Beslers new life.
As recently as December, Besler hadnt earned a single cap with the U.S. mens national team, though his name slowly had been getting out there.
Besler, 26, was voted into the 2011 MLS All-Star Game by fans mostly Sporting KCs through a well-orchestrated texting campaign and last season he was the MLS Defender of the Year.
Hell make his second appearance in the AT&T MLS All-Star Game on Wednesday at Sporting Park.
Still, the trajectory of Beslers national profile spiked off the charts during the last four months as hes become a fixture with Omar Gonzalez as the anchor of the U.S. mens remade defense.
Now, even in Seattle, where Sounders fans arent exactly fond of Sporting KC, especially after losing last years Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup championship game in penalty kicks, Besler is showered with adulation from strangers.
Its a remarkable rise for the self-described simple guy who grew up in Overland Park and graduated from Blue Valley West.
I remember turning to Matt and saying, Who would have thought, eight months or even four months ago, that you would be walking in Seattle, someone would open the window and recognize you? Greg said. Thats how much his lifes changed, but hes no different.
Only 20 months ago, Besler wasnt sure his chance would come.
When Jurgen Klinsmann announced the roster for the January 2012 U.S. mens national team camp, Sporting KC teammates Graham Zusi, Teal Bunbury and C.J. Sapong were brought in, but Besler wasnt.
And he was heartbroken and mystified.
He wasnt sure why he was getting overlooked and he said, Ive done everything I thought I possibly could, Greg said.
Matt responded as hes always done by staying positive and working harder. He had been largely ignored as a youth player too, like most Kansas kids are, but wasnt about to give up.
He was definitely disappointed, Diane said. I dont know if he was crushed, but he was disappointed for sure. Of course, that only served as motivation for Matt. He really has a great attitude about those kinds of things. Instead of throwing in the towel, he just works harder and good things usually happen for him.
Besler scribbled five names Geoff Cameron, Omar Gonzalez, George John, Michael Parkhurst and Heath Pearce on a post-it note, the names of the five centerbacks Klinsmann called into camp instead of him.
I posted that right next to my bed stand, Besler said. I had those five players that were in front of me and looked at it pretty much every day. It helped me motivate me and kind of fueled me before I went and trained or worked out.
Beslers break came last August after Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes talked to Klinsmann during the MLS All-Star Game in Philadelphia, urging him to consider bringing Besler in for a camp and a firsthand appraisal.
A few weeks later, Klinsmann did just that ahead of a friendly against Mexico at Azteca Stadium. While Besler didnt play in that match, he had a foot in the door and was included in the January 2013 camp.
He always thought if he got the opportunity he would make the most of it, Greg said.
Opportunity presented itself back at Azteca in March when Clarence Goodson picked up an injury before the U.S. mens World Cup qualifier.
Besler was thrown into the fire, as hot a fire as CONCACAF has to offer, for his first meaningful international game and he shined, drawing rave reviews for helping the U.S. secure a qualifying point on Mexican soil for only the second time in history.
Hes been a fixture ever since, starting each of the last four World Cup qualifiers. The U.S. men are 6-0-2 overall in matches Besler started.
Competition has always driven Besler.
During his BV West days, Besler, who was a premed major at Notre Dame before being drafted by Sporting KC, insists he wasnt the smartest kid in his class.
I took school pretty seriously, but only because I wanted to beat the other people in my class, Besler said. I didnt want to do it to get a 4.0 in high school, but I always wanted to have the best test grade. Its pretty much been like that in everything.
Matt is always making up games to keep himself entertained, including one that involves the Besler boys including Mike, 22, who starts law school at UMKC next month, and Nick, 20, a junior soccer player at Notre Dame launching an entire sack of grapes across the kitchen one by one trying to plop one in a glass.
It started when I looked at my youngest brother and said, Nick, will you give me 100 bucks if I make this? Matt said. I threw it and missed, but 30 minutes later all the grapes were gone.
Diane Beslers newly refinished off-white cabinets were also stained, but to this day Nick the first to drop a grape in the glass insists that Matt owes him that $100.
Matt can probably afford it after signing a three-year extension in December.
Anything with competition is fair game at our house, even if its trying to throw grapes across the room to see who can make it in the glass, Matts mom, Diane, said.
Still, there seems to be a narrative swirling around Besler that hes a humdrum guy, despite such stories that defy that image.
An episode of NBC Sports MLS 36, starring Besler and fellow Sporting KC centerback Aurelien Collin, played the partnership as style Collin, the flamboyant and aggressive French playboy versus substance Besler, the ever-steady-but-never-flashy Midwestern kid.
Im a pretty simple guy, he said. Im not boring, though, like they said on the NBC Show. They played me off as boring. I would have preferred simple.
Easy-going yet driven to excel.
Out of three boys, he probably has the most personality and the most fun sense of humor, Diane said. Anytime Matts around, things get better in our house. Its just fun and people like to be around him.
Matt loves to play pranks, aiming to harmlessly shame Seth Sinovic or Chance Myers at the airport or replacing Nicks chair with a childs high chair at Easter dinner.
Of course, on the field hes all business. No joking around there.
Besler isnt flashy, but hes smart and steady at a position where going unnoticed isnt always a bad thing. After all, centerbacks are defined more by their mistakes than successes.
He doesnt have to go into a lot of challenges, because he can pick the pass off beforehand by being in a good spot, forward Jacob Peterson said. You might not notice him the whole game, but at the end of the game hes usually been one of the best players on the field. We see it at training every day how hes organizing, how hes talking and how hes thinking the game through.
Finally, the rest of the U.S. soccer community gets to see what Vermes and Sporting KC have seen all along.
I saw greatness in him as soon as I came here, captain and goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen said. He was one of my favorites from day one. You could see there was a lot of potential in that guy and hes become an awesome centerback. He has a helluva future in front of him.
The present isnt too shabby either.
I still think and its strange to say but I still think hes underrated, Peterson said. His performances with the U.S. have helped him as far as the national stage, but hes been putting in performances like that ever since hes been here. Hes consistently one of the best players in the league.
Still, even a meteoric rise hasnt changed Besler much aside from the volume of interview requests.
Hes still doing the same things he always does, said Sinovic, a Leawood native who played on the same youth club team with Besler. Hes still very humble and very gracious. I think hes very excited and proud to be in the situation hes in. Having played with him my entire life pretty much, its huge and its exciting to see him get these opportunities.
Still, Besler, who is the first Kansas-born player in U.S. national team history and is poised to become the first to participate in a World Cup, may never get used to strangers hollering at him from windows.
The last six months especially have been pretty awesome and reality has slowly sunk in, Diane said. It looks like he might be going to Brazil (for the 2014 World Cup) and thats whats really hit me. When you stop and think a minute about the fact that its only the biggest sporting event in the entire world, its sobering to think, Wow, my kid might be part of that.
No doubt, Besler has earned it.