The day before the U.S. men’s 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 Seattle’s famed Pike Place Market.
“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,” Besler’s dad, Greg, recalled. “Matt’s 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 Besler’s new life.
As recently as December, Besler hadn’t earned a single cap with the U.S. men’s 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 KC’s through a well-orchestrated texting campaign — and last season he was the MLS Defender of the Year.
He’ll make his second appearance in the AT MLS All-Star Game on Wednesday at Sporting Park.
Still, the trajectory of Besler’s national profile spiked off the charts during the last four months as he’s become a fixture with Omar Gonzalez as the anchor of the U.S. men’s remade defense.
Now, even in Seattle, where Sounders fans aren’t exactly fond of Sporting KC, especially after losing last year’s Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup championship game in penalty kicks, Besler is showered with adulation from strangers.
It’s 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. “That’s how much his life’s changed, but he’s no different.”
Only 20 months ago, Besler wasn’t sure his chance would come.
When Jurgen Klinsmann announced the roster for the January 2012 U.S. men’s national team camp, Sporting KC teammates Graham Zusi, Teal Bunbury and C.J. Sapong were brought in, but Besler wasn’t.
And he was heartbroken and mystified.
“He wasn’t sure why he was getting overlooked and he said, ‘I’ve done everything I thought I possibly could,’” Greg said.
Matt responded as he’s always done — by staying positive and working harder. He had been largely ignored as a youth player too, like most Kansas kids are, but wasn’t about to give up.
“He was definitely disappointed,” Diane said. “I don’t 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.”
Besler’s 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 didn’t 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. men’s 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.
He’s 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 wasn’t 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 didn’t want to do it to get a 4.0 in high school, but I always wanted to have the best test grade. It’s 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 Besler’s 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 it’s trying to throw grapes across the room to see who can make it in the glass,” Matt’s mom, Diane, said.
Still, there seems to be a narrative swirling around Besler that he’s 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.
“I’m a pretty simple guy,” he said. “I’m 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 Matt’s around, things get better in our house. It’s 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 Nick’s chair with a child’s high chair at Easter dinner.
Of course, on the field he’s all business. No joking around there.
Besler isn’t flashy, but he’s smart and steady at a position where going unnoticed isn’t always a bad thing. After all, centerbacks are defined more by their mistakes than successes.
“He doesn’t 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 he’s usually been one of the best players on the field. We see it at training every day — how he’s organizing, how he’s talking and how he’s 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 he’s become an awesome centerback. He has a helluva future in front of him.”
The present isn’t too shabby either.
“I still think — and it’s strange to say — but I still think he’s underrated,” Peterson said. “His performances with the U.S. have helped him as far as the national stage, but he’s been putting in performances like that ever since he’s been here. He’s consistently one of the best players in the league.”
Still, even a meteoric rise hasn’t changed Besler much — aside from the volume of interview requests.
“He’s still doing the same things he always does,” said Sinovic, a Leawood native who played on the same youth club team with Besler. “He’s still very humble and very gracious. I think he’s very excited and proud to be in the situation he’s in. Having played with him my entire life pretty much, it’s huge and it’s 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 that’s what’s really hit me. When you stop and think a minute about the fact that it’s only the biggest sporting event in the entire world, it’s sobering to think, ‘Wow, my kid might be part of that.’”
No doubt, Besler has earned it.