Wearing red, white and touch of navy blue, Matt Besler and Graham Zusi walked through a dimly-lit tunnel and onto the field at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City. It was a cool evening on March 26, 2013, with gray clouds hovering over a stadium that serves as the portrait of a rich Mexican soccer history.
A long way from the friendly confines of Sporting Park, the Sporting Kansas City teammates warmed up on the field as the pro-Mexican crowd of more than 85,000 fans grew louder. Besler and Zusi turned toward each other.
“We’re just laughing,” Besler said. “Like, ‘What the heck are we doing here?’ ”
Only four years earlier, the present-day best friends shared occupancy in Besler’s parents’ home out of financial necessity. They were professional athletes, but in label only. They spent that summer hanging out with high school kids because it felt like a better fit than fraternizing with their veteran teammates.
But a shared sense of career instability has given way to soccer stardom.
Five years after non-guaranteed contracts left them wondering about their place in professional soccer, Besler and Zusi will represent the United States in the World Cup. The Americans open group play against Ghana at 5 p.m. Monday.
“After all we’ve been through together,” Zusi said, “I can’t imagine sharing this experience with anyone else.”
United by draft
On the morning of Jan. 15, 2009, Diane and Greg Besler barged into their oldest son’s bedroom and urged him to wake up, like two parents begging a kid to get ready for school. The MLS Draft was in St. Louis — only a four-hour drive from their Overland Park home — and Greg and Diane thought Matt should be there.
He was hesitant. Only New York had shown serious intentions to draft him, and he wasn’t sure if that was at the first- or second-round level.
Wizards technical director Peter Vermes voiced minimal interest in Matt through a phone conversation with Greg, but that seemed like more along the lines of a conversation between friends than a scouting call.
Matt reluctantly agreed to the last-minute trip. He packed an overnight bag for New York.
“They wanted me there right after the draft,” Matt Besler said.
The prospect of playing in New York was certainly intriguing, but something told him a better opportunity could arise. As Matt picked out his clothes on the morning of the draft, he settled on a light blue tie with a navy suit.
“I told him it looked like Wizards colors, and he smiled like he already knew that,” Greg said. “I don’t know what made him think that.”
The premonition was justified. After calling a draft-day timeout, prolonging the anxious wait, the Wizards selected Besler with the eighth overall pick — three slots before the New York Red Bulls’ first choice. Vermes later said he didn’t want to tip his hand by vocalizing his interest in the left-footed center back.
It was the first of five Sporting KC selections on draft day. In the second round, 15 picks after Besler, the Wizards added a lesser known midfielder from the University of Maryland, a player whom his friends called “Zeus.”
Zusi didn’t bother to track the draft. He was busy finishing up a winter course at Maryland when his phone buzzed.
“I got a text from a buddy letting me know where I went,” Zusi said. “I probably had a really goofy smile on my face in class.”
Less than a week later, the Wizards held a preseason camp in Bradenton, Fla.
Zusi and Besler were two of six rookies assigned to share an apartment. They had never met.
An unlikely home
The club’s rookies were relegated to a corner unit in the Bradenton, Fla., complex. With each passing day — or so it seemed to Besler and Zusi — the apartment experienced turnover. New roommates were brought in. Most were cut.
Besler and Zusi expressed concern they would be next.
“In my room in the apartment, there were two beds,” Besler said. “There were three different people who slept in that bed in three weeks.”
Besler and Zusi were the only two rookies to survive camp, but Zusi didn’t sign a contract with the Wizards until a couple of days before the season opener.
Feeling uneasy about his place on the team — the contracts were only guaranteed until July — Zusi rebuffed Besler’s idea to find an apartment in the Kansas City area. Instead, he split rent with Abe Thompson, another former Maryland player with the Wizards.
Together, they paid $150 per month for a unit in the Northland. Zusi slept on an air mattress.
“People ask me all the time if I always thought about playing in a World Cup and if this is a dream come true and all that stuff,” Zusi said. “I always laugh because in my rookie season, Matt and I didn’t even know if we were going to make the team. We were just trying to survive the week.
“So, no, I don’t think we were dreaming of a World Cup.”
After two months with Thompson, Zusi ditched the air mattress and moved in with Besler and his family in Overland Park. It was supposed to be a temporary fix for both Zusi and Besler. It lasted the entire season.
The roots of their friendship grew in another crowded living arrangement. They played basketball, ping pong, golf and video games during their spare time.
Besler’s two younger brothers — both of high school age — were still living in the house. They often had friends over.
“Just me and Graham,” Besler said. “And a bunch of high school kids.”
The Besler and Zusi connection spread to their experiences with the Wizards. As the only two rookies who made the team in 2009, they divided the hazing chores — washing the dishes, restocking the refrigerator, picking up cones after training.
All while fighting to make it as a professional soccer player.
“I can’t tell you how comforting it was as a parent for Shirley and I that he found a second family and a best friend,” said David Zusi, Graham’s father. “I think the real benefit, which they may not have even realized yet, is they were both so competitive. So by becoming such good friends, they pushed each other on the soccer field.”
National team calls
Zusi and Besler moved into an apartment after their rookie seasons. They were watching television in their living room one afternoon in January 2012 when Zusi received a phone call from a number he didn’t recognize. He sent the caller to voicemail.
It was Jurgen Klinsmann, head coach for the United States Men’s National Team.
Zusi had turned his first stint as a regular starter into the MLS breakout player of the year award in 2011, the club’s first season under the rebranded name Sporting Kansas City. Klinsmann took notice and invited Zusi to join the national team.
Besler waited for his call. He was another central figure in Sporting KC’s 14-match unbeaten streak in a 2011 season that helped revive soccer in his hometown of Kansas City.
But his phone stayed silent.
“I was pumped for Graham. Pumped,” Besler said. “But deep down and selfishly, I was waiting. I’d heard I potentially had a chance at this, too. I was checking my phone and nothing. Next day, nothing. I was (mad) I wasn’t involved. It motivated me.”
On a post-it note, Besler wrote the names of the five center backs called into U.S. camp. He placed it next to his bedstand, where he could see it every day.
After the ensuing season, he was chosen 2012 MLS defender of the year.
“I’m not saying that had everything to do with it, but it certainly had an impact in his dedication to the game,” Zusi said. “It’s no coincidence that was the year Matt really, really took off as a player.”
The phone finally rang.
In January 2013, Besler received the call to join his longtime club teammate on the national team.
While serving leading roles in reviving soccer in Kansas City — producing All-Star appearances and an MLS championship in 2013 — Besler and Zusi enjoyed success on a much larger stage. They helped the U.S. to a 0-0 draw in the World Cup qualifier in Mexico, only the second time the Americans had earned a result on the road against their biggest rivals.
They became favorites with the coach, too.
“They are very driven. They both know what it means to be a 24/7 professional player. They stepped it up,” Klinsmann said after selecting both players to the World Cup roster last month. “… They work hard for what they’re doing. That’s why they developed into two players in our environment (who) are very important.”
Besler is the likely starter at left center back when the United States opens its World Cup group play against Ghana.
Zusi has scored three goals in his time with the national team — including one during a World Cup qualifier against Jamaica at Sporting Park. Besler was the first man to greet Zusi after the goal, picking him up and lifting him into the air.
“I think he knew what a special moment that was for me,” Zusi said. “Well, for both of us, really.”
Separate lives, shared experiences
In the first summer after moving out of the Besler home in Overland Park, Zusi and Besler drove to a dog shelter out of boredom. They found a new litter of Labrador puppies. On a whim, they decided they wanted to bring one home.
“We suddenly realized that we didn’t have the best job stability — one of us could get traded or cut very quickly, in which case, ‘who gets the dog?’ ” Zusi said.
“So we got two.”
Besler named one Gipper, a salute to his Notre Dame playing days. (Win one for the Gipper.) Zusi named the other Baci, the Italian word for kisses.
The dogs no longer live together, and neither do their owners. Besler married in December, one week after hoisting the MLS Cup. Graham has a longtime girlfriend.
Their personal lives have drifted apart. Their soccer lives remain a striking parallel.
They once shared a draft class and the ensuing career uncertainty. They continue to share vital roles in soccer’s resurgence in Kansas City, which culminated in an MLS championship. And now they share the red, white and blue of the United States.
“One day, we’ll sit back, and me and Graham will talk about how amazing this is,” Besler said. “We’ll have a beer — or maybe multiple beers — and we’ll just talk about everything we’ve gone through together.”
Besler stood up from his chair. He offered a parting thought.
“Hopefully there’s still a lot more to add to that conversation.”