Only six days after making his World Cup debut — when he officially became the first Kansas-born player to compete in the illustrious soccer tournament — Matt Besler made a world-class goal scorer look relatively ordinary. Besler harassed, visibly frustrated and essentially silenced Portugal star Cristiano Ronaldo for the better part of 90 minutes Sunday during the United States’ 2-2 draw.
It didn’t go unnoticed.
By fans. By experts. Perhaps by overseas clubs.
While Besler and Sporting Kansas City teammate Graham Zusi further carve out their roles within a surging national team, their international stock is rising — an undeniable fact that could lead to a cascade of new opportunities upon their return from Brazil.
Sporting KC manager and technical director Peter Vermes has long acknowledged outside interest in both Besler and Zusi — while also stating the club’s desire to retain both players — but that interest is set to reach new heights as they each excel under a world spotlight.
That produces a rather obvious question: Could either player be lured away from Kansas City?
“There was always the idea that (it) would be a real difficult decision to make,” Vermes said. “It wasn’t if — it was just when.”
The clock may be ticking toward decision day.
Besler has started both matches for the United States while blossoming into a stalwart on an inexperienced back line. He was credited with 12 defensive clearances Sunday — more than double any other player on the team.
Zusi’s impact has been just as evident. He recorded the assist on John Brooks’ game-winning goal against Ghana on June 16, then assisted on Clint Dempsey’s go-ahead goal Sunday.
Besler and Zusi haven’t expressed a desire to pursue an overseas operation, Vermes said, but the timing could be prime for such a leap. Dempsey made the jump in 2006, parlaying his first World Cup appearance into a lucrative contract with Fulham of the English Premier League.
The European transfer window opens July 1.
“We’ll have to deal with that as it comes,” Vermes said. “The window is opening up here not too long from now. It is what it is. We can’t shy away from it — especially if they continue to go deeper and deeper into the tournament.”
The United States can advance to the World Cup knockout stage with a win or tie against Germany on Thursday. There are possibilities the Americans can advance with a loss, too, depending on the outcome of the match between Portugal and Ghana.
Sporting Kansas City midfielder Benny Feilhaber was a part of the 2010 U.S. team that advanced to the knockout stage. He said he received a few offers from teams in Germany’s first division after the World Cup but ultimately decided to stay with Danish Superliga team AGF.
“I think there will definitely be options for them,” Feilhaber said. “Obviously Bes is from the area, so I know he loves it here. And Zeus has been here for so long (that) he’s a fan favorite and he’s got some roots here even though he’s not from here. So it’s going to be difficult, I think, for them to want to leave.
“But if there’s a good opportunity out there — which I think there could be — they will have to think about it.”
Vermes has always said such a deal would not only need to fit a players’ request but also make financial sense for the team — as it did with Uri Rosell earlier this month and Kei Kamara last season.
When the club agreed to transfer Rosell to Sporting Clube de Portugal, Sporting Kansas City netted more than $1 million.
“The bottom line is we’re not just some bargain-basement shopping place where you can come and get in on a garage sale and find a guy,” Vermes said. “We have very good players here. We spend a lot of time investing a lot of time in those players. If (another team) wants them, they’re going to have to make a significant investment to us, if that were to ever transpire.
“But right now, we have no intentions of moving any of our guys unless it’s something that’s good on both sides. It’s not going to be an easy thing for someone to come in and grab one of our guys. Because why should we?”
Sporting Club CEO Robb Heineman says the team has put itself in position to potentially lock up both Besler and Zusi, though its proverbial hands are tied by a salary cap — an obstacle European leagues aren’t required to hurdle.
The Major League Soccer collective bargaining agreement expires at the end of this season. It’s widely believed the salary cap will be increased under a new agreement, which would allow Sporting KC some extra wiggle room to offer Besler and Zusi more rewarding contract extensions.
“Obviously we’re going to have some decisions to make on some key guys — especially the two guys returning from the World Cup — so anything we can do to keep the core of this team together is important,” Heineman said after the Rosell transfer. “I think this deal is going to allow us to do that.”
PORTLAND TIMBERS AT SPORTING KANSAS CITY
COMPETITION: Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, fifth round
WHEN/WHERE: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, at Sporting Park
ABOUT PORTLAND: After opening the MLS season with an eight-match winless streak, the Timbers turned around to lose just one of their next eight matches. Portland rolled Orlando City U-23 3-0 in the fourth round of the U.S. Open Cup.
ABOUT SPORTING KC: Defender Aurelien Collin declared his hamstring healthy after Monday's training session, though he may still sit out Tuesday for precautionary reasons. Defender Igor Juliao (quad) and midfielder Paulo Nagamura (concussion) will also be game-time decisions, manager Peter Vermes said. Midfielder Benny Feilhaber (shoulder) will sit out Tuesday and said he is targeting a return against Chicago on July 6.
BOTTOM LINE: The two teams will meet in the U.S. Open Cup competition Tuesday, then turn around and play an MLS match on Friday in Portland. The winner of Tuesday's Open Cup match will travel to face the winner of San Jose and Seattle on July 8 or 9.
PREDICTION: Sporting KC 2, Portland 1
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