Matt Besler carries Kansas City’s soccer flag into Brazil for the World Cup

06/14/2014 10:53 AM

06/14/2014 4:20 PM

Matt Besler was 7 years old when he first witnessed the spectacle of the World Cup in 1994.

And here’s what he took away from it: the berserk hair of Colombia’s Carlos Valderrama.

Besler was less than obsessed and had no notion that he would one day be part of soccer’s, and the planet’s, premiere sporting event.

“Uh, to be honest, no; I wasn’t thinking that far ahead,” said Besler, the star Sporting Kansas City defender who grew up in Overland Park and attended Blue Valley West.

“I was probably worried about, I don’t know, like what popsicle I was eating.”

So when Besler and the U.S. Men’s National Team kick off World Cup play against Ghana on Monday in Brazil, he’ll be in a place he never reached in his dreams.

It wasn’t because no kid from the Kansas City area had ever played in the World Cup, and it wasn’t that he didn’t have a special aptitude for the game.

It’s just that his dreams were based on more practical, realistic goals.

Only five years ago, at the end of his senior year at the University of Notre Dame, Besler was preparing for medical school board exams and watching friends interviewing for “sought-after jobs,” worried he was losing his way.

One night, he agonized over the phone with his parents about whether to pursue soccer further or make good on his pre-med studies.

“I wouldn’t call it a breakdown,” Besler said. “But I was having a very serious conversation about what I should do.”

***

That doesn’t make this any less stirring for him.

To hear the ever-considerate Besler talk about it, though, the pride seems as much about others as himself.

It’s about getting to be part of the World Cup with Sporting KC teammate Graham Zusi. It’s about representing his family, including younger brothers Nick, who played for Notre Dame’s 2013 NCAA champion soccer team, and Mike, for whom he strives to be a role model.

Maybe more than anything else, it’s about getting be an ambassador from an implausible place for this stage.

“Kansas City will always be a big part of me; I carry that with me wherever I go …” Besler said. “I really do feel that I’m playing for the city.”

In fact, Besler is representing Kansas City as no one has before and his breakthrough reflects a shifting landscape in the game.

“You’ve got (23) players on the World Cup team, and to think of the massive amount of people playing … and one of them is from our little town?” said Tony Tocco, the men’s coach at Rockhurst University since 1970 and among the career victory leaders in college soccer. “That’s something Kansas City should take great pride in. …

“It’s a tribute to Matt, but it’s also a tribute to development over a number of years.”

With soccer in the United States long dominated by Chicago, St. Louis and East Coast cities, Kansas City into the 1980s was considered “a hick town” in terms of soccer, said Tocco, who played on Saint Louis University’s undefeated 1964 team.

Early on as a coach, Tocco faced little competition to sign KC-area players. But that all started to change between the interwoven success of the Comets professional indoor team in the 1980s and 1990s and increasing interest by high schools and clubs, which became so strong that Tocco believes it “drizzled up.”

Add the start of Major League Soccer in 1996 with the Wizards, and particularly what they’ve done since rebranding to Sporting KC, and the area has become what Tocco considers a hotbed for the game.

He believes local soccer facilities are among the best in the nation, and that’s well-symbolized by sleek, state-of-the-art Sporting Park.

Tocco no longer has a stranglehold on local recruiting.

“I never get upset; I wish them the very best,” he said. “Because it means that Kansas City has arrived.”

Or as Besler, 27, put it: “We’re kind of grownups now, and we’re that first generation that’s grown up with the game in our lives from the beginning, and I think that has a major effect on the scene in Kansas City.”

***

Even if Besler had no early inkling he would come to symbolize such an arrival, there were ample signs he had abnormal promise.

It’s just that those were more revealing in hindsight than they were then.

Things like pre-school teacher Barb Andrews repeatedly telling his parents he could “play soccer like no kid I’ve ever seen.”

Things like Pleasant Ridge Middle School principal Jim Gill raving again and again over the years about how long Matt juggled a soccer ball, while wearing hiking boots, for a class presentation.

There were more tangible moments, of course.

“This World Cup makes you think back,” said Besler’s father, Greg. “… he did do some uncanny things.”

After first grade, for instance, Matt and two friends were signed up for a local three-on-three soccer competition almost as a lark.

The team, the Kansas City Sharks, won and qualified for a national tournament in Denver.

Because everyone figured that also would make for a good family vacation spot, off they went.

Then the Sharks won the title on a corner kick that 6-year-old Matt somehow lofted in.

“When people say, ‘OK, there’s got to be a moment,’ that probably was a moment,” Greg Besler said.

“I’ll show you the trophy,” said Besler’s mother, Diane. “It’s bigger than (the kids) were.”

She retrieved it in the basement that Besler shared with Zusi early on after they were drafted by Sporting KC in 2009.

Sure enough, it was bigger than those boys were.

And sure enough, a year later they went back and won again.

Still …

“Some parents may think their kid’s going to be the next Michael Jordan,” Greg Besler said with a smile, “but those are probably not realistic parents.”

With a laugh, Diane Besler added: “I never really thought one of my kids would be playing in (the World Cup), let’s just put it that way.”

***

Not that Matt Besler didn’t have the genes.

Greg Besler was a high school football and basketball player in Topeka and walked-on for a year of football at Kansas State before buckling down toward what would become a career in optometry.

Diane Besler played field hockey and ran track at the University of New Hampshire and ran cross country at K-State before also turning more to her studies, as a dietitian.

Her sister, Marcia Pankratz, was a two-time Olympic field hockey player who played in that sport’s version of the World Cup in 1994, and the Beslers introduced their children to international athletics by taking them to the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

It’s also true that Matt liked soccer plenty.

Enough to play it in a patchwork of neighbors backyards in the family’s first house in Stanley.

Enough to enjoy pickup games in the Arrowhead Stadium parking lot, where his family went frequently as original season-ticket holders for the Wizards.

But he was just as apt, if not more, to play basketball or baseball.

At home, the nightly ritual was the boys convincing their father to change into his jeans and tugging on their mom’s arm “to get out in the yard and play whatever with us.”

“It was actually very rarely soccer, to be honest with you,” Matt Besler said. “My favorite sport was whatever season it was. I was never the kid playing soccer 24-7.”

By his early teens, though, Besler had developed enough to join the Olympic Development Program.

That was about the time he started getting more passionate about soccer … for more reasons than one.

At the time, a school of thought persisted that the area couldn’t hatch world-class players.

If a parent wanted to cultivate interest in soccer, Greg Besler remembers being told, “You’ve got to go to St. Louis. And if you can play with the St. Louis kids, then you ought to go to Chicago.”

Matt heard that, too. From kids he was in camps with.

“You tell them you’re from Kansas, and it’s like, ‘What are you doing here?’” Besler said. “And that’s how it’s been my whole life. Even in college, too. You’re trying to get recruited for college, and would you rather take a kid from St. Louis or from Kansas?

“So is that a chip on my shoulder? Maybe. But there’s always been that pride of trying to prove you can come from Kansas and still be a good soccer player.”

***

First, though, Besler had to settle on soccer as his priority over basketball, which kept him in the driveway shooting for hours on end and was more his fancy.

In the heyday of the Chicago Bulls, his father would turn off the lights in the television room and crank up the volume on the TV so Matt could come running out like Michael Jordan.

Besler’s break came, in a manner of speaking, when he suffered an ankle injury during an AAU basketball tournament in Oklahoma the summer before his junior year at Blue Valley West.

The broken bone in his ankle, he said, disrupted his junior season of soccer.

That made him clarify what he was seeking to do.

It was with no grand vision, really, just a pragmatic look at the next step. He realized he wasn’t going to be a Division I basketball player, but had a chance in soccer, in which he was thriving and would lead Blue Valley West to a state title his senior year.

So soccer became everything.

Sort of.

Because med school was the plan, too.

It was a plan he took seriously enough that he earned a 3.52 grade-point average at Notre Dame and felt he was living “a double-life” with all he was pouring into soccer and academics.

If you’d had to guess early on, you’d have figured med school was more in his future than soccer. Besler’s parents could barely look at his soccer future themselves during their unofficial visit to Notre Dame.

They all but grimaced as they watched the physicality of a Fighting Irish game against Boston College. Matt was maybe 5 feet 9, 130 pounds at the time, and Greg remembered wondering if he would be over his head at that level.

“I had this look of, like, ‘Matt, do you think you can play that game?’” Greg Besler recalled. “Without hesitation, he said, ‘Yeah, no problem.’”

He demonstrated that and then some over the next four years.

So much so that when he called and pleaded for guidance in sorting out what to do about his med school quandary, his parents emphatically urged him toward soccer.

“Give it everything you have,” he recalled them saying. “Because you’re going to regret if you don’t, and you’re going to regret it if you don’t put everything you have into it.”

So he did. Med school was out, most likely for good, he says now.

And everything fell together then.

Soon, he was drafted by his hometown team. He rose to MLS All-Star status two years later and was chosen MLS Defender of the Year in 2012.

He was instrumental in Sporting’s MLS Cup championship last year … just weeks before he married Amanda Miller of Overland Park.

And now there is this, the seemingly dramatic leap to the World Cup.

Which actually is just the product of one grounded moment after another, a big success as the result of a lot of small successes along the way, as his mother put it.

It might be the stuff that dreams are made of for most.

But for Besler, it’s an end that came from the means.

“I guess I dreamed of the World Cup,” he said, smiling, “but, honestly, not really.”

To reach Vahe Gregorian, call 816-234-4868 or send email to vgregorian@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter @vgregorian. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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