Matt Besler plays half his professional soccer games a short drive from his childhood home. He’s a rare breed among athletes in that sense.
But the Johnson County native reached the pinnacle of his career some 4,500 miles away in South America. It was the 2014 World Cup in Brazil that turned Besler from hometown kid into nationally recognizable name.
He shined in the biggest sports tournament in the world, quadrupled his Twitter following in a matter of days and became the subject of an iconic photo. There he is, dressed in the American uniform, standing over Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the world’s most prolific goal scorers, as Ronaldo sits on the grass and begs the referee for a call.
By the time Besler returned home, he had overseas contract offers. Although the attractiveness and practicality of those opportunities is something only he truly knows, if his goal was to play European soccer, he could have done it. There were a multitude of reasons why staying with Sporting Kansas City made more sense, why he might not have ever really been that close to leaving.
But there was one particular reason that kept topping the list.
“Trophies,” he stated simply days after signing an extension with Sporting KC that summer. “This is a place where we can win championships — multiple championships — and that’s something that’s a really big deal to me.”
It comes into play once more Wednesday night in his hometown park.
Sporting Kansas City is set to play host to the New York Red Bulls in the U.S. Open Cup championship match at 8 p.m. Wednesday on ESPN2.
Sporting KC is aiming for its third Open Cup championship in the past six years, including the second since Besler elected to stay home.
“That’s something I think about,” he said. “It makes you feel good that you talked about those things being the reasons why you stayed and then having opportunities to prove that.”
It hasn’t always been smooth since that post-World Cup contract extension. Besler was briefly stripped of the captaincy title last season, and he fell out of the starting lineup. It’s not a subject he talks about often.
The present has his intent focus these days, and it offers a much softer subject matter anyway. Besler is playing some of the best soccer of his career, in line with a 2012 season that finished with an MLS defender of the year award. And there’s a funny thing about that. It’s become expected — even after the blip last year — that Besler plays well, so much so that the hometown kid who wears the captain’s arm band is somehow flying under the radar.
His teammate, Ike Opara, has been labeled an MLS defender of the year candidate. Defensive midfielder Ilie Sanchez has earned credit for restructuring the defensive alignment. Goalkeeper Tim Melia, many believe, is worthy of a national team call-up, even if it’s unlikely to come.
Lurking in the background is Besler. The captain. The vocal leader of a back line.
There are few individual statistics to measure a defender’s play. No goals or assists to use as comparisons with his peers. So we’re left with team accomplishments. Sporting KC has allowed 22 goals in 28 matches this season, four fewer than any other MLS team and 13 fewer than anyone else in the Western Conference.
It’s reminiscent of the Sporting KC teams that garnered trophies in 2012 (Open Cup) and 2013 (MLS Cup). Besler was part of those rosters, too. Besler, Graham Zusi and Seth Sinovic — all likely starters Wednesday — are playing for their fourth championship in a Sporting KC uniform, their maturation process directly in correlation with a franchise re-brand.
“It seems so long ago now — we were all young and inexperienced,” Besler said of the first trophy in 2012. “It was almost trial by fire.”
That first one came in the midst of a breakout season for the franchise, and in many respects, for Besler, too. He used a post-it note above his bed stand as daily motivation. On it, he had written the names of other center backs called into a United States national team camp.
On Wednesday, he enters his fourth final as a national team fixture, a World Cup veteran and the captain of Sporting KC. His handprint will be all over this final. He has to prepare a pregame speech, and he hopes to use a postgame, one, too. He’s already written a letter to the fans.
And then there’s the chance to “paint the wall,” as Sporting KC dubs it. If the club wins Wednesday, Besler will be the one climbing the ladder inside Children’s Mercy Park, spray paint can in hand. Over the past few days, he’s thought about that possibility, he acknowledged.
Same as he did three years ago.