It was after midnight when Matt Besler walked into a hotel room in Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday. He sat down in the first spot he located, only a few feet from his best friend and road-trip roommate, Graham Zusi.
On many game nights, they will rehash the moments that ring loudest in their memories. On this night, they sat in silence.
An hour passed. Then another. And then another.
“I’m numb. I’m stunned. At that point, I’m not quite sure what really just happened,” Besler said. “I was sitting next to my best friend, who I’ve known for 10 years, and still we had nothing we could say to each other.
“That’s when I realized this is going to be tough to deal with. This is going to be real. It’s going to hurt.”
Hours earlier, Trinidad and Tobago dealt the United States men’s national team a stunning 2-1 defeat, a result that bounced the Americans from World Cup contention for the first time since 1986. Besler was in the starting lineup. The loss cost a coach his job and prompted reporters to drill the U.S. Soccer president for why he wasn’t losing his.
Meanwhile, as Besler’s picture was plastered across ESPN late Tuesday, a blank stare on his face as he sat on the wet grass, here he was. In a hotel room. That same blank stare. A thousand thoughts racing through his head. Big picture. Small picture. What will this mean tomorrow? What might it mean 10 years from now? “Is this something that I’m going to be remembered for forever?”
Finally, after three hours of silence, after the thoughts had produced no answers, after the clock had reached 3 a.m., he turned to Zusi.
“All right, I gotta say something,” he said. “None of this feels real. I have to make sure this is real by talking with you and interacting with somebody.”
Besler slept for an hour Tuesday night. He felt no different when he woke Wednesday morning.
The bus ride to the flight home was scheduled for 6 a.m. The trip from Trinidad to Kansas City required nearly a full day, and Besler spent it with his Sporting KC teammates who were also part of the national team, Zusi and Benny Feilhaber.
“I was scared to get back home,” Besler said. “Obviously, I feel like I let a lot of people down. It’s hard to face that reality. I was thinking the whole way home that maybe everything’s gonna feel normal when I see my wife and my baby girl and my family.
“And don’t get me wrong — that was awesome. But even then, it was almost bizarre because nobody knows what to say. You’re there, but you’re not. People are afraid to look you in the eye. They’d rather just kinda pass along so they don’t have to bring it up. There’s this big elephant in the room.”
During his four-year tenure as Sporting Kansas City’s captain, Besler has found pride in his positivity. He has dealt with setbacks in his career — being passed over for the national team once, briefly falling out of favor a year after the World Cup, and then there was that benching last summer in Kansas City.
He doesn’t publicly comment on those complications, and while that’s partially a PR strategy and partially a man trying to find some resemblance of privacy, it’s more a product of the way he has trained himself. Like many professional athletes, Besler pursues thoughts fixated on the immediate future. Like few, he executes it.
But as he lounged in his Kansas City home Wednesday and Thursday, he was in a trance, or a “haze,” as he called it.
Until chance encounters with fans broke him out of it.
On Thursday, 36 hours removed from the loss, Besler felt unable to do much of anything. Being home hadn’t provided the return to a routine that he envisioned. So he ran some errands.
He stopped at Planet Sub and ate alone. Three men dressed in business attire stopped to shake his hand. His day started to turn.
On the way home from lunch, he dropped by Hy-Vee on State Line. An employee there has always expressed his Sporting KC fandom. As Besler was in the check-out line, the employee spotted him and waved him over.
“I’m sorry for what happened,” he said. He told Besler that he felt proud to watch him play on the national stage and represent Kansas City, that he would always speak fondly of him, even after that loss.
“It was powerful. I felt different when I was walking to my car outside the grocery store,” Besler said. “It felt like I was back in that moment.
“I didn’t realize that going to a grocery store in Kansas City would mean so much, you know?”
As he unloaded the groceries in his car, another fan approached him. He couldn’t wait to watch Besler return to Sporting KC on Sunday, he said, when the club plays host to Houston. The man spotted the two newly-minted scars on Besler’s forehead — stitched wounds from recent matches — and jokingly referred to Besler as “Rocky.”
It was another brief encounter. His third that day. As his Twitter and Instagram filled with negativity — “You are a (expletive) disgrace!,” one wrote — locally he was still Matt Besler. Still the captain of Sporting Kansas City.
Five days after the most trying moment of his career, he is set to take the field in a Sporting KC uniform, trying to ensure the club earns its first home playoff match in four seasons. This is where he expects to be tested most. Mentally and emotionally as much as physically. He emphasizes he is not feeling sorry for himself and that no one should feel sorry for him. But the guilt is real. He’s unsure how long it will last.
For two days, he wondered how he would flip his focus to Sporting KC. The words from his friends and teammates had proven unsuccessful. His family couldn’t do it, either.
On a Thursday afternoon in Kansas City, a handful of strangers did.
“Those people I saw made me feel like a normal person again,” Besler said. “At the end of the day, I realized I think that’s what we all want as people. No matter who you are or how big your name is or how big of a star you are or how badly you fail at something, you just want to be treated like a normal person and feel like a human being again.”