The primacy of Kansas City sports is plastered onto a downtown apartment building on Grand Boulevard. On the east side, Mario Chalmers is releasing the most famous shot in Kansas basketball history. On the adjacent wall, there’s Hall of Fame Chiefs quarterback Len Dawson, MVP of the franchise’s lone Super Bowl, and a picture of the Royals’ first parade in three decades.
The final piece of the mural is the hometown kid who made it big. The athlete who grew up 10 miles from here and still can’t quite believe this is how it’s all played out.
Matt Besler is the face of the Sporting Kansas City franchise, the winningest and most accomplished player in club history. “I never made it this far in my dream,” he says, recognizing it’s a line he stole from Masters champion Bubba Watson. Besler is living the goal he wrote in his yearbook every year of grade school, even after a teacher once told him, “Matt, you have to pick something else.”
He’s not flashy in personality or in performance. There’s no iconic moment like a three-pointer to key a national championship. There’s no famous picture of him smoking a cigarette in the locker room. There’s no mob of 800,000 people surrounding him on a parade route.
What you see is what you get. He’s Midwestern-born with the relatable personality to match, an enjoyer of Kansas City’s small-town flavor and occasional big-city offerings. He’s built a life in the neighborhood not from where he grew up. His career is a few miles down the road. His wife is from Kansas City, his two daughters born here. On the surface, it all fits so neatly.
But there’s a lesser-known side of Matt Besler. An edge, he calls it. His teammates see it. His head coach says it’s one of his best traits.
“That edge, or chip on my shoulder, or whatever it is you wanna say, it’s what got me here,” Besler says.
When it all began, not everything was so tidy.
It began with disappointment. With some time alone.
FOR HIS FIRST THREE YEARS IN THE LEAGUE, all Besler worried about was getting cut. A bad game — heck, even a bad practice — and he was looking over his shoulder, just hoping to survive another day. The coaches would bring in trial players to practice with the team and Besler assumed they were his replacements.
But after the 2011 season, he finally convinced himself he was sticking around awhile. He and teammate Graham Zusi rented an apartment together west of the Plaza. They shared a morning routine — wake up, pack a gym bag and work out.
In late December, Zusi and Besler were sitting together on the couch when Zusi got a phone call. It was United States men’s national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann, inviting him to winter camp. For a few hours, Besler stared at his phone, checking it every several minutes, thinking he was next. His call never came.
“I told him it must’ve been an honor just be considered,” his dad, Greg Besler, says. “He didn’t like that. That’s not how he saw it.”
Zusi left a couple of weeks later. Each time Besler packed his gym bag, he stared at the floor next to it, aware of the spot where Zusi’s bag once sat. He was alone, his apartment half-empty.
“I just thought, ‘What can I do to really get me going?’” Besler says. “I’ll tell you what: I took a post-it note, wrote the name of every player at my position that got called up to the national team, and I stuck it on the wall above my gym bag. Every day I’m standing there, and Graham’s not there anymore, and I’m just reading those names. It pissed me off. But it kept me going.”
The snub was originally a hiccup. He reflects as though it was a turning point.
In the following season, Besler won the MLS defender of the year award. He received the long-awaited national-team call, an honor of which coach Peter Vermes informed him inside his office. Vermes had expected an emotional reaction. Instead, Besler offered only his typical stoicism.
In another year, Besler was a regular with the Americans, on the precipice of starting the 2014 World Cup. He is the only Kansan with that distinction.
He’s won four trophies with Sporting KC. No player has held more. In 2018, he broke franchise records for wins, appearances, starts and minutes played.
He’s aiming for a second MLS Cup this season and the first since he assumed the captaincy in 2014 — Sporting KC plays Real Salt Lake in the second leg of the Western Conference semifinals Sunday.
“He’s Steady Eddie,” Vermes said. “He’s a game-in, game-out player. That’s what I would say is the most obvious thing about him.
“But what I would say is maybe the least obvious thing about him — or what maybe some people don’t realize — is why he’s so consistent. And that’s because he’s extremely, extremely competitive. He’s a guy who truly cares about the result more than anything else.”
Besler’s dad was his first soccer coach, and before games, he would emphasize how important it was to play hard, perhaps even to play well. “But it’s not important who wins,” Greg would say. Besler kept score in his head.
When he got to college at Notre Dame, Besler instituted academic competitions with teammates. He would call home and complain that he had done a lousy job on an exam. “We’d later find out he got a 94 instead of a 98,” Greg says.
The self-described chip on his shoulder can originate from almost anything. The snub. A commentator saying he’s lost a step. “Put me on the line, and let’s race,” he says. A fan saying he’s not all that athletic. But more often than not, it comes from a familiar source.
“It’s hard to explain because you might not think you see it, but Matt is probably the most competitive guy I’ve played with,” says Sporting KC teammate Seth Sinovic, who also played youth club soccer with Besler. “It was like that growing up, whether it was soccer or basketball or literally anything, something like ping-pong, even. He might not throw a temper tantrum, but you can sense it or see it in his face. It just eats at him when he loses or when he hears he can’t do something.”
AT AN EARLY AGE, Besler arranged the inside of his family’s house into a baseball diamond. The TV was home plate; the kitchen was second base; walls were first and third.
He was right-hand dominant as a kid in pretty much everything he did — throwing a football, eating, writing. But when it came his turn to bat, he faced the pitcher in a left-handed crouch. The primary explanation, his family determined, was an imitation of the man on the living room TV.
Royals Hall of Famer George Brett.
The city’s sporting history is ingrained in Besler. He was a fan of the Kansas City Wizards before he ever played a match for them.
The relationship between player and city is vital to him, even after 10 years with Sporting. No, especially after 10 years with Sporting. It’s why on Halloween night, as droves of kids are ringing his doorbell, asking not for candy but instead for him to come to the door, he obliges with autographs and pictures. He can’t say no. He’s just never been able to bring himself to say no.
“I don’t want to let them down,” he says. “I feel connected to the people here, to the city, to my friends and family. But in some ways, that just means more people to let down.”
The competitive nature drives him, to be sure, but if his motivation needed reinforcement, it finds some in his fear of failure.
Besler has played 47 games with the U.S. men’s national team. He held his own against Cristiano Ronaldo in the World Cup (and has framed evidence in his office to prove it). But he insists he has never felt more pressure than when putting on the Sporting KC jersey. When he suffered the most devastating loss of his career, a defeat in Trinidad that cost the Americans their 2018 World Cup qualification, what stressed him most was his return home. When Sporting KC lost a match this summer, he had to console and apologize to a kid in the neighborhood.
“The best thing about playing in your hometown is it’s home,” Besler says. “The worst thing about playing in your hometown is it’s home. You can’t get away from it all.”
AT SOME POINT IN THEIR CAREERS, athletes begin to sense the end is closer than the beginning. Besler will be 32 when the 2019 season opens, and though he says he’s nowhere near finished, he has been thinking a lot this year about the legacy he will one day leave behind.
Sporting KC is considerably younger now, with three teenagers seeing their MLS debuts. Besler feels a sense of passing the torch to the next generation. He’s a lock to one day have his name on the stadium inside Children’s Mercy Park, and perhaps it will be awhile before anyone else dares to wear his No. 5.
“I like to think there’s a little part of me in this evolution of Sporting Kansas City,” he says. “But there’s a big part of it that’s in me. It’s in my blood, and it will be there forever.”
Besler has observed players who leave bitterly, rooting for their former teams to lose just to prove their own worth. It bothers him. Part of a player’s legacy is leaving the franchise in a better spot than the one in which he found it, he believes. And considering one of his first memories in a then-Kansas City Wizards uniform is waiting in a line for a porta potty behind the bench at CommunityAmerica Ballpark, it’s a safe bet he’ll accomplish that.
He remembers the way one of his childhood idols went out because he watched it in person. He was sitting at Kauffman Stadium when Brett played his final game there in 1993; the image of Brett kissing home plate “will always be in my mind,” Besler said. He was a multi-athlete star as a kid. It wasn’t just soccer. A part of him wanted to be Brett, the greatest to ever wear a Royals uniform.
More than 20 years later, Besler’s fame has come in a different sport. He was recently preparing to sit down for an interview at an Overland Park restaurant. As he was reaching for his chair, a woman eating lunch at a nearby table approached. She wanted a picture.
“My brother is going to be so jealous,” she said, pulling open a text message window to alert him. “He wants to be you.”