Sam Mellinger

The strategy behind Matt Besler’s benching, and what it means for Sporting KC

Sporting KC’s Matt Besler hasn’t been starting for his MLS club. His national team coach wondered aloud about the logic of that earlier this week.
Sporting KC’s Matt Besler hasn’t been starting for his MLS club. His national team coach wondered aloud about the logic of that earlier this week. jtoyoshiba@kcstar.com

The most curious Kansas City benching since Rich Gannon turned into a national story this week when the coach of the United States men’s national soccer team seemed to question the wisdom of Sporting KC habitually leaving Overland Park native Matt Besler out of the lineup.

The issue is layered and complicated, both with soccer strategy and personal feelings, but for now Sporting coach Peter Vermes said national coach Jurgen Klinsmann apologized.

“I get this has become a discussion point,” Vermes said. “I don’t really see it as big as everyone is trying to make it out. But that’s just me. Because I’ve never lost faith in Matt.”

That last point is a matter of semantics, because even if Besler starts Sporting’s final two games starting Sunday at Real Salt Lake, he will have his lowest number of starts since 2010. Last year, nobody started more often for Sporting. He’d served as the team’s captain since 2014 before losing the position midseason to Roger Espinoza.

Vermes’ strategy ignited an ongoing and highly sensitive drama between the first Kansas Citian to play in the World Cup and a successful, entrenched and occasionally cold head coach.

And that’s what this was, you know. A strategy. Vermes doesn’t do anything without considering the short- and long-term impact.

Vermes did something similar a year ago, benching Benny Feilhaber — who was in the league MVP discussion at the time — for the crucial season finale. That worked out well, with Feilhaber coming on at halftime and assisting on the go-ahead goal to push Sporting into the playoffs.

Now, the stakes could be even higher. Besler is a beloved figure, one of the most important players in the 20-year history of his hometown’s MLS franchise. He can also be sensitive, and where a benching might generate a productive screw you response from some players, it can’t be total coincidence that Besler has played better for the national team than he has for Sporting.

With Feilhaber, Vermes said his concern was fitness. Feilhaber publicly disagreed, but Vermes said he wasn’t sure his star had the energy to play a full 90 minutes at the end of a long season.

With Besler, Vermes has (justifiably) been concerned about decision-making. Besler has been tentative at times, and his mistakes have cost Sporting goals. A knee injury in July, along with solid play from Ike Opara, have only complicated things and made it harder for Besler to get back in the mix.

It’s a hell of a gamble by Vermes, and one that not many coaches in MLS would be equipped or willing to make. Comparisons across sports are clunky, but Royals manager Ned Yost is famous for sticking with struggling Royals players. Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith is struggling, but Andy Reid isn’t talking about going to Nick Foles soon.

Besides a conviction that diminishing Besler’s role would help Sporting, Vermes needed supreme confidence in himself, as well as good standing with his bosses and fans, to pull this off.

Vermes sometimes likes to say players carry a “little buddy Confidence” with them on the field, who can be either 2 feet tall or 10 feet tall. And in an effort to keep Besler’s metaphorical and imaginary friend as big as possible, he has tried to communicate his thoughts to the player privately.

“When I was a player, there were times I thought my coach was (a jerk),” Vermes said. “I’m not so stupid to think everybody loves me. I know they think I’m (a jerk) sometimes. I know that, and I accept that, because I know what it means.”

This is all coming to a head, one way or the other, as Sporting needs to win its final two regular-season games to ensure a postseason spot without help from other results. To do that — and to advance once in the playoffs — Sporting needs Besler at his best.

With a clear mind, Besler is one of the best players in the league. But with a few key mistakes, and then being treated as roster depth by Vermes, Besler is having his least effective season in years.

Vermes wouldn’t say, but Besler will probably be in the lineup on Sunday. Assuming that’s the case, and again the following week at home against San Jose, we will begin to see if Vermes’ strategy with Besler has worked.

Besler is publicly and outwardly stoic, but whether he can transfer his strong play with the national team to the rest of Sporting’s season will determine whether Vermes has handled his highest-profile player properly.

The ultimate success or failure of this season rests disproportionately upon the result of an ongoing battle that’s involved the best soccer player Kansas City ever produced, the best coach the local MLS franchise has ever had, and now the coach of the men’s national team.

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