Let’s make one thing absolutely clear: The last three years have been no cakewalk for Sporting Kansas City defender Matt Besler.
Since he was taken eighth overall in the 2009 SuperDraft out of Notre Dame, Besler has spent the majority of his Major League Soccer career dodging arrows. Some were thrown by his coach, who questioned his toughness and routinely yanked him out of the starting lineup. Others were thrown by media and fans, who blamed him (in part) for the team’s defensive struggles.
But through it all, Besler never lost faith in himself. He kept working and working in hopes of one day coming out clean on the other side. And that very day arrived Sunday, when Major League Soccer announced that Besler was chosen for this year’s All-Star Game because he received the most text votes.
“It means a ton,” Besler said of the honor. “I’ve worked really hard this year and it’s starting to show. Being recognized by the fans for that success is fulfilling.”
Particularly because of all the criticism he and the rest of the team’s centerbacks received during a 2010 season in which Sporting’s defense routinely allowed soft goals and struggled, in general.
“Yeah, (I heard it),” Besler said. “That’s part of playing, though. Unless you play well every game and win championships every year, you’re going to get criticism. Maybe I got more than others, but I’m a young player and with me being from KC originally, I think there was more of a target on me.”
Much of the pressure on the Blue Valley West graduate came directly from coach Peter Vermes, a former MLS defender of the year who routinely pointed out Besler’s flaws in practice in hopes of making the 24-year old a better player. He even benched him for most of last season in favor of veterans Jimmy Conrad, who wasn’t brought back as a free agent, and Shavar Thomas, who hasn’t made an impact on this year’s team.
“You could see the potential in the guy,” Vermes said of Besler. “He was excellent on the ball in college and he read the position really well. But MLS is much more physical because there are so many target forwards, and you’ve got to be able to deal with that physicality.”
Vermes says it took Besler a while to get adjusted to that, but says his hard work in the weight room this offseason has helped him exponentially.
“He had to make sure he was strong enough to deal with those (guys),” Vermes said. “The big leap he’s made this year is in being more physical, and it’s shown in his play.”
Especially since he was held out of the starting lineup in a 4-1 loss to Los Angeles on May 14. Besler had started several games before that and returned to the starting lineup shortly thereafter, but it was then that Vermes says he finally began to see what the team was missing when the third-year pro wasn’t in the lineup.
Since then, Besler has been a mainstay in the defense for a Sporting KC team that has a 5-6-7 record but is currently on a 10-game MLS unbeaten streak.
“I’ve been hard on him, man, I demanded a lot from him,” Vermes said, “but he’s responded very well. I’m happy for him because I love it when guys put in the time and the effort and they’re rewarded for it.”
And make no mistake about it: short of winning a MLS Cup, this is the sweetest reward possible for Besler, who was quick to credit his teammates – particularly centerback mate Aurelien Collin – for helping him earn the honor.
But while Besler is definitely looking forward to the all-star game — a friendly on July 27 against Premier League powerhouse Manchester United — he was also quick to remind you that there’s so much more left for him to accomplish in his career.
“It’s a really big honor, but it’s also made me realize I still have a lot of years ahead of me,” Besler said. “I’m excited to use this and gain more confidence and see where it takes me.”