The final whistle blew, and frustration spilled out of 100,000 fans. Cups flew. Hands cradled heads. Spanish and English curses hung in the warm, fetid air in Mexico City's Estadio Azteca. The crowd on this March Tuesday night refused to accept that the United States and Mexico had wrestled to a 0-0 draw. Several of Mexico's players berated Guatemalan referee Walter Lopez. As the world boiled over around him, Matt Besler cracked a smile for the first time in 94 minutes.
The Sporting Kansas City center back, alongside teammate Graham Zusi, had just anchored a spirited defensive effort for the U.S. Men's National Soccer Team, helping his squad earn a critical point (its first on Mexican soil in 16 years) toward qualifying for the 2014 World Cup. Now, more than 7,000 feet above sea level, it was suddenly a lot easier to breathe.
This was the result that the U.S. team wanted but wasn't supposed to be able to achieve. The back line was untested, in transition. Besler, 26, had discovered that he would be starting only 11 hours before kickoff. The last time he was in Mexico City for an international friendly, he had watched the entire game from the bench.
But it was the vaunted Mexican front line that broke, an anxious Mexican crowd that soured. After drawing a yellow card in the 19th minute for a hard foul, Besler — the reigning MLS Defender of the Year — proved adept at marking Mexico's strikers (among them, Manchester United's Chicharito) and luring them offside. And his play dominated the headlines following the match. The Castrol Index, the official performance tracker of the U.S. Soccer Federation, named Besler the top-performing player in Mexico.
"It was the perfect situation for me," Besler says. "We were under fire, and if we could just go out and do well, it could be the biggest sports story in the country."
The next morning, when Besler's return flight touched down in Houston, his phone chirped with 200 texts from friends, family and media. The messages were clear. Still 796 miles from his home in Kansas City, the man who is arguably America's best stopper had arrived.
With David Beckham leaving the Los Angeles Galaxy, there's an opening in the American soccer world for an ambitious city. And Sporting KC has been lobbying for Kansas City, Kansas, to fill that void since opening Sporting Park in 2011 (a space that Forbes magazine praised last week in a story headlined "One of America's Best Sporting Experiences").
The city is part of the national soccer conversation. Major League Soccer's All-Star Game comes to town July 31, and earlier this month news broke that Sporting and U.S. Soccer had signed a memorandum of understanding to jointly explore a $50 million National Training and Coaching Development Center in KCK.
The team itself has been an MLS success, winning the past two Eastern Conference regular-season championships (before falling both seasons to the Houston Dynamo in the playoffs). In 2012, Sporting captured its first U.S. Open Cup in eight years, on the strength of a stifling defense (Sporting allowed a league-low 0.79 goals per game) led by Besler. The Overland Park native's drive and ability have allowed Sporting's long-term goals to pay dividends ahead of schedule.
"He epitomizes the vision of Sporting KC," team CEO Robb Heineman says. "What we thought we could be over time is an organization that focuses on developing its own. It's just here now — we didn't have to wait 10 years for that to happen."
It's 40 degrees on this April day, and Besler's teammates are bundled in sweatshirts under their pinneys and winter hats as they drill at the Sporting Club Training Center in Swope Park. His only concession to the chill is a long-sleeved warm-up jersey.