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.
He takes a pass inside the penalty box. His left foot comes down like a vicious pendulum, but the clock is overwound: The ball soars for the right corner and then continues well on, over the crossbar and the fence behind it. Besler expresses no frustration as he sprints back to his original position, about 35 yards from the goal, his arms chopping the air. His next shot bows the back of the net before the keeper can even launch a dive.
"He is a quiet leader who works extremely hard," defender Chance Myers says. "He has a lot of confidence, and that rubs off."
Over the next 75 minutes, Besler raises his voice only to praise a teammate. His gestures are subtle, his hands moving only to show where he wants the ball or where he wants a fellow player to make a run. In passing drills, his line moves with clear efficiency, following manager Peter Vermes' barked-out instructions.
"He does the things as a leader that keeps everybody in check every day," Vermes says. "He's a very intelligent, conscientious kid, and he's always thinking about the rest of the team."
He pauses, then adds: "It's a quiet resilience. He never loses the ball."
Before the pitch, there was the parking lot. Nearly two decades ago, Matt Besler was a red-faced little kid in a youth soccer jersey, hoping to squeeze a shot between orange cones set up on the pavement outside Kemper Arena.
"I think I enjoyed the parking lot more than the actual game," he says. "I remember we'd go out there with our youth team, hours before the game, go in sweaty and then want to come out and play more."
Besler's favorite player was a left-footed midfielder named Jon Parry (now director of coaching for the Sporting Kansas City Academy) — he chose for himself Parry's number, 7 — and he and his family cheered Parry and the Comets and the Attack and the Wiz. In 2000, Besler recalls, he watched on TV as the Kansas City Wizards captured the MLS Cup.
Vermes was then a center back, on his way to being named the MLS Defender of the Year, as tough as the flattop he sports today. But in that 1–0 victory over the Chicago Fire, it was Tony Meola's 10 saves that inspired Besler and his two younger brothers.
"Tony Meola had a ridiculous game," Besler says. "And I remember we all went into the backyard after that game and wanted to be him. We only had one set of goalie gloves for the house, but I was oldest so I got first crack at them."
Besler arrived as a star center midfielder at the University of Notre Dame. He had led Blue Valley West High School to the 5A Kansas State Championship, notching 23 goals and 19 assists. He was that team's playmaker, a rover who made sure that the ball found his foot and then the net. But Notre Dame didn't need a center midfielder. It needed a center back. And Besler wanted to start.
"I had to think about things differently," he says of switching to defense. "You don't get joy in beating someone. You get joy in outthinking them and frustrating them. It was also an adjustment in my style of play. As an attacker, you can be very aggressive, and if that doesn't work out, it doesn't work out. But as a defender, you have to be more conservative. You can't get caught out of place."
Besler adjusted, and Notre Dame benefited, advancing to the Elite 8 of the NCAA Tournament in his sophomore and junior years. In January 2009, Besler headed to St. Louis with his father for the MLS SuperDraft, expecting the New York Red Bulls to select him ninth overall. He didn't know that Sporting — then still playing as the Wizards — planned to call his name with the eighth pick.
"He was a local kid with a left foot that Peter [Vermes] saw as this piece of clay he could mold," Heineman says. "We weren't going to let anyone else take him."
The team drafted Zusi the same year. The two rookies bonded. Zusi lived in the basement of Besler's parents' house. The duo adopted a pair of dogs and spent hours talking about what it would take to make the team and then stick.
Besler cracked the starting lineup his rookie year (as did Zusi), but his playing time diminished in 2010.
"I had to simplify things," he says. "In college, I would dribble and pass and go forward to make a play here or there. As a professional, you can't do everything. You'll get penalized for it. I had to realize that all I needed to do was my job. I pick the three or four things I need to be responsible for. I don't need to cross the bar and score. That's Graham's job. He can do that better. He's a professional at that."
Besler sat down with Vermes, who had taken the reins from Curt Onalfo, to find out how he could play more.
"Every year, at the end of the season, he asks: 'What can I do better?' " Vermes says. "A lot of guys do that, only Matt writes down every single thing in a notebook like he is taking notes at a lecture class."
In 2011, Sporting paired Besler on the back line with Aurelien Collin, a French center back playing his first U.S. season. The two make good foils — Collin's garrulous free-spiritedness contrasting Besler's wry calm. And Besler went from being a nice local story to a breakout star. He started 32 matches, led the team in minutes played, and was named to the MLS All-Star team.
"What people don't realize is that all those awards come after the season and after you've played," Besler says. "You've already put in the work. I do take pride in playing the most minutes. That's why I work in the offseason, because it gives me a chance to play all those minutes."
Besler recruited his teammates for those offseason workouts. Zusi and Myers live in Kansas City during the offseason, joining defender Seth Sinovic and midfielder Michael Thomas, who are both from the area. They meet every weekday morning to play racquetball or basketball before working out.
"You know he's there," Myers says. "When you're laying in bed and tired, you know he's in the gym working — and that motivates you to get up and get there."
"You develop chemistry by working really hard in the gym, by working really hard for something," Besler says. "You know what builds chemistry? Carrying each other out of the gym."
That chemistry means that Sporting's back line moves instinctively, and Myers and Sinovic attack from the wings with telepathic precision. "He's that quiet leader on the field," Sinovic says. "I feel comfortable going forward because I know that he's got me covered in the back." Sporting started 2012 with seven straight wins and ended with a 12-game unbeaten streak.
The team won the last game of its season, 1–0, against Houston — a bittersweet victory because the Dynamo advanced to the East Conference Finals on aggregate goals. (Houston's two-goal victory in the first of the two-game series served as a tie-breaker.) Sinovic, after notching his first professional goal, grabbed the ball out of the net, ran to the middle of the field and slammed it down. That was as far as his celebration went; he knew there was still work to be done.
"That was awesome," Besler says. "That's the kind of team we are."
In the offseason, Besler made two commitments to Kansas City. He got engaged to Amanda Miller, and he signed a three-year contract with an additional one-year club option. In negotiations with Sporting, the man who wears No. 5, in honor of George Brett, made it clear that he was listening to other offers but preferred to play in Kansas City.
"I think a lot of who Matt is with Kansas City and his career comes across in interviews and when people talk to him," says Miller, who works for an apparel company in Overland Park. "He's just a hometown kid that loves playing here and wouldn't have it any other way."
"Matt got a substantial raise," Heineman says. (According to the Major League Soccer Players Union, Besler's previous contract paid him $92,000 in 2012.) "But in the context of getting a big raise, he was the first one that said we need to keep our core group of players together and was willing to take less than his fair market value to make sure that happens."
At the same time, the team's identity shifted. Two offensive playmakers, midfielder Roger Espinoza and striker Kei Kamara, are now in England. While C.J. Sapong and new forward Claudio Bieler work on their timing, Sporting's defense has kept the team near the top of the conference standings.
It would be easy for Besler to take some credit. Instead, he echoes one of Vermes' mantras.
"You're going to do the best individually if the team does the best," Besler says. "I put everything into helping the team do well. I don't worry about myself. I don't worry about my career. Because if the team does well, it comes back around and then personally you do well."
His first goal is to get Sporting KC back to the playoffs. But Besler admits another ambition.
"When you put on that U.S. jersey, you don't know what it's like until you do it," he says, grinning. "But it's almost addicting. The feeling you have is so good. And once you have that feeling, you just want more."
With an aging U.S. squad — longtime star Landon Donovan has an unclear timetable for return to the team, and defender Carlos Bocanegra is in the twilight of a strong career — Besler may factor in this country's performance in upcoming World Cup qualifying matches and the Gold Cup this summer. The American defense has been characterized as the team's weak spot, so a series of strong performances from Besler could help cement his role with the squad. He's also relishing the chance to play Kansas City ambassador on the national stage. Over the past two months, his teammates on the U.S. squad have been asking him about the culture and facilities here in the Midwest.
"It's the best place in the country to play," Besler says. "I tell them to let me know if they want to come play. But I also tell them they've got to earn it."
Last month, while Zusi and Besler were warming up on the sidelines at Estadio Azteca, a group of their Kansas City teammates gathered to watch the game at Coal Vines, on the Plaza.
"He's elevated his game to the next level," says Myers, who was at the restaurant. "It was a dream come true for us to see him on the field."
A little more than a week after the game, Besler is having lunch at Coal Vines. On his way out, he stops to greet one of the restaurant's owners.
"We haven't seen you in a while," the owner says as the men shake hands.
"Oh, well, we've had training and the preseason."
"Hey, some of the guys were here Saturday night to watch the match. Were you here?"
Besler gives him a small smile.
"Actually, I was playing."