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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.