Matt Besler never dreamed the ride he’d take aback the world’s most popular game without even leaving KC…
The Sporting Kansas City defender grew up here and played high school soccer at Blue Valley West where he still holds the record for goals and assists. For college, Matt attended Notre Dame, and was named an All-American and Academic All-American his senior season before being drafted in the first round of the 2009 MLS SuperDraft by what was then the Kansas City Wizards.
Besler’s first few MLS seasons were rollercoaster affairs.
The team’s home at that time was a minor league baseball stadium without a proper sized pitch. Wizards head coach Curt Onalfo was canned midway through Besler’s first season after the team continued to underachieve. Attendance at home games was spotty at best, with empty seats frequently outnumbering those filled mostly with youth soccer teams and their parents.
Though Besler saw a fair amount of playing time his rookie season, his sophomore effort was a bit rockier. Players got swapped in and out of the lineup like Topps baseball cards, especially at Besler’s position, defender.
That was just two years ago, before the club rebranded itself with a Euro-sounding name.
And before the shiny new stadium went up, in cooperation with a cancer research foundation. Before the sell out crowds and 13,000 plus season tickets were sold. Before a supporters section of several thousand chanting fans guaranteed a home field advantage unlike many others in the league.
During a come-to-god meeting following his second year as a pro, current head coach Peter Vermes challenged Besler to fulfill his potential. To get bigger, faster, and more reliable. Besler took to heart his old school coach’s criticisms, and when LIVESTRONG Sporting Park finally opened in June of 2011, Besler broke out. He cemented himself as a starting centerback and earned MLS All Star honors. He scored his first MLS goal and contributed a half dozen or so assists from his newest weapon, the long throw in.
And he did it all in the comfort of his hometown, in front of friends, family, and 20,000 screaming fans.
Thinking about his journey from 2009 to now still kind of blows Besler’s mind at times.
"It’s just so exciting," he says when asked about Sporting KC exploding onto the scene over the past year. "I’m honored to be a part of it right now. It’s just crazy what happened last year, it all just kind of blew up. You just go around the city and see so many Sporting KC car stickers and hats and sweatshirts, and it’s just a great time to be playing for Kansas City."
I had the chance to catch up with Matt recently in between preseason games in Orlando to talk about the team, being snubbed by U.S. Mens National Team coach Jurgen Klinsmann, whether fellow defender Aurelien Collin is certifiable, and of course, racquetball…
Before the 2011 season you and I spoke about a meeting you had with Peter Vermes where he basically called you out and challenged you to become a solid member of this team. Apparently that tactic worked because you went on to have the most successful season of your career and even made the all star team. How much have you grown as a player since that meeting?
I think I’m far, far away from that. I’ve made a lot of big strides but also you’re always looking to improve. And just because I had a good season last year doesn’t mean I’m happy. I still want to go out there and prove all the doubters wrong and show I’m one of the better centerbacks in the league. That’s kind of what my goal is for this season.
Did you have a similar conversation with Peter prior to the start of this season?
Yeah, we had another conversation in the offseason and he challenged me again. He likes challenging me and he said that it’s still not good enough, you still haven’t reached your potential. And he challenged me this offseason to make even a bigger step. And another thing we talked about was taking more responsibility now that I’ve established myself in center defense, taking more of a leadership role back there.
Could that include possibly wearing the captain’s armband in 2012?
I don’t know. We haven’t talked about that too much at all. We’ve talked in general about really becoming a leader and demanding more of the guys. We haven’t talked much about wearing the armband. If he asks me to I definitely want to, and I will. I’m still young but I think I’d be ready for it. But at the same time, whoever wears it in any game, there’s going to be about three or four different leaders on the field.
Is leadership an area you guys have emphasized, especially with the departures of veterans like Davy Arnaud and Omar Bravo?
Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s one of the biggest questions we have is filling those leadership roles left by Davy and Omar and we definitely have the guys to do it.
Without Davy and Omar you guys are one of the youngest teams in the league. Is there a different vibe with the team now with those guys are gone?
I don’t know if there’s a different feel, but for guys like me and Graham (Zusi) and Chance (Myers) and Roger (Espinoza), we take a look around the locker room and we’re the guys who have been on the team the longest. It’s a little different feel now.
What are the biggest differences with the squad right now versus one year ago at this time?
I think it’s just different because are farther along (than last year) and we’ve already established ourselves with our style of play. We already know what we want to do and how our team can succeed, so we already have that base. So now we’re just building off that.
Will guys play the same high press attacking style, or has Peter tweaked things based on the new personnel?
I think we’ll stick with it. I think that it fits our team the best. I think we’ve adapted to that style of play and the formation really well. In the offseason we went out and got guys that would fit that system.
After several years where players were shuffled in and out, how much does it help to have the entire starting back line from last year back?
It’s huge. I’m obviously a little biased, but I think the back four is the most important part of the team. I’m excited for us to start working and start playing in real games. I think we have a really good back line. There’s no reason we can’t have one of the best back lines in the game, and that’s honestly one of my goals.
Is Aurelien Collin actually insane?
Pretty much, yeah.
Like full-on, or just a little insane?
A little bit – he’s just so free spirited. I’ve never met anyone like him. He really doesn’t care what anyone else thinks and he loves just expressing himself the way he wants to. And that’s refreshing to see.
With him playing the crazy guy does that mean you are his foil, the down-to-earth, dependable guy?
That’s kind of how it comes across. I just think naturally, whether or not I am or not, I think it appears that way because he has such a big personality and he wears it on the field.
You’re a KC native, so you were around for the early days of the Wiz at Arrowhead and all that. Now you have your own stadium, the team has sold over 12,000 season tickets, and the home opener is one of the most anticipated events in the near future. Does it blow your mind thinking about how far Sporting has come in the few years since you were drafted?
A little bit, yeah.
Do you get recognized around town?
Not a ton, but it’s definitely more than I’ve experienced in the past few years.
Does anywhere else in the league come close to providing the type of atmosphere you guys have at LIVESTRONG?
You can argue a few places. Everyone talks about Seattle and how loud it is. But in overall stadium experience – LIVESTRONG for me is number one.
Your long throw ins were deadly last year. Have you guys worked at all on set pieces off your throw ins this preseason?
We haven’t. That’s something that will come together maybe towards the end of this last week. That’s something we’ll build off of from last year.
For your throws do you basically run the same setup as you do for corners?
It’s not that much different (from a corner). And I think that’s why it’s so effective. You think throw in and you can’t get as much zip on it as a corner but we’re running it right now and it’s as dangerous as a corner.
A couple of your teammates recently got called up to the USMNT. You arguably had the best season out of all of them. Is there a little chip on your shoulder going forward, trying to prove that maybe you deserve a call from Klinsmann too?
Yeah, that’s one of my motivations. When I found out I wasn’t named, didn’t get called, I was a little upset. It just motivated me to work a little harder. That’s one of my ultimate goals is to play for the national team. But I’m not too worried about it right now, not too consumed by that. I’m just going to worry about Sporting KC and if the timing is right and I keep playing well it will take care of itself.
Who’s better at racquetball, you, Zusi, or Chance?
(Laughs) Where did you hear we played racquetball?
Zusi mentioned it the other day.
We– for some reason we got into racquetball in the offseason. It’s a great sport, different from anything we’ve played. It helps with our quickness to be honest. And obviously it’s really competitive and you sweat a lot. It was even. There were days when Zeuss would be the champ. We’d always bet lunch on it. I’d say we paid each other about half and half.
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Remember folks, the biggest St. Patty’s Day party in KC this year is Sporting’s home opener at LIVESTRONG.
At last check there were still a few hundred tickets left.
Check it out here.