Neil W. Blackmon
2012 was a season of championship and promise for Sporting Kansas City, as they won the US Open Cup championship and finished first in the Eastern Conference. Unfortunately for the club, despite the top seed, they were eliminated by Houston 2-1 on aggregate in the conference semifinals. It was a difficult early exit from the postseason for a club that had accomplished so much in the regular season. But it was a big step forward for Peter Vermes’ club.
Individual awards,national team attention followed this success in mass. Jimmy Nielson won Goalkeeper of the Year. Key midfield cog Roger Espinoza caught the eye of clubs in Europe with a tremendous Olympic games in London. Graham Zusi became a mainstay call-up for the national team and for the most part, gave Jurgen Klinsmann solid performances. And yes, Matt Besler won MLS Defender of the Year, earning national team call-ups against Mexico and this past January against Canada in particular.
This year will bring new challenges. Despite the great 2012, Sporting Kansas City suffered significant turnover in the offseason. Kei Kamara, the only thing Sporting Kansas City remotely could consider a steady, consistent piece at striker, departed on loan to Norwich City. (He scored his first Premier League goal against Everton this past weekend, crippling the Toffees’ Champions League aspirations, by the way.) Kamara could return in May, but every match he plays well in England reduces that likelihood.
Roger Espinoza, midfield anchor and Olympic star, departed for Wigan Athletic after his contract expired. It’s a shame Sporting Kansas City (and MLS, of course) received nothing for Espinoza in return. He’s a tremendous talent, and will be missed. Defender Michael Harrington, traded to Portland, is also gone. That’s quite a bit of starpower turnover from a very good team.
Several new faces were brought in to address these losses and the perceived weakness of the team– inconsistent offensive production. Benny Feilhaber was brought in from New England, where he’ll be asked to marshal the attack in the center of the pitch. It’s a “last great chance” for Feilhaber to live up to the once-immense expectations that surrounded him as a young player, but it’s hard to argue it isn’t a great situation.
Sporting Kansas City also brought in an Argentine forward, Claudio Bieler, from Quito in Ecuador. He’ll serve as the club’s lone designated player, and if he can make the transition to MLS seamlessly, it will alleviate Kamara’s loss. Young talent was also brought in, as Mikey Lopez and Ike Opara join the club, among others. That’s a lot of new faces, and sometimes transitions are tough, at least at the beginning of the season.
The good news? A defense that conceded only 27 times returns its anchor. Matt Besler resigned with the club in December and in so doing, earned the right to play in his hometown into the future. The center back leads Major League Soccer’s most formidable backline, a backline that will be tested by all the aforementioned transitions in front of them and increased competition this year, as Sporting Kansas City enter the group stage of the CONCACAF Champions League this summer.
Besler is Peter Vermes’ foundation defensively, and he’s done enough as a leader for his club to earn the attention of Jurgen Klinsmann, who took a long look at him at the extended USMNT January camp. Besler impressed throughout the camp, teaming with Omar Gonzalez to preview what the center of the American defense may look like in the not-so-distant future. The two then demonstrated their promise with strong performances against Canada. For Besler, the performance was enough to earn a roster selection for the Hexagon opener at Honduras, and while Besler didn’t play, it seemed a good and suggestive barometer of what’s to come for the Overland Park, Kansas native.
Last week, the MLS Defender of the Year was nice enough to sit down with us this week to talk about the upcoming MLS season, the national team, and more. Here’s our conversation.
Editor’s Note: Our discussion with Matt took place three days prior to Sporting Kansas City’s 3-1 win at Philadelphia to open the season. Read a review of that match by former Yanks Are Coming contributor and current Goal.Com American Soccer Editor Keith Hickey here.
The Yanks Are Coming: We’re talking with reigning MLS defender of the Year and US international Matt Besler as he and his teammates at Sporting Kansas City prepare to begin their 2013 MLS campaign. Matt, you just signed a new contract with the club in December, and maybe best of all- you get to stay at home in Kansas City. Not many guys get the chance to stay at home and play in MLS—obviously Landon Donovan comes to mind in LA—but tell us what was most rewarding about the new deal and what you think it says about you as a player?
Besler: “Like you said, being able to stay at home, in a comfortable environment, I think that’s part of the equation, but the biggest reason for me, was the team that I was signing for, and the organization that I was signing for. I truly believe that the group of guys that we have right now, we’re good enough to win an MLS Championship. I think that should be the expectation. That’s the number one reason why I stayed. I think we can win with this team, and I think right now we have the best shot to do it.”
The Yanks Are Coming: We do too. But let’s talk a little bit about that. Lots of new faces atSporting Kansas City this year—Claudio Bieler, Benny Feilhaber, Mikey Lopez, Ike Opara just to name a few. It’s rare to see that much turnover on a side that was already pretty darn good. How’s the transition going in preseason, and what excites you most about these new teammates?
Besler: “I think it has been going along very nicely, and I think the guys are coming into form. With any new person, it takes some time to get used to a new team, teammates, and especially for us, with the style of play– a lot of guys come in and they haven’t really played the style that Sporting Kansas City plays. But for the most part, everyone’s come in, they’ve worked hard and I think they’re going to help us. You know, Claudio brings us a lot of skill, and hopefully he brings us a lot of goals this year with his finishing ability. Then you’ve got a guy like Benny in the midfield, who, he’s a dynamic player. And he can change a game and he’s shown it already in practice already. So hopefully we can see that a lot in games this year.”
The Yanks Are Coming: I think it’s fair to say the last two years were breakout years for you—you were selected to the All-Star team and obviously last year the MLS Defender of the Year honor. But it’s not like you weren’t highly regarded coming out of Notre Dame. What’s changed the most about your game and you as a player since you came to MLS in 2009?
Besler: “I think the biggest thing for me is probably just experience. That’s especially true at my position. It is very hard for a college player to come into the MLS as a central defender and play great immediately. You don’t see it too often. It is a position where you just have to learn. MLS is so much different than college. It’s a lot more demanding, and I think just through experience I’ve learned what you can get away with and what you can’t, and I think I’ve used that to the best of my ability and I think I’m just very comfortable on the field right now.”
The Yanks Are Coming: When you talk to people within MLS, one thing they almost to a person say is that the league is a lot faster than people realize. Scouts overseas who haven’t seen the game here always mention pace first when they see it in person. They also of course mention that it’s an extremely physical league. Do you think those are fair characterizations and is there anything else you would add about the style of play in MLS and what makes it such a challenging league?
Besler: “Absolutely. Just ask the guys that come in- just ask the players. I mean, even just the guys that come into our team. They’ve been playing in top divisions in Spain, in Germany, England, I mean, they’ve played everywhere and they come in and say, ‘Man, this league’s actually faster, it’s more physical.’ So I think a lot of people might be surprised by that, but I would say that’s spot-on.”
The Yanks Are Coming: I did want to ask you about the club and the expectations this year. Last year, Sporting Kansas City got off to such a good start, and there was a little bit of a swoon in the summer, I think it’s fair to say. But then the strong finish with the playoff spot. And then the tough loss to the Houston Dynamo. Is being a more consistent club one of the things as a club the leaders and coaching staff have really emphasized this preseason, especially given there’s an additional competition for the club this season?
Besler: “Yeah, I think so. It’s something we talked about throughout the preseason– realizing that we have an extra competition going on and in order for us to be successful in all three competitions, which is one of our goals,we have to be consistent. But every team says that. It’s a lot easier to say that than to actually do it. And the nature of the league, you know there’s 34 games and you play during the summer, in the summer months, it’s bound to happen. Every team goes up and down. I think the key is that you can’t go too far down. We showed that last year. We went through three or four games where we didn’t get results, but we turned it around and went back up. I think that’s the key to success.”
The Yanks Are Coming: Let’s shift gears to the national team a little bit—you had been called in for a brief camp prior to the Mexico match last year, but this January- but the January camp was really your first extended camp. Tell us a little about what that experience was like for you– your first long camp with the senior national team?
Besler: “Oh, it was awesome. I had a blast. The extended camp was something I was really looking forward to, because like you said, my first camp was actually for the Mexico friendly and I didn’t get in and it was just a three or four day camp. So I knew I was going to have at least two or three weeks with the coaches to show them what type of player I was. This camp is something I actually prepared really hard for and I think it showed. I came in ready to play. Personally I’m happy with the way that I played and I think I can be confident going forward. I hope to get a lot more looks, whether or not that is for World Cup qualifiers or the Gold Cup, I’m not sure yet, but I hope to be in the mix.”
The Yanks Are Coming: Now, you played against Canada, and I think in the Canada match, one of the bright spots was really the central pairing of you and Omar Gonzalez and in particular, the way that you and Omar and Kyle Beckerman stayed so narrow and really made it difficult for Canada to break you down through the middle of the field- everything seemed to be shuttled out wide. Was that a point of emphasis in the camp, and is that something you feel comfortable working on with the three of them after the long camp?
Besler: “I just think it’s a good sign. I think me and Omar, we formed a very good partnership. You know, it helped that we were able to play for three or four weeks before the game, so we got to know each other a little bit. We got to know each other’s tendencies. At the same time, when you’re a central defender, your job is to keep things tight, keep the team organized in front of you and not give up any goals. And so, when you look at the Canada game– you know– the only game that me and Omar have played together, we did our job pretty much. So I think we were both pretty happy with the way the game went.”
The Yanks Are Coming: And then you are called into the short camp before the Honduras match. Obviously, the loss was disappointing. But strictly speaking as a national team newcomer, was there any nervousness or extra emotions– I mean– It’s a World Cup qualifier, and there you are?
Besler: “Yeah, I wouldn’t say there was any nervousness, but you could definitely feel the extra emotion involved just because it was the World Cup qualifier, and it was in Honduras, and we knew going in it was going to be an extremely tough match. But again, like I said, I came into the January camp very confident and I went into the qualifier very confident. We had mostly all the first team guys, the ‘A’ group playing the game, and so I think I fit in fine. I didn’t get a chance to get on the field, but I was definitely ready. It was a great experience for me, and I hope there’s many more.
The Yanks Are Coming: Just two more questions. Roger Espinoza, he was tremendous in the match in Honduras. What was that like for you to see that out of someone that you played with? It must have been like watching a movie you had seen before except this time there’s not the ending that you’re used to or wanted?
Besler: “Yeah, wow. It was a little bit weird, at first, to see Roger lining up against you, but knowing Roger and the type of player he is, I fully expected him to have the game that he had. He’s a tremendous player. He is really– he’s almost skyrocketed with his ability and his confidence. He’ s playing at an extremely high level right now, so, individually I’m very happy for Roger, and I’m going to enjoy watching where his career goes.”
The Yanks Are Coming: Last question, playing at home, you’ve really been able to dig in and do some things that I think is so important, but you have dug in and used your position in the community so well. If you could just tell our readers and some of the folks who maybe don’t know a little bit about the charities and community work you’re doing in Kansas City off the pitch?
Besler: “Yeah, okay. Last year, I participated in the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society Man and Woman of the Year. You basically form a team and you have a committe member and a campaign manager and you go out into the community and you try and raise money for the society. So I was heavily involved with that this past year. For me, the best part about that was meeting the kids with leukemia and lymphoma. We took out to a Sporting Kansas City practice and we took them out to lunch afterwards. That’s always the best part, getting to see the kids and the people affected by the charities that you work for. So that was one of them. The second one, that I’m involved in this year, I’m going to be doing some work with CPC, the Child Protection Center. That’s in Kansas City as well, they do a lot of great work and again, the thing I’m looking forward to the most is actually working with the children, hopefully getting them out to a game or a practice, and hopefully, getting to know them.”
The Yanks Are Coming: Well, that’s awesome Matt. We really appreciate that kind of work, I know a lot of people to do. Best of luck with the MLS campaign and hopefully we see you back in the mix with the national team here real soon.
Besler: “Absolutely. Thank you, and I’m hoping so too.”
Neil W. Blackmon is Co-Founder and Co-Editor of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at email@example.com and you can and should follow him on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt.