Photo by ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
If 2012 provided a glimpse of things to come for Sporting Kansas City centerback Matt Besler, opposing teams better brace themselves.
Fresh off of a career season that saw him win the U.S. Open Cup and the MLS Defender of the Year award, Besler is aiming to set the bar higher for himself in 2013. The 25-year-old accomplished much of what he set out to achieve from an individual standpoint this year, but he is not one to rest on his laurels.
“I look back and reflect on the year (and) I did a lot, if not all, of the goals that I set in the beginning of the year,” Besler told SBI on Monday. “From that perspective, individually, it was a satisfying year and I’m just excited to play again. I’m going to approach this next year, I’m going to set higher goals and just go about it the same way that I did last year.”
Besler attributes much of his success in 2012 to simply being on a good Sporting KC team, one that finished the regular season in first place in the Eastern Conference before surprisingly crashing out of the playoffs to the Houston Dynamo. But that is not only contributing factor to his dream season.
“I was a year older,” said Besler, who is now a four-year pro. “A year experience in MLS is very, very valuable because the MLS is a tough league to kind of learn, but once you’re around it two, three, four years, that experience really helps you.”
The 6-foot Besler was a consistent rock this past regular season, starting in 30 of the 31 games he played in while helping Sporting KC boast the stingiest defense in the league by far. He also contributed to the club’s second U.S. Open Cup title by converting a penalty kick during a shootout against the Seattle Sounders at Livestrong Sporting Park in early August.
“It was one of the biggest highlights of my career so far,” Besler said of winning the Open Cup. “Seattle’s run, three years in a row, that’s very, very impressive. We would’ve been happy knocking off any team but knocking off Seattle and they’re the three-time defending champion made it that much sweeter for us.
“It felt great bringing the trophy to Kansas City. Our fans are great and I believe they are some of the best fans in MLS and they definitely deserve the title just as much as us.”
Besler was undoubtedly an integral part to the team’s success in 2012 and he impressed enough to earn his first international call-up from U.S. Men’s National Team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann in August.
The Americans were set to play Mexico in a rare friendly at the soccer cathedral that is Estadio Azteca but the camp fell during a short international fixture date, so Klinsmann chose Besler as part of a mostly reserve and inexperienced squad.
“I went into that camp just trying to take as much information as I could in,” said Besler. “It was my first call-up and it was a short camp, (but) I really just tried to learn as much as I could and the fact that we beat Mexico in Azteca, the first U.S. team to do that, that’s something that I will definitely remember for the rest of my life. I feel honored to be part of that group.”
Besler was on the game-day roster but did not step onto the field for the U.S. in their 1-0 win over their southern rivals, but he still went back to Kansas City with plenty of confidence and a hunger for more after some kind words from Klinsmann.
“He basically told me, ‘Hey, we’re bringing you in, it’s a short camp so try and get your feet wet and see what it’s all about. We’re rewarding you for the season you’ve had and you’re definitely on our radar,'” said Besler. “Afterwards, he said that he and his staff will continue to watch my progress for the rest of the year and he wished me good luck for the rest of the season.
“I felt good about it, I felt very confident and once I started practicing with the team, I felt comfortable. I think that’s the best sign as a player, is getting there and feeling like I belong. Once I got a taste of it, I wanted more of it, so that’s a good sign.”
Between the Gold Cup, World Cup qualifying and friendlies, there should be ample opportunity for Besler to receive more national team looks in 2013. He has not had any discussions with Klinsmann about what competitions he might take part in, but he is preparing for the chance, if and when it comes, all the same.
Besler also does not have to look very far to see how quickly one can go from fringe national team player to heavy contributor.
“Graham (Zusi) is a great example on that level for me,” said Besler of his Sporting KC teammate who enjoyed a rapid rise with the U.S. in 2012. “He’s a guy just like me. We got drafted in the same year, been in Kansas City for four years and definitely look to him as somebody that I can ask questions and draw experience from because he’s been through most of it.”
Before Besler can look that far ahead, however, he has an important choice to make with regards to his future. Besler is currently a free agent after completing his initial four-year deal with MLS, and he could pursue interest from abroad or re-sign with the league.
While most players elect to go to Europe under such circumstances, it is the latter scenario that is most appealing to the Overland Park, Kansas native right now.
“I’m definitely closer to a decision,” said Besler. “I know there’s been some rumors all around places and all this stuff, but I’m going to keep negotiations to myself. I will say and I’ve said it all along that my hope is to stay in Kansas City. I love the fans and the city. That’s my goal right now.”
Besler should make a decision soon and regardless of which direction he goes in, he is looking back on his first four years with Sporting KC with nothing but fond memories.
After all, it is where he honed his game en route to becoming an MLS Defender of the Year.
“I love it, I love the experiences I’ve had,” said Besler. “Kansas City is the only place that I’ve played professionally, so I owe a lot to that city and to the club.
“It’s crazy, I got here and we were the Wizards and now we’re Sporting KC and playing in front of 18,000, sold-out fans every single game. A lot has changed for the better so it’s been an exciting thing to be a part of.”