The opportunity was there for Matt Besler. And with it came the pressure.
Going into the 2017 Gold Cup, spots were on the line. Spots for later in that tournament. Spots for World Cup qualifying this fall. And of course, spots for Russia in 2018. That presented a unique set of circumstances for Besler and his United States teammates.
And those circumstances saw the U.S. win two of of its three group-stage matches and draw the other — but in less than convincing fashion.
“I think anytime you bring a group of guys together, there are challenges with gelling,” Besler told Goal. “Especially when the stakes are high and there’s added pressure to perform well because Bruce made it clear at the beginning of the tournament that this was a major opportunity for a lot of players and this was going to be the one time for some guys to show what they could do.”
The defender is not new to high-stakes situations. He worked his way into former coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s plans in 2013, and helped cement his place by helping the U.S. win that year’s Gold Cup. He went on to start the 2014 World Cup round-of-16 contest against Belgium.
But four-year cycles are long. A starter in 2014 is not guaranteed in 2018. And like others this summer, Besler was looking to leave a good impression on the coaching staff. For the defender, that meant one thing — winning.
“I’m not a guy who will typically stand out with my characteristics of how I play, so it’s important for me, anytime I step out onto the field, for our team to play well and for our team to win.”
Win is exactly what the U.S. did. Besler had a big part in that — he started the semifinal and final, and put in a strong performance as the U.S. allowed only one goal in victories over Costa Rica and title-clincher over Jamaica.
While the defender may say he doesn’t stand out, that was not the case in the semifinal, where he made seven clearances in the 2-0 win over the Ticos. It was highest for any U.S. player in any one game in the tournament.
It was an overall performance that did not go unnoticed by Besler’s boss in MLS.
“I thought he played really well,” Sporting Kansas City head coach Peter Vermes told Goal. “I thought the fact he played his game to his strengths, to what his qualities are, it showed that he is a player who can play at that level with the national team and that he can play — that him and Omar (Gonzalez) are very good tandem back there.”
It may seem odd that Besler would have to prove himself again, given he’s been a relatively consistent member of the national team even if he has not always found himself in the starting XI. But the 30-year-old defender is no stranger to having to earn his place.
Last summer Besler hit a patch of rough form for Sporting KC. That difficult stretch saw him fall from the lineup for a time and he only played 18 games in total for the side in 2016.
“He had a bump in the road,” Vermes said. “It happens sometimes. Sometimes players fall a little bit out of form.”
While it sounds simple, plenty of players can lose their consistency and struggle to regain it. That didn’t happen with Besler. He worked his way back into the side, with Vermes describing his end of season performance as “stellar.” The key, in the coach’s estimation, was Besler’s mindset and work rate.
“First of all, I think he has a great mentality,” Vermes said. “He always has a team first attitude. And he comes no matter what the situation is. He comes everyday and he works, not only hard but he’s professional. And all those things, they lend themselves to if you’re out of form, getting back into form. It also resonates with your teammates because they see the professionalism you have on an everyday basis.”
Besler has carried that form from the end of 2016 into the current campaign. He’s already equaled his 2016 games played total with a third of the season to go. His tackles per game and clearances are back up after career lows last season. His pass completion percentage has jumped from 82.6 percent to 86.2 percent — even though he’s attempting on average over 10 more passes a game this season. All are indications his game is back on track — a key for Sporting KC as a group according to Besler’s center-back partner Ike Opara.
“I think his confidence is sky high again and it’s good to see,” Opara told Goal. “When you see that with him, we benefit and everyone as a whole — the back line the guys in front of him. I think he’s always had the ability to defend and play the ball out of the back and make the smart decision, offensively and defensively.”
But more importantly, for a player who values winning as important validation, he is the captain of a Sporting KC side that sits on top of the Western Conference. And he is at the heart of a backline that has been part of the league’s best defensive unit, having allowed just 17 goals in 22 games this season. In Besler’s 18 games, Sporting KC has allowed just 13.
“It’s something that is easy to say at the beginning of the season — I’m sure a lot of teams say that they want to be the team that gives up the fewest goals on the season — but you have to actually put in the work,” Besler said. “You have to do things and you have to form habits that will allow you to do that.
“It’s something that we’ve put a lot of focus on and so far, I think we do have a strong defense and that’s allowed us to really be in every game and it’s allowed us to position ourselves in a good spot. But at the same time, there’s still a lot of work to be done.”
It’s a mentality that is infectious. But as team captain, Besler’s way of getting others to buy into that mindset isn’t necessarily through fiery speeches, but through communication and understanding.
“I think he’s very understanding of guys no matter what position,” Opara said. “I know he’s a center back but he understands every position on the field and he’s able to, not physically, but step into someone’s shoes and understand how they feel. He’s able to analyze it that way.”
Vermes voiced similar praise, adding: “He also works hard to get a consensus with the group. He’s more of a guy that makes sure everybody understands what they’re doing, why they’re doing it. That’s where he’s good, really good.”
That consensus is apparent as you talk to Besler and Opara. Besler mentioned that, despite the team’s success, he could point out something they could have done differently on each of the goals allowed. Meanwhile, Opara spoke of how the unit strives for perfection, even if it “probably won’t happen.”
While perfection is not required, the pressure will remain on Besler and his teammates down the stretch. With the recent trade of MLS All-Star striker Dom Dwyer, Sporting KC’s attack has become a question mark, even if the team found success in its first game without the attacker.
But for a defender who has won two Gold Cups, an MLS Cup, a U.S. Open Cup and played in a World Cup, facing and overcoming adversity is nothing new. In this instance, Besler believes that through experience and using the cohesiveness the side has built as a unit, the club can push on.
“Something we take a lot of pride in, we feel like there never is one player that is bigger than the team,” Besler said. “And so, it doesn’t matter who it is, we feel one of our best qualities as a team is how we play together.”
Sporting KC will need to keep that cohesiveness translating into results. While the club is in first, FC Dallas and the Houston Dynamo are right on its heels with other Western Conferences foes lurking.
As someone who looks for perfection and consistency, it should come as no surprise that Besler is not resting on his laurels. Instead, he’s looking to close out the season by maintaining the consistent success the team has found thus far.
“We’re in a good spot through 20-whatever games,” he said. “Now we have the last third of the season and we want to make sure we finish the season on the right note.”