RECIFE, Brazil — When Kyle Beckerman takes the field, he almost always finds his way into physical battles. As the base of the diamond for Real Salt Lake, and now the deep-lying midfield linchpin for the U.S. national team, Beckerman has made a career out of not only being able to keep the ball moving in midfield, but also winning the battles in the middle that require strength and will as much as touch and finesse.
It is that fighting spirit that has allowed Beckerman to play in his first World Cup at age 32 and realize a dream he thought was already dead four years ago.
Beckerman watched the 2010 World Cup as a fan, and to him, that is how he would watch every World Cup for the rest of his life. Even though he has been one of the best defensive midfielders in MLS for years, Beckerman was far down coach Bob Bradley’s depth chart heading into the 2010 World Cup and didn’t figure that he would get a chance at 2014 being a midfielder in his 30s.
“I couldn’t really shoot for the last World Cup, because I wasn’t going to get in the 2010 team,” Beckerman told Goal. “The 2006 team and the 2002 team was Bruce (Arena), and Bruce did things way different than the next coach. It was kind of an age group that was around here and then we went to the next group in 2010 and the age group got younger. I just was happy for them. I really just pushed for them, I wished for them.
“I didn’t even think about the World Cup (before current coach Jurgen Klinsmann). It wasn’t going to happen,” Beckerman added. “You try and put a positive spin on it, and you try and do as best you can for Salt Lake. You always think as a soccer player, you never know. You’ve got to be ready for whatever happens, and I didn’t really see a new coach coming in and calling me in, but I was ready for it. I’m glad I had that mindset.”
When U.S. Soccer fired Bradley as head coach after the 2011 Gold Cup, Beckerman couldn’t have known what the coaching change would mean, but he figured it out pretty quickly when Klinsmann called him up for his first match in charge of the U.S. national team. After not having appeared for the U.S. in 22 straight matches, Beckerman was suddenly in the starting lineup against Mexico on Aug. 11, 2011, starting alongside Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley.
“I really had no idea about him, and had never met him, the only thing I knew of him was that I watched him play as a great player for Germany,” Beckerman said of Klinsmann. “Next thing you know, I’m starting in the Stade de France against France. He threw me in the deep end. I just felt that, hey, this is an opportunity that I can’t let go. I have to grab it and run with this.
“It was just kind of something I thought was totally dead and, all of a sudden, the door that I thought was locked opened up.”
Beckerman didn’t waltz right into the full team, but Klinsmann gave him some serious looks in some tough matches, including road games in Belgium and France.
The battle in central midfield was a fierce one, though, with Maurice Edu and Danny Williams serving as stiff competition for playing time. Beckerman managed just two starts in 2012, but he really came on in 2013, making the most of a starting role on the U.S. Gold Cup team, which he helped lead to a title.
Even after that, Beckerman still had to work hard to convince Klinsmann he was worthy of a larger role on the team, and a place on the U.S. World Cup squad. He did that in games against Mexico and Nigeria. Against the African side, he played the defensive midfield role perfectly behind Jones and Bradley, the same two midfielders he started alongside in Klinsmann’s first match in charge of the Americans.
it was those performances, coupled with his body of work during Klinsmann’s tenure, that convinced the German legend that Beckerman was not only someone he wanted on his World Cup squad, but someone he wanted on the field in Brazil.
“He’s a very special player in the way he brings himself into the whole team concept,” Klinsmann said of Beckerman. “He’s there for his teammates. He’s cleaning up for his back line. He’s there when you need him. Those are very rare players.
"For Brazilians to have a comparison, it’s definitely Dunga from the '94 team, where he just cleaned up things in front of the back line and just played simple passes,” Beckerman added. “He passed them onto the creative players. Dunga was never the creative one, but the organized the whole orchestra.”
“He loves to make that (dirty) work for the team,” Jones said of Beckerman. “He’s always one of the guys who pushes the team, pushes the players. He never gives up and sometimes you need that type of player in the team.
“Outside of the pitch, in private, he’s a really quiet guy. He makes a joke and everybody’s like, ‘Oh, Kyle, you’re here,'” Jones joked. “He’s a really nice guy.”
Beckerman has rewarded Klinsmann’s faith in him by playing well in his two World Cup starts, particularly in the team’s 2-1 win against Ghana. He and Jones were instrumental in keeping the Americans in the match as Ghana overwhelmed the U.S. team with speed and pressure.
That victory was not only special to Beckerman for the three points he helped his team secure, but also for the fact he realized a lifelong dream of playing in a World Cup.
“It was really emotional,” Beckerman said as he recalled that opening match against Ghana. “The way we were standing (for the national anthem) we were looking right at our families. You see them tearing up, and you hear the crowd singing so loud. It’s an intense moment, really emotional, and it just pumps you up and I can say I’ve never had a national anthem like that.”
Beckerman just might hear a similar-sounding national anthem Thursday, when the U.S. faces Germany in a match the Americans may need a win or tie in to ensure a place in the round of 16. Scores of Americans are expected to fill Arena Pernambucano, and they will watch the match expecting Beckerman to be in the starting lineup.
It's a reality so far removed from four years ago, when even Beckerman thought he would never get this chance to realize his World Cup dream.