As 26 players converge on the Los Angeles area this week for the first U.S. men's national team camp of 2014, dreams of the World Cup are dancing in more than a few of their heads, while some of the newer players are just hoping to turn 2014 into a breakout year.
Matt Besler knows all about breakout years, having just enjoyed the kind of 2013 he could only have dreamed of when he was sitting in the very same camp exactly one year ago. Back then, Besler had no national team caps, one U.S. Open Cup winner’s medal to his name, and little more than a hope that he could put everything together and earn a place on Jurgen Klinsmann’s team.
What followed in the coming months was a storybook run. His first cap was soon followed by his first World Cup qualifying start. The caps soon piled up and before long he was wearing a Gold Cup winner’s medal, celebrating World Cup qualification, and lifting an MLS Cup.
And after all that he also found time to get married, tying the knot a week after lifting the Phil Anschutz trophy.
Not a bad year for the unassuming 26-year-old, who could be best described as a throwback. Besler isn’t a product of the U.S. Youth national team setup. He wasn’t a highly-publicized player coming out of college. He put in his four years at Notre Dame and arrived in MLS with little fanfare. Drafted by his hometown team in Kansas City, Besler quietly developed into one of the league’s best defenders.
Even after being named MLS Defender of the Year in 2012, Besler’s name didn’t have national cachet, and when he passed on a chance to move to Europe and instead chose to re-sign with his hometown team at a discount price, Besler looked like he might not ever make that jump to be a more high-profile player.
Then 2013 happened, and Besler catapulted from off the national team radar into a starting role, and is arguably the team’s best defender. Now he enters this week’s camp carrying a much different goal. Instead of trying to prove he deserves a shot, Besler will be working to prove that he is still the best center back on the team.
“I’m really excited for this camp,” Besler said. “I feel like some guys might look at the camp as a drag, and it might be a little long, but I’m really excited to get going and get to work. No matter what position you’re in, you can accomplish a lot with this January camp.”
Besler comes into the camp as a projected starter for the full U.S. team, but with both Omar Gonzalez and Clarence Goodson in the ranks, Besler will surely be tested as all three vie for starting roles.
“Competition is good for everybody,” Besler said. “We all saw what happened with last year’s January camp and guys taking advantage of opportunities. I don’t think there are as many spots up for grabs, but there are still plenty of spots.
“This is camp is going to be just as competitive, if not more competitive, than last year.”
For all that has changed for Besler, one of his most important areas of development is his level of international experience. He played in 12 national team matches in 2013, nine of which were either World Cup qualifiers or Gold Cup knockout round matches.
That track record makes Besler one of the most experienced players in the current camp, meaning he is already taking on a much different role than the one he filled in the same camp a year ago.
“Just today, I got three phone calls. One from a current teammate, and two from ex-teammates, and they were talking about what to expect going into camp,” Besler said. “They were kind of asking me some tips on what they need to get ready for.
“I hung up the phone and was like ‘Gosh, this feels different. I feel like a veteran.'”
It is that down-to-earth mentality that has helped make Besler a cult figure among Sporting Kansas City fans, and has also kept him level-headed even as he experiences the type of rapid success that could overwhelm others.
No, Besler has been able to maintain his humble demeanor even as his confidence in his own ability continues to grow. He knows that he is a better player than he was a year ago, and believes the work he put in during his first four years as a pro helped prepare him for everything 2013 threw his way.
Besler is a much better player now, and at 26 he should continue to improve, but that hasn’t changed his approach. What has changed his his status, and the fact that he is no longer off the radar. Now he is a national team starter, someone with a spot others will be gunning for over the next five months. That chase starts this week and Besler knows his role has changed from the hunter to the hunted.
“You’re right about being the hunted,” Besler said. “You’ve got to come in with the same mentality as your first-ever camp, and you’ve got to be hungry, and I think I am still.”
MLS COACHING CAROUSEL UPDATE
You would think that all the MLS head coaching positions would be filled by now with the MLS Combine set for Friday, and MLS SuperDraft on Jan. 14 rapidly approaching, but there are three teams still working to resolve their head coaching situations and all three are tied together in a way.
As reported by Goal USA on Saturday, Oscar Pareja is leaving his position as head coach of the Colorado Rapids, though the club has yet to formally announce his departure. That is because, as of Monday, the Rapids and FC Dallas were still working out compensation for Pareja, who will be taking the FC Dallas job once the clubs can reach a deal on a buyout of the remaining year on Pareja’s Colorado contract.
That holdup is delaying Colorado’s hiring of a replacement for Pareja, a replacement expected to be New York Red Bulls assistant Robin Fraser. If Fraser does take the Rapids job, that will leave the Red Bulls in search of a new lead assistant for Mike Petke. The delay in Colorado being able to hire a replacement is another reason why the Rapids and FC Dallas should be able to reach an agreement before Friday.
Then we have Chivas USA, which has yet to hire its new coach. Sources tell Goal USA that Colorado Rapids assistant Wilmer Cabrera is the front-runner for the Chivas USA job and could be introduced as head coach this week.
MLS GENERATION ADIDAS CLASS TAKES SHAPE
Though it lacks the star power of past year’s Generation adidas classes, the crop of college underclassmen signed by MLS to be part of the MLS Draft does have some intriguing options.
A total of six players have signed Generation adidas deals as of Tuesday, with sources telling Goal USA that California defender Christian Dean and Wisconsin defender A.J. Cochran have secured deals, joining forward Schillo Tshuma (Maryland), goalkeeper Andre Blake (UConn), fullback Eric Miller (Creighton) and midfielder Marlon Hairston (Louisville).
UConn freshman forward Cyle Larin, projected as a top five talent in the 2014 MLS Draft, has yet to sign and could wind up returning to school for another year. Meanwhile, the top rated senior in the draft, Cal defender Steve Birnbaum, has yet to sign a pre-draft senior deal with MLS. As of Tuesday, Maryland forward Patrick Mullins and Georgetown midfielder Steve Neumann were the only seniors to be given pre-draft contracts.