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Puzzle master: Sporting KC’s Matt Besler free to be himself

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Unhindered, captain earning tag of “Protagonist”

Thad Bell

Where to start with Sporting Kansas City’s Matt Besler?

MLS SuperDraft first round pick. MLS All-Star (x5). MLS Best XI (x2). MLS Defender of the Year. US National Team caps (x47). Gold Cup winner (x2). Copa America veteran. World Cup veteran. The most appearances, starts, and minutes in Sporting Kansas City history. U.S. Open Cup winner (x3). MLS Cup winner.

He’s just about done it all. And just about everything that can be written about him has been written. Heck, he’s even a writer himself. If you don’t know the story of the hometown boy making it good, check out Sam McDowell’s fine article on Besler’s rise in The Kansas City STAR from last November.

Besler is now 32 years-old, and MLS has grown numerous times over in his 11 years in the league. It is MLS 3.0, or 4.0, or whatever you want to label it. There was a time where a team could have a strong starting eleven and be assured of doing well in the table, a time where a player could be one-dimensional and be assured of a job for years. But no more.

And Besler has evolved with it. He dedicated an entire offseason to putting on 10lbs of muscle weight. Another in becoming faster. He purposely passed and touched with his right foot as much as possible to be more effective. The challenges are driven by a fear… No, a determination. As he stated, “I don’t want to get left behind.”

His performances in the 2018 season, especially in the stretch run and playoffs, and already this season reveal no signs of being left behind. Actually, they may be the best of his career. The Overland Park, Kansas, native is composed on the ball, a vital distributor. His reads are insightful, his step-ups timely. His effort and desire have not wavered. In all he does, his passion is palpable. And, if this observer is not mistaken, in what is now the latter half of his career, his passion has actually increased. One can see it in how he never quits on a play, and in his exultation when celebrating and playing to the crowd. He is intentional in all he does. He is a masterful Besler, at the fore of MLS center backs.

His midfield link, Barcelona La Masia Academy-trained teammate Ilie Sanchez says this of Besler: “Definitely, he makes me a better player.” High praise indeed from a man who speaks only sincerely.

But what is going on in Besler’s mind as he performs? What is his secret? To hear him tell it (even in a phone interview from Albuquerque, New Mexico, where Sporting was training on Tuesday in prep for Thursday’s 2nd leg with Toluca FC in their Round of 16 Concacaf Champions League series), it’s compelling. And endearing, as he is a welcoming, yet insightful interviewee intent on getting his message across, but, at the same time, genuinely mindful of the story the journalist is efforting to tell.

His supreme play is sensory intake, the constant figuring out of a puzzle.

“I take mental snapshots of everything in my visual field, and I make decisions based off those images. Where the ball is, where the opponent is, the field position, angles, spaces, body positions, eyes, bend on the ball, hips. All those give me information on what is going to happen next, so I can put myself in position to make a play before the play even happens,” Besler said. “It’s a free-flowing puzzle that I’m constantly trying to solve with all of these mental snapshots that I’m taking.”

The images are akin to a Major League Baseball batter on a hot streak knowing what pitch is coming because he can see the spin on the ball in almost slow-motion. But for a center back with often the whole pitch and 19 other field players in front of him, it’s much more.

“Of course, all of this is happening within milliseconds. That’s why I’m not perfect, and that’s why we all still make mistakes,” he revealed. “It’s the beauty of the game, the imperfectness of it.”

But more often than not, Besler is in the right position, thwarting attack after attack. It’s really no coincidence that Besler’s vision has been at the center of a defense that has been at or near the top of MLS year-in and year-out since he became a starter in 2011.

Even to the more visceral fan who values one-on-one encounters when an attacker runs at a defender over the brainy parts of a center back’s game, Besler holds his own. And he has mental “app” for that too.

“I’m not even looking at the ball, which might sound crazy, and I don’t know if I’d recommend it, but I’m looking at his eyes,” said Besler. “I can see where he looks up, and if he looks back down at the ball, that gives me an indication of where he is going to play it… That’s where I can step in and anticipate and intercept a ball and make a play.”

Besler has always been good with the ball at his feet. Yet, it’s an area that he has improved too. Now, however, as Sporting Kansas City has morphed into more of a possession-based side that uses the whole field to attack from a terrorizing variety of spaces and angles, Besler may be on the verge of a career-year in assists or the pass-that-leads-to-the-assist category. Ilie put it in the context of the team’s overall balance and depth.

“The team is improving in a way that is allowing him to be more of a protagonist. Maybe in my first year, teams knew that he was the one to be cut out of the ball. So that made his job with the ball more difficult in that he had a player marking him for 90 minutes,” said the midfield general. “He’s a center back, but he is that good with the ball. Now, we have more solutions to build up from the back, so whenever he has the ball, he has more time to be a playmaker.”

The first goal in last Thursday’s 3-0 dismantling of Toluca FC in the first leg was a case in point. Besler initiated Krisztian Nemeth’s eventual goal with a precise 50-yard ball to Gerso Fernandes. However, in typical Besler fashion, he gave credit to Gerso’s run that initiated the pass. And Besler is right. Off the ball movement has been an emphasis for Sporting KC. But it doesn’t work if the ball doesn’t arrive. It’s even better when the play was talked about before the match.

“The first couple of times I got the ball, I played it out [wide] to [left back] Seth [Sinovic] or out to Gerso, setting up the defender to bite hard on that outside ball. When I got the ball [in the 35th minute just inside his own half] and opened up, it was Gerso who realized that defender was biting hard and saw the space in behind,” explained Besler. “…I got the ball, took a quick look up and saw him making the run in behind and that he had a few steps on the defender. I just played the ball into space. It probably looks like a difficult ball, but you just have to drop it into a 15x15 yard area, and Gerso can do the rest. It was a great run, and something we talked about going into the game, so that made it even better.”

Though the evolution of Sporting’s mode of play has been a long time in developing, one may wonder if it was partly developed because of their stalwart center back’s abilities or just the plan all along. Either way, Besler hasn’t had to change much about his game.

“… which is the great thing because the way we want to play fits my style and qualities as a player… The way that Peter has built the team really suits my personality,” Besler pointed, while revealing that last year was one of his most enjoyable as a player. “I’m able to go out and play free and do my thing and offer as much as I can to the team and help us win.”

Recently, MLSsoccer.com pundit and former MLS player Bobby Warshaw ranked his top five MLS players at each position. He stated that the rankings “[are] my interpretation of the ‘best players’ in MLS, based on overall talent. It factors in maximum ability, team fit and probability of consistency.”

Besler was listed at number five, but with his long-time center back partner, Ike Opara (now with Minnesota United FC) as a pairing. High praise, for sure. But there was a caveat: “Now that the top defensive pairing over the last three years, Opara and Besler, has broken up, we get to see who lifted who.” It was essentially a dis, wrapped in a compliment of a complement.

When asked if he had a reaction, Besler was Besler:

“If it wasn’t for my teammates, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. They are the ones who make me a better player. My teammates put in a tremendous amount of work and make my job easier than it sometimes seems,” he replied. “I’m not a perfect player, no one is, but I trust my teammates to cover for me when I make a mistake. That confidence allows me to go out and play free, which is a great feeling to have.”

For sure. But, in the big picture of things – no MLS Defender of the Year or Best XI or a national team callup in recent years – or in pundits’ proclamations, does the best Besler (a refined combination of talent and diligence informed by experience) feel overlooked?

“I’ve always felt that I’ve been overlooked. And that will never change. I carry a chip on my shoulder, whether it’s obvious to outsiders or not doesn’t really matter me. I’m always trying to find ways to get motivated, always trying to prove people wrong,” he stated. “Awards and stuff like that don’t really make a big difference to me, but if you can use that as another motivation tactic, then why not?”

And he elaborated by taking stock:

“Where I’m at now in my career, I’m confident with who I am as a person and as a player. Within our team, right now, I understand and accept big responsibilities when it comes to the team and our performance. In doing so, I open myself up to criticism. That’s how it works. I can sleep at night because I know I put everything that I have into helping the team win. It’s a good place to be at.”

Where to start with Sporting Kansas City’s Matt Besler? It’s a silly question, really. You start with Matt Besler.

You draft him with your top pick, you build a backline around him (even sign his childhood friend – Seth Sinovic - to play left back), you make him your team’s captain and one of the faces (or the face) of your franchise, and you make his qualities a center of your team’s play. No puzzle to figure out there.

He is a sure Sporting Legend. But as he was featured saying in Sporting’s commercial last season, ‘[He] isn’t done yet.’ Far from it.

“I enjoy what I do on an everyday basis, and I want to do it as long as possible,” Besler said.

No getting left behind.