Published November 18th, 2022 at 6:00 AM
Matt Besler’s first World Cup memories were made as a 7-year-old, watching the 1994 tournament, the first to be held on American soil.
The former Sporting Kansas City and U.S. Men’s National Team defenseman remembers the ‘94 World Cup as an “introduction of soccer as a global game.” Besler recalls a poster that hung in his Overland Park, Kansas, bedroom that was made of the participating teams’ flags. He learned that countries around the globe played the same game that he did on weekends.
Twenty years later, after decorated careers at both Blue Valley West High School and the University of Notre Dame, plus plenty of time on the pitch with his hometown MLS club, former U.S. boss Jürgen Klinsmann called Besler up to the World Cup roster for the 2014 tournament in Brazil — the last time the red, white and blue was represented on the world stage.
On the doorstep of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, Flatland reached out to Besler for a tournament preview, a trip down memory lane and thoughts on Kansas City’s bid to host games in 2026.
Retired from pro soccer and now “a regular guy,” Besler, who famously all but completely shut down one of the game’s greatest ever, Christiano Ronaldo, in a group play match against Portugal in 2014, says despite a young roster, anything short of advancing to the knockout stage in 2022 would be a disappointment.
Flatland: Do you have any other memories of watching the World Cup as a kid? Perhaps 2002?
The United States’ best World Cup finish to date came in 2002, reaching the quarterfinals. The club fell to Germany 1-0.
Matt Besler: In 2002, I was in high school. That World Cup was played over in South Korea and Japan, so the times of the games were crazy. Kickoff times were like 2 a.m., 3 a.m., 4 a.m. It was the summer between my freshman and sophomore years. I was going through Driver’s Ed at that time, so for like three or four weeks out of the summer, I had to go into Driver’s Ed from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. at my school, but I would stay up in the middle of the night and set my alarm for like 3 a.m. so that I could watch the U.S. soccer games. I’m not joking, I almost fell asleep at the wheel multiple times during Driver’s Ed, because I was staying up to watch these World Cup soccer games. Luckily, I passed. I got my license and, you know, didn’t have any accidents.
Flatland: Can you talk a little about the process of making a World Cup roster and the moment you realized you were going to Brazil back in 2014?
Besler: Basically, what happens is there’s a pool of players and it’s invitation only. It’s not like there’s a World Cup tryout. The coach invites 30 to the final World Cup camp. The camp took place for about a full month, we trained at Stanford University and used their athletic facilities. So 30 of us trained as a team and it had to be cut down to 23. A few days before the World Cup started, coach Klinsmann had to cut seven players. If you’ve ever seen the movie “Miracle,” the hockey movie, it’s pretty similar to that. Very, very tough decisions. Just a tough situation, because you’ve got 30 guys who pretty much go through the entire camp and train to be on the World Cup team. They put in just as much work as you do and then at the very end, they are told that they are not getting on the plane to go to Brazil and they’re going to be selected as alternates in case somebody gets injured. It was just a nerve-wracking experience. Fortunately, for me, I felt like I had a pretty solid read on where I was at with the team. I felt confident that I was going to be on that roster. But even in my situation, you know, you’re still on edge. You’re still taking every repetition seriously and trying to prove something. But yeah, coach Klinsmann kind of had his individual conversations with those seven guys and then after that, he called for a team meeting later that day, and we were all just sitting in a meeting room together. And he kind of went around the room and he counted off the people and there were 23 players. He said, ‘There are 23 players in this meeting for a reason. This is the 23 that made the final World Cup roster for Brazil.’”
Flatland: The players who make these rosters play in a lot of big soccer games, but what does competing in the World Cup mean to players?
Besler: Yeah, so the game itself, it feels like a normal game. Once the game starts and while you’re playing the game, when you’re in the game, it feels like a normal soccer game. Normal might not be the right word… but anything before and after the game, though, that is when it feels completely different. Before the game, the amount of interviews you have to do, the spotlight is on you. The nerves that you feel before the game, not letting down your family. The fact that it’s going to be broadcast around the world and on national TV, all that stuff. But when the whistle blows to start the game, all of that goes out the window and leaves your head. You just play and then immediately after the game, all of that hyped-up pressure and the World Cup extremes come right back. You’re doing the postgame interviews, you’re going on social media and just seeing how many people are tuning into the games, your family is sending you videos from Power & Light District and saying like, ‘Holy cow, there’s 15,000 people here that are chanting your name.’ That’s kind of when you realize that it is such a big event.
Flatland: In 2014, you played in four games with four starts against Portugal, Ghana and Germany in group play and then Belgium. On the field or off, what are some of your fondest memories from Brazil?
Besler: The very first game against Ghana, my Sporting KC teammate Graham Zusi and I were warming up for the game together. We just kind of looked at each other and started laughing. We were just like, ‘What are we doing here? Like, can you believe it?’ So that was kind of a fun moment that we got to share together before the World Cup even started. Second game was against Ronaldo, an opportunity to play against arguably the best player of our generation.
Flatland: What do you remember about the assignment against Portugal and Christiano Ronaldo?
Besler: We kind of shut him down until that very last play with like a minute left, which was unfortunate. As a team, that was probably our best performance of the World Cup. To be honest with you, I get excited to play against people like that. For me, it’s a big opportunity. And ultimately it creates an incredible memory.
I do remember specifically, I had to mark him on all set pieces. So that did make me a little nervous. Because if I was going to be singled out against him on set pieces and kind of going one-on-one with him… that’s a dangerous spot to be in. I remember on the first corner kick, just getting up close to him and kind of thinking in the back of my head, like, alright, this guy’s taller than me, he’s bigger than me and he can jump higher than I can, so whatever you do, just don’t let him score on this corner kick. Everybody’s watching him. The ball actually got kicked in our area and he went up for the header. All I did was sort of jump into him and kind of knock him off balance in the air and that was just enough. He still got his head on the ball, but I think it went over the goal or something like that. So did my job, I guess. I guess the last memory is just playing against Germany in the group stage. They went on to win the World Cup that year. So just another thing that you can keep with you as you move on and get a little older to look back and say, ‘Oh yeah, I went up against Germany and they were the World Cup champions.’
Flatland: This year’s squad is one of the youngest ever assembled for the World Cup. The average age of the U.S. roster is 25. In 2014, you were 27 years old. Is there a youth vs. experience conversation to be had about a World Cup roster, or are some of these guys experienced enough on the big stage that it’s something to be excited about?
Besler: I don’t think there’s a right answer to this. I think it’s more of a debate. I would say if I were the coach, if I was a player, the lack of veterans and the lack of experience is something that would concern me, sure. But that’s just my opinion. So I think it’s going to be something to look at. Totally see the other side though, there’s no question. This is the youngest, most exciting, most talented, dynamic roster that we’ve ever had. So does experience even matter? I don’t know. Maybe it won’t. And we also have players that are playing for clubs and in leagues that we’ve never seen before. So in one aspect, yeah, we do lack experience. But we also have different experiences. We have so many players playing with Champions League teams and we’ve never had that before. So yeah, I mean, I can see the argument that like, actually, this is the most experienced team that we’ve ever had, you know what I mean?
Flatland: Do you have a few players U.S. Soccer fans should keep an eye on this time around?
Besler: I could go up and down the roster. I love the way (midfielder) Tyler Adams plays. Having that presence in the middle of the field, I think, is huge. It’s very important. I’ve liked what I’ve seen so far from him when he’s played for Leeds United. He’s got to bring energy, he’s got to control the tempo. I think everybody feeds off of his energy. Center-backs, to me, is a question. That’s the position I played, so I’m always a little bit more invested in that position. But you know, I think we’ve got some great guys on the roster that can do the job. I just don’t know exactly who’s going to be paired with whom. To me, the best teams are the ones that have that centre-back partnership figured out. It’s sort of the spine of the team. So hopefully, we can kind of settle in with a pairing that will help us.
Flatland: The U.S. plays in Group B along with Wales, Iran and England. What are your thoughts on the draw?
Besler [on Wales]: Interesting draw, scary draw. I think Wales is underrated. On paper, when people look at Wales, they’re gonna assume it’s a small country and the U.S. should definitely handle that game. That scares me, especially the first game. I also think people are assuming (winger) Gareth Bale is the only player on Wales and that’s not true. They also have a ton of good players. I don’t want American fans and, most importantly, the players to overlook Wales.
The United States is 2-8-1 all-time against England. At the World Cup, the U.S. drew England (1-1) in 2010. Way back in 1950, the U.S. pulled off what is still considered one of the biggest upsets in world soccer history, a 1-0 win over England in a World Cup match deemed “The Miracle of Belo Horizonte.”
[on England] England… England is England, to be honest with you. You know, it’s probably more of a media thing. It’s a media’s dream matchup, especially after Thanksgiving. Yeah, it’s England, it’s another team. The players aren’t going to be thinking about how many people are tuning in and the fact that it’s the day after Thanksgiving, that there are huge parties going on in pubs and bars. They’re thinking about the players on the field and trying to win the game. To me, that’s a game where there’s going to be a lot of distractions. There’s gonna be a lot of buzz leading up to that game. The challenge is going to be just tuning all those out and actually just going out and taking care of business.
[on Iran] Iran is a total wildcard. Those teams are sometimes more difficult to play against than the bigger teams, just because you don’t know a lot about them. On paper, looking at our roster, yeah, we should be able to handle business and my expectation is that they advance to the knockout rounds. Anything short of that would be a disappointment.
Flatland: Sports wagering is legal in Kansas for this World Cup. Do you have any general tips on betting on the sport for gamblers new to soccer?
Besler: I don’t even have a Draft Kings or an online betting account yet. So I can’t really tell you how it works. There’s a lot of people, though, that reach out to me and say that soccer is really hard to gamble on.
Flatland: OK, any underdog teams to keep an eye on?
Besler: People are high on Senegal right now, which will be interesting to follow because they potentially lost their best player, Sadio Mané. Argentina will be fun to follow since it’s Lionel Messi’s last World Cup. They’re gonna be absolutely fighting with everything they have to put Messi out on top. Mexico is always fun to watch too, in my opinion. They have super high expectations.
Flatland: The World Cup is coming to Kansas City in 2026. Could you have ever imagined the biggest sporting event on earth played in your hometown?
Besler: I think that there’s a lot to be proud of, for all of us. But at the same time, we still have a lot to prove. You know what I mean? We have to be careful about thinking that the work is done. The work is only just beginning. We have a huge opportunity ahead of us, but we can’t just assume that the World Cup is going to be here and things are going to be great. We have to show up. We have to prepare and we have to take a lot of pride in showcasing what our city has to offer to the rest of the world. I feel very proud, but I also feel like there’s some responsibility that’s on all of our shoulders, and that there’s a lot of work to do. But it’s exciting work.
I’ve heard from a few people that what really separated Kansas City and one of the strongest parts of getting the bid, was the in-person visit that FIFA made to Kansas City. That makes me proud and in my opinion, it’s very fitting to what Kansas City is all about. You know, when you look at Kansas City on paper and you look at the population and all the metrics, it only gives you a little bit of what Kansas City is about. But when people actually come here, and they visit, their eyes are opened up.
Flatland: Speaking of soccer in Kansas City, how have you enjoyed the KC Current and what are your thoughts on the new stadium coming to Berkley Riverfront?
Besler: The KC Current has been great to see and follow. I’m a fan, my family are fans. We had a really fun time following their season this year, especially the playoff run. Chris and Angie Long and the rest of their front office, they’re very ambitious with their vision. I’m intrigued to see how far they can take it.
Besler retired in 2021 after 12 seasons and an MLS Cup Championship with Sporting KC and one season with Austin FC. His National Team service amounted to 40 games played and 38 starts, including all four games at the 2014 World Cup. Besler hoisted a Gold Cup with the USMNT in 2017.
Besler currently works and lives in Kansas City and serves as the director of strategic partnerships with Chicken N Pickle.
Flatland: Any special plans at Chicken N Pickle for the tournament?
Besler: Chicken N Pickle is going to be showing all of the World Cup games that are on during restaurant hours. We are encouraging people to come out, support the World Cup in general and the U.S. We are offering a special for kids, so any kids that are off school and that want to come wear a soccer jersey, they’ll get a free kids meal. It doesn’t have to be a U.S. jersey. If it is, great.
Flatland: Finally, how’s life since retiring from pro soccer?
Besler: Life is good. I’m a regular guy. I’ve got interests outside of soccer, I always have. My family is the most important aspect of my life, so I’ve been enjoying time with them. There are definitely parts that I miss about being a professional soccer player. There’s other parts that I’ve moved on from. Overall, I’m in a great spot physically and mentally and I’m enjoying some of these new opportunities. I’ve definitely felt challenged as I make the transition into something else and you know, I’m just moving on.
The 2022 FIFA World Cup starts Sunday, Nov. 20, at 10 a.m. local time, as host nation Qatar will face Ecuador.
The United States opens tournament play Monday, Nov. 21, at 1 p.m. against Wales.
Clarence Dennis is the audience and digital content strategist with Flatland.