One of the most accomplished and beloved players in Sporting Kansas City history has announced his retirement from Major League Soccer.
Kansas City native and longtime Sporting defender Matt Besler officially ended his heralded MLS playing career this week, closing the book on a journey that spanned 13 seasons and included a storybook 12-year stint with his hometown club.
Besler, an unmistakable fan-favorite and a legendary figure of the organization, anchored Sporting Kansas City's backline from 2009-2020 as one of the premier center backs in MLS. He helped the club make nine trips to the MLS Cup Playoffs and win four major championships, namely the 2013 MLS Cup and Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup titles in 2012, 2015 and 2017.
Raised in Overland Park, Besler also became the first Kansan to compete in the FIFA World Cup, leading the United States Men's National Team at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil as part of a brilliant national team career highlighted by Concacaf Gold Cup titles in 2013 and 2017.
As colossal as Besler was on the pitch—he was a five-time MLS All-Star, a two-time MLS Best XI selection and the 2012 MLS Defender of the Year—his contributions to the Kansas City community were equally immense. He regularly visited Children’s Mercy Hospital to interact with patients receiving care and participated in several activities tied to The Victory Project, the philanthropic arm of Sporting dedicated to helping children and families affected by childhood cancer and other challenges.
Besler's extraordinary tale began in the most appropriate place: home.
After starring at Blue Valley West High School and enjoying an excellent four-year college career at the University of Notre Dame, Besler joined his hometown Kansas City Wizards as a first-round selection in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft. That same day, in a remarkable twist of fate, Kansas City picked midfielder Graham Zusi to complete what would become one of the best draft classes MLS has ever seen.
This marked the start of a lasting friendship between Besler and Zusi and the beginning of two professional careers that would unfold in stunningly similar ways. Few could have predicted it at the time, but Besler and Zusi—who as MLS rookies in 2009 lived in Besler's parents' basement—were well on their way to becoming American soccer stars.
Besler was a regular starter in his debut MLS campaign, providing a bright spot for a team that fell short of expectations throughout the year. With inconsistent results on the pitch, technical director Peter Vermes was appointed as the club's head coach in August 2009.
Under Vermes' tutelage, Besler soon flourished into one of the league's best center backs, but not before suffering an injury setback that limited him to 12 appearances during a 2010 campaign that ended without a playoff appearance.
The year 2011 was one of profound transformation for the club. Rebranded from the Wizards and settling into a new, world-class home at Children's Mercy Park, Sporting Kansas City orchestrated a dramatic turnaround that would define the club for years to come.
With Besler patrolling the backline, Sporting went from perennial afterthought to the hottest ticket in Kansas City and a legitimate title contender at the top of MLS. In 2011 alone, the team went from last place in early June to the top of the Eastern Conference by season's end.
In 2012, Besler reached new heights. As the heart of the league's stingiest defense, he was named MLS Defender of the Year and landed MLS Best XI honors alongside teammates Zusi, Jimmy Nielsen and Aurelien Collin. The campaign also delivered Kansas City their first major championship in eight years as Sporting knocked off the Seattle Sounders in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Final at a jam-packed Children's Mercy Park.
Riding a palpable wave of momentum, Besler and Sporting went a step further in 2013, which proved to be a defining year in Besler's career.
Over the course of 12 eventful months, Besler broke into the United States Men's National Team alongside Zusi, helped the U.S. qualify for the 2014 FIFA World Cup, led the Americans to the Concacaf Gold Cup title, earned MLS All-Star and MLS Best XI accolades, assumed a leading role in the defining chapter of Sporting's history—an epic penalty shootout win over Real Salt Lake in the 2013 MLS Cup at Children's Mercy Park—and married his wife Amanda.
A lynchpin for the MLS Cup champions and an emerging stalwart for the national team, Besler had become the face of an organization that had embarked on a meteoric rise in every sense—climbing from the bottom of the standings to the top, moving from a minor league baseball venue to a world-class soccer stadium, languishing in ticket sales to playing in front of raucous sellout crowds.
The momentous highs of 2013 set the stage for 2014, when Besler and Zusi joined the U.S. for the FIFA World Cup in Brazil. During an unforgettable month that summer, the duo helped the Americans emerge from a daunting group that included Portugal, Ghana and eventual world champion Germany.
Besler started all four matches for the U.S. in the tournament, including a wild 2-1 win over Ghana that saw Zusi tally a game-winning assist to John Brooks. One of the most iconic images of Besler shows the defender towering over world superstar Cristiano Ronaldo in a thrilling group stage encounter that ended all square at 2-2.
The World Cup journey was one of tremendous emotion and excitement for Besler and Zusi, who returned to Kansas City in July and promptly signed new, long-term contracts with Sporting Kansas City.
Just as their legends grew on the field, Besler and his teammates remained steadfast in their service to the Kansas City community. Among his many acts of philanthropy, Besler supported patients at Children's Mercy Hospital, athletes at Special Olympics Kansas City and aspiring youth players at countless camps and clinics. He also donated time to Braden's Hope for Childhood Cancer to raise awareness and funds for pediatric cancer research, recognized outstanding teachers across the metro through the Blue KC Sporting Samaritans program, and took an active stand against bullying through Red Card KC.
The third of Besler's four major trophies with Sporting was secured on Sept. 30, 2015, when the club traveled to face the Philadelphia Union and prevailed on penalty kicks following a 1-1 stalemate.
The following year, Besler experienced one of the most memorable days of his life. On Sept. 2, 2016, he scored his first goal for the U.S. national team in a runaway victory over Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. That same day he became a father, as his daughter Parker Rhea entered the world.
The stars aligned once more for Besler in 2017. In the space of a few months, he and Zusi were crowned Gold Cup champions with the U.S. MNT before claiming yet another U.S. Open Cup title with a 2-1 triumph over the New York Red Bulls at Children's Mercy Park.
The 2017 Open Cup title gave Sporting a fourth major championship in six seasons, cementing their status as one of Major League Soccer's top-tier clubs and one of the best teams of the era.
By this time, painting the wall in the northwest corner of Children's Mercy Park had become a celebrated tradition and a regular occurrence. His wall-painting salute following the 2017 Open Cup Final will be forever sketched in club folklore.
In 2018, Besler became Sporting's all-time leader in appearances, starts and minutes played as Manager Peter Vermes' men enjoyed a phenomenal regular season en route to first place in the Western Conference.
With each passing season, new traditions were born at Children's Mercy Park. By the start of 2020, Besler's final season with Sporting, post-match beer chugs in front of the Cauldron supporters had become a trademark staple, underscoring the captain's affinity for and connection to the fans.
Besler played his final match in a Kansas City uniform on Sept. 23, 2020, at Children's Mercy Park. The defender would miss the rest of the season through injury, but his contributions proved valuable for a side that finished atop the Western Conference regular season standings for the second time in three years.
Besler spent his final MLS season with 2021 expansion side Austin FC, where he started in all 20 appearances. His reunions at Children's Mercy Park when Austin visited Sporting in May and June won't soon be forgotten.
Besler retires from professional soccer as a Sporting Kansas City legend, a community leader and a hometown hero.
A consummate professional on the field, a selfless teammate in the locker room and an icon for the Kansas City region, he has left a legacy that will last forever.