Legend in the Making: Players and coaches reflect on Matt Besler’s record-setting career with Sporting KC

Sporting Kansas City captain Matt Besler made history on Saturday night in Portland, setting an all-time record with his 241st regular season appearance for the club.

In recognition of this momentous milestone, SportingKC.com gathered separate remarks from Manager Peter Vermes, assistant coach Kerry Zavagnin and a quartet of Besler’s past and present teammates. This successful crop includes former stars Davy Arnaud and Jimmy Conrad as well as Roger Espinoza and Graham Zusi, all of whom join Zavagnin among the club’s top 10 players in regular season appearances.

In the space below, these Kansas City greats reflect on Besler’s trophy-laden career, his development as a player, his instrumental role in the locker room and his unwavering commitment to the club and Kansas City.

The Early Days

VERMES: I had seen Matt play in Kansas City as a youngster when he was in high school playing club soccer, and I obviously watched him when he went to Notre Dame as well. I always saw him as a left-footed central defender rather than a left back. And I do think that he had kind of an advantage, because it’s very hard to find left-footed central defenders.

ZAVAGNIN: When we took over the team and Peter became the manager in 2009, we had a set of individual meetings with each player to size up where they fit within the puzzle we were trying to create. Matt was the only player who came in with a notepad and a list of goals that he wanted to accomplish. That set him apart from the rest of the group immediately.

ARNAUD: You could see from the beginning that he was an intelligent player. He read the game very well, and he’s always had a great soccer mind. But he was a pretty quiet and kind of unassuming kid when he came in. He just went about his business very professionally.

CONRAD: Something that stuck out right away was Matt’s willingness to do what was asked — and I say this more about what happened off the field. If you’re doing a commercial for the Wizards at the time, or if we’re asking you as older guys to do skits, how you respond to that says something about you. And I remember Matt in particular, because he was so soft-spoken and unheralded, you were a little bit surprised by his commitment to putting on a good skit. I feel like that was a sign of things to come.

ZUSI: My first offseason [going into 2010], I can admit that I didn’t use it to better myself as a player. I took the time off. But after that year, Matt and I got together and we used the next offseason [going into 2011] to really push ourselves to get better and try to reach that next level. We’ve done that every year since then, so Matt has played a big part in helping me improve and push my limits.

Team First

VERMES: What I’ve always commended Matt about is that he is a consummate professional. When you break that down, it’s a few specific things. One is he takes care of himself. You never have to worry about if he’s fit at the beginning of the season. He’s very conscientious about the physical aspect of the game. He takes care of his nutritional needs as well—he’s one of those guys who is very mindful in that area. The other thing is that one of our core values in our organization is the team is always first. And Matt is a selfless guy.

ZUSI: Matt has always had a club-first mentality. For him it’s all about doing whatever he can to help the team win games. I think that’s part of the reason why he’s broken this record. He’s been unbelievably consistent and kept his game at a high level for so many years now. It’s just impossible to keep him out of the lineup.

ZAVAGNIN: He’s a guy who has always been selfless in his role and his leadership within the organization. Quite frankly, he’s helped create this culture of excellence that we’ve had over the last decade.

ESPINOZA: Matt represents what this club and its culture is all about. He’s a hard-working player who is great to his teammates outside the locker room and represents the club really well everywhere he goes. He’s a great role model for the club, and you can see all the stuff he’s done with charities and helping the organization as a leading voice that not everyone else has.

For Club and Country

ZUSI: The thought of playing for the national team was a dream for both of us—not even doing it together, but for either of us to do it. It’s wild that it came to fruition, because we couldn’t have even imagined it when we began our pro careers together.

VERMES: Three or four years into Matt’s career, I knew what was out there in the marketplace of defenders who were available to compete for a position on the U.S. national team. And I thought that he had a very good chance because I saw the players they were bringing in. I had been working with him closely on a daily basis, and I had a pretty good idea of what he could do.

CONRAD: I saw Matt make a big jump with his first call-up in 2013. And that was the same time I made a big jump after my first call-up several years earlier. Because now you know that people are recognizing what you’re capable of, as opposed to it feeling very localized. Now you’re feeling like you’re on the map. And that gives you this certain swagger and confidence that you can’t replicate.

VERMES: He came into the national team during a transitional period, and when he stepped in against Mexico (in March 2013), the pairing between him and Omar Gonzalez could not have been any better, because they complement each other. I remember them shutting out Mexico in [Estadio] Azteca, and I think that really helped both players going forward.

ZUSI: The one game that I think of first and foremost is the game against Portugal in the 2014 World Cup. I think Matt was probably the best player on the field in that game. You could tell he was just so locked in to getting the job done. A lot of times he was matched up with arguably the best player in the world [Cristiano Ronaldo] and virtually shut him down.

ARNAUD: There was a big moment after that 2014 World Cup where Matt could have had options to go elsewhere in Europe. But with him being from Kansas City, he’s extremely proud to play for that club and represent where he’s grown up. Him making the commitment to the team to stay there and grow with the club was a major moment for him.

Strengths of a Center Back

VERMES: He’s more of a cerebral guy than he is the destroyer back there. I also think he’s probably one of the best central defenders in the league with the ball at his feet, which gives you an added benefit coming out of the back.

ZAVAGNIN: Technically he’s above the curve when it comes to being able to play with the ball. And he’s left-footed, which makes him a valuable commodity.

ARNAUD: He’s a left-footed center back, which is hard to come by sometimes. He’s very comfortable with the ball at his feet, he can hit the long diagonal ball, he can play short, he can drive and carry the ball in the midfield and he’s comfortable bringing others into play. Without the ball, he reads the game extremely well. And I don’t think people give him enough credit for being as athletic as he is. He’s extremely athletic and powerful.

ZAVAGNIN: He’s had a few partners in his days here at the center back position, and he’s always been the conscious of those players around him. And it’s no surprise that Ike Opara was named MLS Defender of the Year in 2017. Aurelien Collin had a few Best XI seasons as well, so it’s always his partner who is getting as much credit as he is. That’s a good sign, and something that makes Matt really good in that he makes the players around him better.

ESPINOZA: I know that if I go and pressure this guy on the left side, and I know that if I miss a tackle, Matt will be behind me. Matt doesn’t have a guy behind him, so he has to be very smart about when to go and when not to go. He always has that leadership to communicate with guys and tell them what to do. It’s hard to miss that in a game, and the biggest reason Sporting KC has been successful is the backline. And the backline starts with Matt.

Overcoming Obstacles

VERMES: He’s had some rocky situations with me. There were times when I had him sit on the bench. He’s always handled those situations really well, and that goes along with being a professional guy. He’s grown in those situations, and I have too as a coach.

ZAVAGNIN: He’s had his challenges along the way, obviously being benched in 2016, and not for the fact that he wasn’t contributing. It was because there was so much more in him that he could give to the team and to the club. With that challenge, he responded. And Matt has responded to all challenges that have come his way.

ESPINOZA: One game I remember well was when Matt was going through a tough moment in his career two years ago. He had a small injury and he wasn’t playing as well has he had been. We were tied at home against Columbus, and Matt came into the game in the second half. And this says a lot about Matt, because this particular part of the season wasn’t going well for him or the team. But he was very professional about the whole situation, and he stayed very positive. All he wanted, even when he was on the bench for a few games, was for the team to win. He came into that game and he scored the game-winner against Columbus in stoppage time. That says a lot about him and really sticks out.

A Leader Emerges

ZAVAGNIN: Matt and a few others have four championships here, and a few have experienced a World Cup. There’s a lot on paper that they’ve accomplished, but the fact that they come to work every day and are still chasing more, I think that’s the recipe to having longevity, sustainability and value within an organization over a long period of time. And that’s how you break these records.

CONRAD: Matt probably wears the captain’s armband a little more quietly than Davy and I did, however he was the first to write a book out of us three which is something else. He might be a little more vocal now and a little more confident in making jokes about me than he used to. But he’s more of a leader by example, and I think he’s one of the best examples Kansas City and MLS have ever had.

ZUSI: We came in as the only two rookies on the team in 2009, and for that reason we were kind of stuck with each other—although not in a bad way by any means. Every stepping stone we took as players, we pretty much did it together. I couldn’t have asked for a better teammate to take that ride with. It’s amazing that we’ve shared all of these memories—playing our first games for the club, getting our first call-ups to the national team, winning four championships here in Kansas City and going to a World Cup together. When I reflect on my career, I’m going to see Matt right there with me.

Class Act

VERMES: I’ve said this a lot of times—and I’m not sure whether he likes it—but if you have a daughter, he’s the guy you’d love for her to bring home and meet the family. He’s a class act in that regard, and first and foremost those are the people that you want to work with.

ZAVAGNIN: The staff says this all the time: Matt’s the kind of guy who you’d be OK having your daughter bring home.

ESPINOZA: He’s a good father and a good son. I see him with his parents and his brothers and his wife and daughter, so I know what family means to him. He’s also a very educated guy. That sets him apart from everyone else. When he was drafted to this club, he was the Kansas City guy. He was the all-American guy. I’ve got no dirt on Matt, and I’ve been around him a lot. He doesn’t try to be that perfect guy; that’s just how he is.

ZUSI: I don’t have much dirt on Matt because he’s pretty squeaky clean. A lot of guys look to him as an ideal example of how to conduct yourself as a teammate and a professional. He’s just the guy you want to follow into battle every weekend.

CONRAD: Matt could be in the running — and I don’t want to give him the award just yet, because there are a lot of special people out there — but he would have to be considered as your Midwest representative for one of the perfect male beings that live on this earth. He’d be in the running, for sure.

ZAVAGNIN: It’s a great storyline because Matt’s a local kid who has worked his way through the ranks, went away to school and then came back and is now the hometown hero and captain who has won multiple championships for the club. We’re proud not only of what he’s accomplished to date, but hopefully of what he will accomplish in the future, because I think Matt’s story is not yet finished.