When Matt Besler was handed his first World Cup Qualifying cap, it wasn’t here in Columbus or in the familiar confines of Kansas City. Instead, just a couple months after making his MNT debut in a no-frills friendly against Canada, Besler was thrust into the starting lineup for the USA’s visit in qualifying to vaunted Estadio Azteca in Mexico City on March 26, 2013.
“To be honest I was probably naïve,” Besler told ussoccer.com about that experience. “I didn’t know exactly what I was getting myself into.”
Starting next to him in central defense at the iconic Mexican venue was Omar Gonzalez. Having amassed five previous caps, the towering defender was only slightly more seasoned than his back line partner that night.
And while neither had previously experienced the intensity of the USA-Mexico rivalry, the duo proved a successful pair as the MNT earned a 0-0 draw and gained just its second World Cup Qualifying road point on Mexican soil.
“Not knowing about everything probably worked out in my favor in that time since it was my first real game with the team,” continued Besler. “Now I know the history, I know the rivalry and exactly what it takes. Any time you get to play Mexico, no matter what it’s a special night.”
Flash forward three years later, and both Besler and Gonzalez are wily veterans in the squad. Both part of the U.S. roster at the 2014 FIFA World Cup, they have a combined 70 caps and 18 World Cup Qualifying appearances between them. And with mainstay center back Geoff Cameron unavailable for Friday’s Mexico clash with a hyperextended knee, perhaps the most important aspect of the pair’s experience is their seven combined previous meetings with El Tri.
That familiarity with the USA’s closest rivals will serve them well should MNT head coach Jurgen Klinsmann call on either player Friday night. In the interim, the veteran defenders are working to make sure the younger players in camp understand the magnitude of the upcoming match.
“They need to realize just how big this game is,” said Gonzalez. “That’s we’re playing such a big rival, there’s so much history and Columbus has been such a big part of that history. It’s important from the moment you get here to take it seriously. This is big for us, big for our fan base and big for the future. A win here could put us on the right path for qualifying. They really need to think about what this game entails, what it means for us and to take it seriously and enjoy the moment.”
“I would say that every single play matters,” added Besler. “Whether it’s a throw in or a goal kick or corner kick, every single play matters. You have to be tuned in at all times and give everything you have at every second of the match.”
No matter who gets the call on Friday night, both players say they’re happy to be facing Mexico in Columbus, where the United States has been dominant for the last four World Cup cycles.
“Columbus has been great,” said Gonzalez. “I played in the last qualifier to qualify for Brazil and the fan base is amazing. Having a majority of U.S. fans fill up that stadium is incredible. This time around we’re going to have fans from all 50 states which is going to be incredible as well. It’s not the biggest stadium, but it’s intimate, it’s loud, and people are close to the pitch. I think Friday we’re looking forward to a raucous fan base and we’re ready to go.”
“Personally I’ve never gotten a chance to play for the National Team here in Columbus,” said Besler. “I’m looking forward to being part of the atmosphere.”