Matt Besler doesn’t think of himself as simply a soccer player.
Regardless of how many professional seasons he plays or how many U.S. Men’s National Team appearances he makes, he’ll always still consider himself a Kansas soccer player first and foremost.
“I still do,” Besler said leading up to the 2016 Copa America Centenario. “I think it’s tried to go away, but it’ll never go away. I haven’t let it. Like I said, I embrace it and I enjoy representing Kansas and Kansas City.”
That pride of being from Kansas has stretched from Besler’s early days of playing soccer to his current professional career with Sporting Kansas City in MLS. He was born in Kansas City and was introduced to the game like a lot of kids in the Kansas City area at an early age. His father was even his first coach.
As Besler developed as a player and became a standout, he began to notice that respect for himself and his club teammates wasn’t coming easy. Other club teams seemed to act as if Kansas players were inferior.
“I think growing up as I got older I would go to out of town tournaments with my club team and people wouldn’t know who we are or who we were,” Besler said. “People would overlook us because we’re a team from Kansas or a team from Kansas City and then we’d end up beating them. That was always a great feeling when teams overlooked you.
“I actually experienced the same thing on a personal level once I started playing ODP. I would go to regional camps with kids from all around the Midwest, and I’d truly felt overlooked because I was from Kansas. And I carried a big chip on my shoulder and I felt like I was representing my state and my city even then, even when I was 13, 14 years old, because I was going up against kids from St. Louis and from Chicago and from Michigan. … For me, I just felt like I had a tougher road and I had to do more to get noticed because of the fact I was from Kansas.”
It’s those past experiences that make Besler especially proud to see how far Kansas has come. He has witnessed Kanas go from being an overlooked part of the country in the soccer landscape to where it is now as one that consistently produces talented players, is home to an MLS team and its U.S. National Team fandom has been well documented.
“Now I think it’s changed,” Besler said. “Now I think everybody from a national level respects Kansas City and knows there’s a ton of good players and a ton of passion for the game. I think we’ve always had loyal fans. I think Kansas City has always been a huge sports town to its own people. We haven’t been in the national spotlight. Now people from around the country are finally seeing it, and I think soccer is a big reason why.”
Soccer has always been a major sport in Kansas since Besler’s childhood days. He can remember nearly all of his friends growing up playing it. What has changed is the level of coaching the Kansas kids receive now. It’s sparked the development of the area.
“I think that’s one of the biggest differences is just the knowledge that people have for the game,” Besler said. “Nothing against coaches that I had because I had some really, really good coaches. My first coach was my dad, never played soccer in his life. He was the example of the guy who just wanted to be around his kids and he probably read the idiots guide to soccer coach book. Nothing against him, he was doing what he knew. He just didn’t know about the game.
“Now I feel like because there’s a full generation of people who have grown up with the game, like I said I feel like my generation was the first generation where it was normal to play soccer. Every kid that I grew up with, 90 percent of them probably played soccer at one point of their life, so they all know the rules, they all know the positions, the strategies. So now as we get older and we are starting families, we are passing the game down to our kids. There’s just so many more options and avenues, opportunities for kids these days, which is great.”
Those same kids can now dream to play professional soccer in Kansas, too. Besler fantasized of his own pro soccer days. He just never imagined it could be in his hometown.
“I’ve told this to a couple different people, but I always did dream of playing professional soccer, but I never really got far enough to envision what it would be like to play in Kansas City and to play in front of 20,000 people every week,” Besler said. “But now I think that’s different. Now I think that kids come to Children’s Mercy Park where we play, and they can actually see what it’s like. They’re creating memories in that stadium, and the can picture themselves growing up and playing for their hometown team. I think that’s really, really big for the growth of the game.
“I think it’s a big honor to represent my hometown each week. It’s something I take a lot of responsibility and pride in doing. But I also put a lot of pressure on myself because of that to succeed. So sometimes I have to take a step back from everything, take a deep breath and realize that I’m lucky to be in this position, I am. I’m one of the few players that gets to play professionally in his hometown.”
Playing for his hometown means he gets to be around his hometown. In 2010, that allowed him to experience something in Kansas City that he’ll ever forget.
Besler and some of his teammates went to the Power and Light District in Kansas City to watch the U.S. play Ghana in the World Cup. Besler wasn’t sure what sort of crowd to expect. When he arrived, he was surprised he could barely find a parking spot. Shortly later, he was even more surprised when an estimated 12,000 people had also shown up to watch the game.
“I think that was a big turning point as well because of a lot of talk is about Sporting Kansas City, but I think Kansas City has been one of the best cities that supports the U.S. National Team,” Besler said. “I think 2010 was a big turning point.
“The atmosphere was just crazy. I was there that day along with a lot of my other teammates. I know Graham Zusi was there as well. But you could just feel a buzz as soon as you walked into the place. Obviously it helped how dramatic the game was, but when Landon [Donovan] scored that goal the place went nuts. I still get chills thinking about it.“It was just a unique feeling that day. It was in the public area, but it was like we were all watching it together like in our living room like one big family. I think everyone that was there that day we all felt a connection to each other and to soccer and to our country and to our city. On the national broadcast, they kept zooming in, they kept going to those feeds and showing Kansas City live. So, I don’t know, that just pumps people up. We were on the national spotlight or the national stage that day and that felt good to people. Because of that, I think that’s kind of where some of it started as well – the support.”