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Once an unexpected addition, Besler now a mainstay for U.S. defense

Photo: Andy Mead/Icon SMI

Matt Besler (right) had a breakout performance during a March World Cup qualifier in Mexico City.

ARLINGTON, Texas -- U.S. national team center back Matt Besler has a regular pre-game routine, one that he uses whether he's making his first start for the U.S. World Cup qualifying squad at Estadio Azteca against Mexico or whether he's taking the field for Kansas City as the reigning MLS Defender of the Year.

A few moments before the kickoff whistle, Besler takes a deep breath, relaxes and tells himself: It's just another game. It's just another game.

"Because it really is," says the 26-year-old Besler (pronounced BEES-ler, with a soft S). "No matter how big the stakes are or how much pressure you're feeling, you've done this before. It's a soccer game. This is what you do. I've played 130 professional soccer games, and this is just another one. It really does help me relax and give me confidence."

Besler will go through his routine again at Cowboys Stadium here on Wednesday when the U.S. meets Honduras in the CONCACAF Gold Cup semifinals (7 p.m. ET, Fox Soccer, Unimas, Univision Deportes). This time he'll almost certainly be paired with Omar González, his U.S. first-string central partner who has joined the squad for the game.

Besler is on track to start for the U.S. at next year's World Cup in Brazil, the result of a rise that few people would have expected at the start of this year. Even when Besler won the MLS Defender of the Year award (he was my choice from the league's stingiest defense), several MLS observers argued that he wasn't the most deserving winner. And when Besler made his first national team start in a 0-0 B-squad friendly against Canada in January, he didn't seem like an obvious choice to start for the U.S. in important World Cup qualifiers.

But then Besler got his chance in the most pressure-packed of environments. On the day before the U.S.'s qualifier against Mexico at the Azteca in March, center back Clarence Goodson pulled himself out of practice with a hamstring issue. "Start preparing yourself," U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann told Besler. "If Clarence can't go, we'll put you in." Goodson felt no better the next morning, and at the team's 11 a.m. meeting Besler learned he'd be starting in the cauldron of the Azteca against the U.S.'s archrival.

It's just another game. It's just another game.

"I had nine hours to sit there and think about the game and all the things that could go wrong," Besler says. "But to be honest, I just tried not to think about it. That's a challenge. To have that much time, all these thoughts can go through your mind. But I didn't worry about it. I was excited to get a chance. It's a big game, and I'll do my best and have fun with it."

It was the kind of big-game performance that can change careers. Taking advantage of their work together in the January camp, Besler and González barely put a foot wrong and helped the U.S. claim a historic point in the Azteca while keeping a clean sheet in the 0-0 tie. In the locker room afterward, Klinsmann came up to Besler and said: "I don't have to tell you this because you already know, but you did a great job out there tonight. We all knew you were capable of it, so well done."

Besler and González have started every World Cup qualifier since, all three of them victories.

Meanwhile, Besler's Kansas City is back in a familiar spot atop the MLS Eastern Conference. Born and bred in Overland Park, Kan., Besler is part of a soccer renaissance that has turned Kansas City from an MLS dead zone just five years ago into a place where sparkling new Sporting Park is always raucous and sold-out on Saturday nights.

"It really is amazing, but it's awesome at the same time," says Besler, a Notre Dame product. "It's something that's hard to explain for someone who wasn't there to see the transformation. For me growing up there, it just makes me proud that we have something special, because that's what it is. The stadium on a game night is a special place to be."

The way things are going, Besler will be just one of many Kansas City products to put on the K.C. jersey, playing a role like Frank White did as a homegrown baseball star who became a cornerstone of the Royals' World Series title in 1985. Even now, Besler lines up for Kansas City next to left back Seth Sinovic, another Kansas City product who first became his teammate when they were in the first grade together.

Kansas City's CEO, Robb Heineman, wants his academy to produce even more homegrown players for Sporting's senior team, and the team is investing heavily to make it happen. "I know some people might look at that and say there's no way you can do that, but I believe you can," says Besler. "I'm just like Robb. I'm trying to prove it, I know Seth's trying to prove it. Kevin Ellis, Jon Kempin, the academy players. We all have a pride for the city. We're all from Kansas City and grew up in Kansas."

Who would have thought it? Kansas City has turned into a pro soccer hotbed. And the Kansas Citian leading the way is writing his own unexpected storyline with the U.S. national team. If all goes well for Besler and his teammates, they'll be raising the Gold Cup trophy on Sunday in Chicago. "I'm excited to be here, because I think we have a really good shot of winning this tournament," Besler says. "This is my first [U.S.] tournament, so I'm hoping I can help the team win it."

STRAUS: NYCFC's home stadium in a state of flux

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