MEXICO CITY -- DaMarcus Beasley's jaw was still numb on Saturday night when I sat down with him at the U.S. national team hotel in Denver. He'd just returned from the dentist, where Beasley's broken tooth had been repaired after he'd collided headfirst with teammate Omar González early in Friday's epic SnowClásico victory against Costa Rica.
"I was spitting pieces of my tooth out on the field," said Beasley, who nevertheless recovered to put up a Man of the Match performance in the unaccustomed position of left back. It was the first time Beasley had started for the U.S. in three years, and with no lingering effects from the collision (i.e., no concussion symptoms) Beasley is a good bet to start at left back again here when the U.S. meets archrival Mexico in Tuesday's superheated World Cup qualifier (10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN, Univision).
If Beasley does start at left back again, he'll face a tough defensive task: Slowing down Mexico's Javier Aquino, the 22-year-old right winger from Villarreal who's one of several fast, mobile attackers in the Mexican arsenal. But just as Beasley the midfielder showed after only needing a 10-second conversation with coach Jurgen Klinsmann to tell him he was fine playing left back, he carries a confidence borne of experience at the highest levels of the game: 98 international caps, three World Cups and the most UEFA Champions League games ever for a U.S. national team player (22).
"My confidence in myself has never changed," said Beasley. "Whether Jurgen sees me as a fit in his system, that's another story. But I think I can still play at this level, whether it's at left back, left midfielder or wherever he sees fit. I can still give something to the national team."
More than 10 years have passed since Beasley and Landon Donovan burst onto the global scene at World Cup 2002 as 20-year-old starters for a U.S. team that reached the quarterfinals and handed Mexico its most bitter defeat (a 2-0 Round of 16 elimination win). Now 30 and playing in Mexico for Puebla, Beasley looks older?he started shaving his head four years ago to stave off Mother Nature?but he can still close his eyes and see a 2002 version of himself jitterbugging past hapless Portuguese defenders in America's classic 3-2 World Cup upset.
"I see a raw, talented, no-fear kind of kid," said Beasley. "That was our motto, Landon and I. We had no fear. We were 20 and playing a game we love, and we did a lot of the same things together."
Yet Beasley would do things that Donovan never did in the Champions League. He started a Champions League semifinal at 22 years old in 2005 for Guus Hiddink's PSV against AC Milan. PSV ended up missing the final on the away-goals tiebreaker (after a 3-3 battle royale), and even though Beasley wouldn't scale those Champions League heights again he did play in the tournament in later years for Scotland's Rangers.
Beasley's European career lasted seven seasons at PSV, Manchester City, Rangers and Hannover, seasons in which injuries often played a significant role in limiting his playing time. The question is worth asking: As someone who won titles in the Netherlands and Scotland and played in more Champions League games (by far) than any other American, is he happy with his European career?
Beasley paused for a second to think. "I'm happy with it, but it could have been better," he said finally. "Injuries when I was at Rangers held that up a lot. Rangers is a big club, and once you're injured, trying to get back into the team was difficult ... I know I could have done better, given not so much more time but better opportunities. It just didn't happen. But I'm very grateful for the time I spent in Europe, you know, aside from Germany (laughs). Other than that, I'm happy with it: The players I played with, the experiences I had, all that stuff. I'd say it was good, it wasn't great. It wasn't unbelievable, it wasn't bad. It was a good eight years."
In hindsight, Beasley thinks he could have done more work in the gym and elsewhere to prevent the series of injures he suffered in Europe. "What I know now, I wish I'd known when I was 22," he said, and your heart sinks a little hearing that, wondering what could have been. But Beasley is still only 30. He eats better. He no longer takes three weeks off from training in the offseason. He's always in the gym, running or working on his core. He credits his former Rangers teammate David Weir for introducing him to increased professionalism and injury prevention, and the program has worked. Beasley has only missed two games in two seasons at Puebla.
The U.S. was in dire need for help at left back with a rash of injuries, but Beasley earned his call-up with solid play at Puebla. He likes playing in Mexico, where he can earn more than in MLS, still be close to his offseason home in Miami and enjoy a league-wide playing style that fits his game.
"If you like football and the ball being on the ground, with good quick touches, this is a league you want to watch," he said. "It's a fun league to play in. The Mexicans keep the ball very well. They get angry with you if you lose the ball. That's the kind of football I wanted to go to. My dream was always to play in Spain one day. That never happened, but I'm glad I got the chance to play in a Latin country where it suits my game better."
Tuesday at the Azteca presents Beasley with another chance to turn back the clock. For starters, he could earn his 99th cap, taking him one step closer to the 100 mark. "I won't lie, it is important," he said. "It's in the back of my mind. At the same time, I don't want to just get to 100 and stop."
And even more importantly, Tuesday gives Beasley and the U.S. the chance for another historic victory. He was on the field last August when the U.S. beat Mexico on Mexican soil for the first time in history. But that was a friendly. This is a World Cup qualifier. "It's a huge game," Beasley said. "Huge. The stadium is going to be full of 110,000 fans, and it'll be a great opportunity to show we can go to Mexico and win down there again and again. It's not a friendly. If we beat them on Tuesday like we beat them in the World Cup, they can't say nothin'."
Beasley smiled. His jaw may be numb, but don't let that fool you. He's still got plenty of feeling. Azteca awaits.