It didn’t take long for Kyle Beckerman to find the silver lining to a series of events which, at the time, felt like they could signal the beginning of the end of American professional soccer.
It was the winter of 2001-02. He was 19 years old and had been happy making all of $24,000 as a reserve midfielder for the Miami Fusion.
“To me, I was rich,” Beckerman recalled. “I thought it was great. I didn’t really think of it the way we look at it now, with the minimum [salary] and where it is now. I didn’t really think of it as low. This was just the start. I got to play soccer for a job, so I was happy as could be.”
But Miami owner Ken Horowitz wasn’t as rich as a pro sports owner probably should be. And neither was MLS. Floundering at the end of its sixth season, the league took the desperate decision to fold two clubs in a bid to cut costs and survive. The Fusion were loaded with talent and had won the 2001 Supporters' Shield. But that wasn’t enough to escape the axe.
Beckerman took refuge with the U.S. U-23 national team, and he was in camp when he learned he’d been chosen by the Colorado Rapids with the 11th pick in the January 2002 dispersal draft. He’d been born and raised in the Maryland suburbs—roughly equidistant from Washington, D.C., and Baltimore—and he finished high school in Bradenton, Fla. before signing with the Fusion. Colorado was a world away.
But the Rapids’ Seth Trembly was standing right there. Beckerman and Trembly, a Colorado native, had become good friends back in Bradenton. The foreign immediately became familiar.
“Seth was still living at home and when I found out I got picked by Colorado, I turned to him and said, ‘Hey! We’re roommates now!’” Beckerman told SI.com. “I moved in with his family for about three months until I found a place up in Boulder. The draft was a blessing in disguise. With the Miami team so stacked, I wasn’t getting playing time and I kind of needed a new start.”
This was the narrative during the early days of MLS: conservation, contraction and cohabitation. Victory was survival. Comparing that league to the one kicking off its 25th season this weekend—the one with 26 clubs (soon to be 30), million-dollar salaries and Chicharito—feels like comparing cyber warfare to trench warfare. And when Beckerman’s 2020 season begins (he left Saturday’s preseason loss to Phoenix Rising with an injury), he’ll be the last person to have fought in both.
The league’s historic 25th campaign will be Beckerman’s historic 21st. He’s appeared in more matches than any outfield player in MLS annals–and he broke that record more than four years ago. He’s won an MLS Cup and a Gold Cup, played in the World Cup, became an icon in Salt Lake City and developed a unique perspective on the growth of the American game. Beckerman’s eventual success, and that of the league’s, are connected. They were fueled by patience, perseverance, flexibility, and perhaps most importantly, an instinct to plant deep roots in more modest soil.
“I’ve really just always tried to adapt,” Beckerman said. “When I was down in South Florida, I loved it down there. When I was there, I thought I’d be there forever. When I got to Colorado, I thought I’d be there forever. Wherever I went, I just tried to adapt, look at the positives and look at what the place has to offer.”
And so it came to be in his final stop, Salt Lake City. The Rapids traded Beckerman to their Rocky Mountain rivals in the summer of 2007. At that time, Real Salt Lake was a bad team in an unsexy soccer city. Beckerman was surprised he was dealt, but looked quickly for something to hold on to.
“I knew when I saw [coach] Jason [Kreis] in practice, just what we were doing, you knew it was going to be something different,” Beckerman said. “I met [then-owner Dave] Checketts the first day I came to Salt Lake. I met [Rapids owner Stan] Kroenke maybe once in the time I was there. That’s really cool. I thought, ‘Checketts really cares. He’s coming to the games. He shook my hand.’ Everything was there for us to be a winner and be a soccer state and a soccer city.”
Two years later, Beckerman was a star and a champion, as he and RSL proved what a powerful asset a smaller soccer city could be.
“In Colorado, people knew who we were outside the stadium, but outside that nobody knew,” he said (and Denver isn’t even a top-15 market). “When I went to Salt Lake, sometimes people knew us in the grocery store, walking around town. It was this little bubble that had this love for soccer that I had no idea was there. Once I saw that, and the training and organization and ownership was all in, it was like this blank canvas that’s ready. All we have to do is give them a winning product. … If we can go put in work and turn this team into a winner, we have everything we want in a soccer town.”
What followed wasn’t a championship dynasty, but it was a soccer dynasty. From 2009 through 2014, give or take, Kreis (through ’13) and GM Garth Lagerwey presided over a squad that played some of the most stylish, identifiable, consistent and effective soccer ever seen in this country. RSL reached at least 53 points in five consecutive seasons, played in four major finals, nearly won the Concacaf Champions League and proved definitively that an American team could play intelligent, possession soccer and win. And they accomplished this without big-name, multi-million dollar Designated Players in one of the league’s smallest cities.
Beckerman sacrificed his attacking instincts to play at the base of Kreis’s diamond midfield. An easy-going, affable guy off the pitch, Beckerman was voracious on it. He’s called that between-the-lines persona his “twin brother.” It separated him from many peers, caught the eye of a few referees and catapulted him to the World Cup. Beckerman was the dreadlocked heartbeat of the RSL machine.
“He’s an animal when it comes to competing. He’s an absolute unit—even in practice,” said former teammate and current RSL broadcaster Brian Dunseth. “There’s a reason why each and every game it’s impossible to leave him out of the starting 11. I’ve never seen another player have his type of training habits throughout the course of an entire career. He’s never lost it. He literally sets the tone every day.”
In Salt Lake City, Beckerman and his twin found equilibrium. The mountains and small-city ethos appealed to him personally, and Kreis’s “Team is the Star,” us-against-the-world approach brought the best out of him professionally. RSL was a success. That percolating soccer interest Beckerman had noticed was bubbling to the surface, a stadium was built and there was room to grow with the NBA the only other major league game in town.
MLS was changing. David Beckham arrived in 2007. He was joined by the likes Cuauhtémoc Blanco, Guillermo Barros Schelotto, David Ferreira, Juan Pablo Ángel and Thierry Henry. When RSL was defending its title in 2010, the league had 16 clubs. This was a significant leap, and the days of contraction and $10 million expansion fees (paid by RSL and Chivas USA) receded quickly. Inevitably, club identities crystallized. There were big and small markets, big and small wallets, and playing styles and approaches to development that followed.
“Do I think we could sign the big names if we had the chance to do that? For sure we did. But I also like that you can compete without that. We showed you can still be successful with a good team without big names,” Beckerman said. “It was really a lot of fun to build with those guys we had there. Everyone bought into a system together, and we really knew we needed to be together if we were going to be at the top with the class of the league.”
A winning culture developed, and as Beckerman pointed out, a lack of massive, headline-generating signings offered opportunities to homegrown talent that can be harder to come by at “bigger” clubs. RSL’s academy now is one of the most productive in the country. Roots mean even more when that soil starts to produce new fruit. Beckerman has been there for all of it, and he never really thought about leaving. Heading to Europe, or even back home to Washington, never really appealed as much as continuing to build on the foundation in northern Utah. He met his wife, had a son and embraced being a Salt Laker. He’s been RSL’s Humanitarian of the Year for two seasons running.
“This is neat, being a pioneer,” he said. And in MLS, even now, and even in national market No. 30, if you do things right, you’ve got a chance to win.
Any chronicle of MLS’s achievements over the past quarter century, and certainly in the last 10 years, will be anchored by the dollars spent on big names: Vela, Villa, Zlatan, Rooney, etc. Those are major league players, and they add cachet and gravitas to MLS’s pursuit of popularity and legitimacy. But the competition, the week-in, week-out narrative, has to be about more than those big names and their big clubs. And it’s “easier to entice a big name player to come to L.A. than to come to Salt Lake,” Beckerman said.
So what do those smaller clubs do? They build an identity, forge connections and plant roots. Think of the success of teams from markets outside the top 10, and think about how much they’ve contributed to MLS history. The league’s story is as much theirs as it is L.A.’s, D.C.’s, Atlanta’s or New York’s. Seattle (market No. 13) wrecked attendance records, set a new standard for stadium atmosphere and won a bunch of trophies. Portland (No. 22) and Kansas City (No. 32) accomplished similar feats, on a relative scale. Pro soccer in the Twin Cities (No. 15) endured for nearly three decades before ‘Wonderwall’ became its soundtrack, while dedicated fan bases in Orlando (No. 18), Sacramento (No. 20), Columbus (No. 34), and Cincinnati (No. 37), created movements that forced MLS to pay heed.
MLS is a poorer league without them, and in many ways, RSL paved the way in demonstrating the power of a small-market club. Beckerman takes immense pride in being a part of it.
“Not a lot of people knew where Utah was, or where Salt Lake City was, but you know when you saw that RSL crest that we were going to play in the diamond and we were going to play a certain way. That was pretty cool,” he said.
Said Dunseth, who hails from Southern California but also has settled in Utah, “There’s a level of domestic growth that depends on the shiny new objects and the overall spending on international players. But I still think, even in 2020, Kyle really represents kind of the sanctity and purity of a league that he saw grow up in real time. It was in diapers and training wheels and holding on for dear life with contraction, and now is celebrating expansion and legitimacy.”
Beckerman signed a one-year contract in January and said he has no plans beyond this season. He’ll take each crossroads as it comes, and he hasn’t figured out what he wants to do once he quits playing. When that happens, he’ll be the last of the contracted to step away. He’ll have bridged both Miami teams (“I always thought soccer could make it there,” he said), and will have established himself as a central figure in MLS history by thinking both big and small.
“I would say from the beginning, it was always like we’re building something and trying to make soccer important and always trying to build the game and build awareness,” he said. “And we can do that by showing people who come out, maybe for the first time, that we’re good people and that we’re accessible. Maybe they’ll come back.”