Kyle Beckerman's long journey to World Cup finally reaches Brazil
It has been 24 years since Kyle Beckerman planted himself in front of the television set in Maryland to watch the 1990 World Cup. When his mother, Meg, wasn't scanning to find the right channel for the games, 8-year-old Kyle was digging through the VCR tapes to watch the games he had already recorded.
And watched them and watched them. And then he watched them again. Throughout that summer, Beckerman studied those games in Italy, even memorizing the broadcaster's famous penalty-kick call in the World Cup final, when West Germany beat Argentina 1-0 in Rome.
Three weeks earlier, he watched and recorded the U.S. men's national team playing in its first World Cup tournament in 40 years. The Americans lost to powerhouse Italy 1-0 that day, but the claws of international soccer dug deep into the boy that summer, so deep that soon after, Beckerman began to envision himself playing in the World Cup for Team USA.
He'd head out the door and leave notes for Meg and his father, Paul, telling them that soccer beckoned and that he'd be back when soccer was over with. At the bottom, he signed his name and added the now-patented "USA, No. 15."
It was a belief Beckerman held within himself for decades. It was a belief that was sent through the wringer, too. Years before his fortuitous arrival in Salt Lake City, before he became the dreadlocked face of the franchise for once-lowly Real Salt Lake, before he was named to Jurgen Klinsmann's 23-man roster for the World Cup in Brazil, Beckerman was just another American soccer player out to prove the world wrong.
Ten years after that 1990 World Cup, Beckerman's rise as a talented American midfielder reached its first pinnacle when he signed with the now-defunct Miami Fusion of Major League Soccer. He was 18 and eager to morph into a futbol sponge.
"I remember a young man coming in super spry, full of energy who wanted to conquer the world in a day," said Colorado Rapids coach and former teammate Pablo Mastroeni. "No challenge was too big. That was his thing. He was always pulling me aside after practice asking, 'How do I get better?' "
Playing soccer at all hours
Soccer was always Beckerman's guarantee, mainly because he was named after a soccer player. Meg Beckerman liked the name Kyle because of Kyle Rote Jr., son of former NFL star Kyle Rote, who starred in the North American Soccer League as well as with the U.S. men's national team in the mid-1970s.
Along with his older brother Todd, the Beckerman boys became entrenched in soccer and wrestling. Four years younger than Todd, Kyle was always a tag-along, learning how to play up. The Beckermans had a small soccer field on one side of their house in Maryland, and Kyle wouldn't stop practicing juggling the ball, taking penalty kicks, finding new ways to hone his skills.
"He just really loved juggling," said Todd Beckerman, now the wrestling coach at Brown University. "Throughout all hours of the night, he was out there, just trying to beat his previous record."
But Beckerman's rise to prominence took time. He was part of the U.S. U-17 squad in 1999 that featured Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Oguchi Onyewu and several others who eventually became national team staples. That core group showed up on the world's stage and basically didn't budge. Beckerman played with a chip on his shoulder and simply tried to outwork his opponents. As the U.S. faced players from England and Italy, players who hailed from the academies of European giants Arsenal, Bayern Munich and Juventus, the Americans played in a fluid manner. And they beat England.
"We wanted to be a team," Beckerman said. "It wasn't about individual recognition. It wasn't about that. We didn't care who we were playing. We were out to prove ourselves to show these big-name countries that we can play and we can beat you."
But unlike Donovan or Beasley or Onyewu, Beckerman eventually faded out of the national team picture. He went from Miami to Colorado, where the Rapids, bitter rivals with RSL, struggled to find a place in the Denver market during his six seasons there.
"I didn't know what the future held," Beckerman said, "but I figured I'd be in Colorado for the rest of my career."
A break in Salt Lake
It usually takes a little luck to make a World Cup roster. Talent, drive and intangibles are obviously part of the curriculum, but as Colorado mate Mastroeni notes, there is also the matter of being in the right place at the right time.
"Kyle continued to believe in himself when many others didn't, which is difficult," Mastroeni said.
When the Rapids traded Beckerman to Real Salt Lake in July 2007, a professional slate filled with unfulfilled goals was wiped clean. It was, as Beckerman explains, the club's turn to write its story.
Soon after joining RSL, coach Jason Kreis and general manager Garth Lagerwey built a winner, brick by brick. Smack-dab in the middle of it was Beckerman. He soon become the team's captain and showed clubs around MLS his worth.
"One of the greatest things to happen to Kyle is going to Salt Lake," Mastroeni said. "He had a future in Colorado, and the trade startled everyone including himself. But he was able to grow into his own, acclimate himself to his new culture, new system, and when I'd talk to him he'd say, 'It's different, but I love the challenge.' It sounded like the same Kyle I'd spoken to for years."
Despite the club's success and his dominating play in the midfield, Beckerman's international career was pigeonholed to spot call-ups here and there under former coach Bob Bradley. He starred with the national team in the 2009 Gold Cup, but was largely considered just a notch below in what was a crowded midfield. The 2010 World Cup came and went. His good friend and teammate Robbie Findley got the U.S. team nod. Beckerman accepted that his World Cup fate was essentially sealed.
"That's where I thought, 'That's probably it,' " he said. "I figured that Bob was going to be the coach for a while, so I figured it's not going to happen for me."
Older brother Todd noticed the disappointment.
"That was the last shot," Todd Beckerman said. "We thought after that, we didn't know what to expect."
The hiring of Jurgen Klinsmann brought fresh eyes to the U.S. national team landscape. Beckerman was a prime beneficiary. His international career was suddenly on again.
"Really, it was like, I'd played 10 games with Bob, scored a goal and I was happy," he said. "Every game, I didn't take it for granted. I figured, you never know when you're not going to play another national team game, so in my head, I was telling myself, 'OK, if I'm going to play 10 games, then I'm OK with that, I did everything I possibly can.'
"So this â¦ is just house money," he added. "I didn't really think I was ever going to play again with the national team. I am now. â¦ So it's pretty cool."
'On the playing field that he deserves to be on'
The struggle for recognition is gone. Beckerman has won an MLS Cup championship, established himself as a star in the league, got married this offseason and now is going to the World Cup. But Beckerman says his approach to the game hasn't changed and won't change.
"Until I get on the plane that's going to Brazil, then it will hit me," he said before the U.S. team departed for South America. "Then it all starts over again. It'll be time to get focused."
Beyond just making the team and getting to Brazil, the RSL captain also could play a vital role in how the Americans handle the Group G gantlet of Ghana, Portugal and Germany. It remains uncertain that Beckerman will unseat midfield incumbent Jermaine Jones beside star Michael Bradley, but having impressed in recent outings particularly in last Sunday's friendly against Nigeria could give Klinsmann cause to spring a surprise. Whispers around the U.S. camp this past week say that Beckerman might even start Monday's opener against Ghana (4 p.m., ESPN).
"Jurgen has the utmost confidence [in Beckerman]. If Kyle's not starting in this opening whistle, he'll be ready if called upon," ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman said.
Mastroeni says he gets goose bumps on his arm just talking about seeing his old friend and protege making his World Cup debut. He has witnessed first-hand Beckerman's sacrifices and frustration and rejection over the years. The Rapids coach says it comes down to his old teammate's desire "to achieve greatness."
"That young man in Miami, now a man, is finally standing on the playing field that he deserves to be on," Mastroeni said.
As the shifting fates would have it, Beckerman will have No. 15 on his back in the opener against Ghana in Natal. In a recent Facebook message, a friend wrote Todd Beckerman that younger brother Kyle signed a yearbook years ago with a small hint. The message was: "Keep playing soccer. I'll be playing in the World Cup. Look for me there."
Twitter: @chriskamrani Straight outta
Crofton: Kyle Beckerman
Age • 32
Position • Midfielder
Hometown • Crofton, Maryland
Pro career • Real Salt Lake (2007-present), Colorado Rapids (2002-2007), Miami Fusion (2000-2001)
International career • Named to official 23-man U.S. roster for 2014 World Cup in Brazil on May 22. Has made 35 career appearances with the USMNT senior team, notching one goal since his senior debut in 2007. Started in 2-0 win over Mexico in World Cup Qualifier to secure a World Cup berth in Sept. 2013. Earned CONCACAF Gold Cup final Most Valuable Player honors after helping lead the U.S. to a Gold Cup crown last summer.
Transaction • Acquired in trade with Colorado Rapids for Mehdi Ballouchy on July 16, 2007.
Games played • Started in 224 matches with RSL across all competitions, logging over 20,000 minutes. Has scored 28 goals and assisted 33 times in his eight seasons with RSL.
Ghana vs. United States
P At Natal, Brazil, Monday, 4 p.m.
TV • ESPN
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