Sporting Kansas City defender Matt Besler positioned himself to move to Europe at the end of last season. He performed on the field. He permitted his contract to run all the way down to its last days, clearing the way for any number of clubs to sign him on a free transfer. He even won MLS Defender of the Year honors to highlight his progression and his readiness for a larger challenge.
Besler entered MLS with lofty ambitions to excel for club and country and honed his game to the point where he could fulfill all of them. Instead of grasping the opportunity to leave when he could and testing himself overseas for a much larger payday, he followed another path: he decided to remain in Kansas City.
"At the end of the day, I wanted to put myself in the best situation to be successful," said Besler, a native of nearby Overland Park, Kan. "That was the attitude and the approach that I took. I weighed the four or five options that I had. At the end of the day, it really wasn't even close. Sporting Kansas City - for a number of reasons - was the best situation for me to succeed."
Besler reached the same decision Graham Zusi did prior to the start of the 2012 season. Both players assessed their options and felt they could meet their objectives on the domestic and the international levels by sticking with the same club that cultivated their abilities from the moment they entered the league in 2009.
Those choices - admittedly made at a time when both players enjoyed fewer appealing overseas alternatives than they would now as regular United States internationals - validated the direction charted by Sporting over the past few years. The days of playing in front of modest crowds at Arrowhead Stadium and wearing technicolor jerseys passed long ago. Under the auspices of manager Peter Vermes and with significant financial backing from Sporting Club, this revamped organization boasts the ambition, the infrastructure (including the glittering Sporting Park) and the support to identify talented players and nurture them into players capable of making the transition to higher levels.
"In my first couple of years, I didn't play very much," Zusi said. "I was a guy who came on at the end of games. After my first two years, there were expansion drafts. Sporting protected me in each of those years, which gave me some confidence and let me know they had some faith in me. It was just a matter of time before I got my chance."
Sporting KC's Graham Zusi has become a regular starter in Jurgen Klinsmann's USA squad (Photo: G reg Fiume/Getty Images).
By placing faith in the players at his disposal, Vermes built the core of one of the most successful sides in MLS and watched several of his players rise to prominence. Besler and Zusi emerged as viable options for Jurgen Klinsmann's starting XI after polishing their skills and working their way through the ranks. Honduran international Roger Espinoza lifted the FA Cup with Wigan Athletic after moving to England on a free transfer in January. Kei Kamara spent a brief loan spell with Norwich City during the second half of the Premier League season before returning to bolster Sporting's push for MLS Cup.
Sporting did its best to keep those players happy along the way on and off the field. Espinoza departed after the two sides could not come to terms on a new deal, but Besler, Kamara and Zusi have all signed new deals that pay them well by MLS standards and underscore the core values of the club.
"I think, philosophically, for us, as players develop and perform, we're going to continue to reward them," Vermes said. "I think the other reason that is, if you look at the messages and the narrative that we have laid out as a club and through the media, we want to be a club that is on the cutting edge with the game. We want to be a club that has ambitious players. And, with that, we have to accept that these players are going to be interesting to other clubs around the world."
By exhibiting the necessary patience (Zusi started just seven games in his first two years before his breakout campaign in 2011) and throwing them into the mix at the right time (Besler stepped straight into the lineup as a rookie), Vermes paved the way for Besler and Zusi to excel in MLS and transition onto the international stage. Both players feature among a growing crop of domestic players claiming key roles under Klinsmann after proving themselves capable of making the transition to the international stage.
Klinsmann extolled the virtues of the partnership between US Soccer and MLS as he guided his players through the CONCACAF Gold Cup . He noted his close working relationship with coaches (though a few of them likely aren't happy about losing their stars for much of July) and league executives in their shared desire to improve the standard of the league and usher its players into the international scene.
"We want talent coming through MLS to grow for the next challenge ahead of them," Klinsmann said. "Maybe the next challenge is then to go to Europe. If they choose it, it is huge. It makes us all proud of that next step. But, at the same time, we are proud if a player stays here and commits to MLS, just as long as he performs week-in and week-out. Graham is a great example. He performs here week-in, week-out. There are certainly others. It's great to move along together."
Besler and Zusi will continue their shared journey at club and international level over the next few years. Zusi just signed a second contract extension in as many years in June, earning a significant pay increase befitting his increase stature within the league over the past year and tying him to the club through 2017. He trained with West Ham United during the winter, but he opted to extend his contract yet again to provide himself and the club with ample security for the future and the proper platform to chase his World Cup dreams.
"(Klinsmann) wants you to get consistent minutes in highly competitive games," Zusi said. "I think, for me at this point in my career, this is the place where I want to be doing that. It will give me the best chance to get that World Cup spot."
And that statement - and all of the trappings associated with it - speaks volumes about why Besler and Zusi plan to continue their growth and their professional development in Kansas City.