51614_isi_zusibesler_mlsbb08171109 Bill Barrett/isiphotos.com
2014 World Cup

From KC to Brazil, Zusi and Besler Are a Matching Pair

One is a slick-passing midfielder and the other is a safety-first central defender, but Graham Zusi and Matt Besler have embarked on their soccer journey together, and both seem likely to see action in Brazil.
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
May 16, 2014
10:44 AM
GRAHAM ZUSI AND MATT BESLER may not be joined at the hip, but it's certainly fair to say that their soccer careers are intertwined.

The two players, both 27, have spent their entire careers with Sporting Kansas City, helping transform the club into one of the league’s most successful and popular teams. Both were drafted in 2009 by Kansas City when the team was still known as the Wizards. Besler went in the first round, Zusi in the second. Zusi made his professional debut on March 21st, 2009, and Besler made his seven days later.

They're even connected on this site: Besler is currently ranked 10th in the ASN 100, and Zusi is 11th.

On the international front, both have been regulars with the national team during most of World Cup qualifying. Zusi made his debut during the January camp in 2012 and Besler’s first cap came one year later, in January 2013.

Neither were highly touted youth players but now it is entirely possible that both Zusi and Besler could be in the starting lineup for the United States national team when it squares off against Ghana on June 16.

“It’s been nice to have a teammate alongside me throughout the process,” Zusi said. “It’s a familiar face. Someone you deal with on a daily basis on a club team. Now you’re able to do that with the national team. It gives you a sense of comfort. It’s good to have the familiar face with you.”

Besler agrees that Zusi has been an important part of his rise within the ranks of MLS and the U.S. national team. MLS has seen its share of “dynamic duo” partnerships, but few have been as in lockstep—or as successful—as Zusi and Besler.

“It’s nice to have a teammate in camp but it’s also been nice to have Graham kind of along the way through the qualification process,” Besler said. “Graham kind of started this whole thing a little bit before I did. So he’s been a great resource for me as a guy that has been in before. I was able to ask him certain questions about the expectations and how practices were ran. I’ve really enjoyed having Graham there by my side and he’s really been helpful for me. I’m thankful for that.”

Even U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann is prone to talking about them as a pair.

"I think both of them are role models in how you can see over a short period of time how they take over responsibilities and how they become a really important part of a program," Klinsmann said. "Both players are very driven, they both know what it means to be a 24/7 professional player."

Of course, on the field the players have completely different roles. Besler is a smooth passing, left-footed central defender and Zusi is the multi-dimensional midfielder known for his slick passing and pinpoint crosses.

Once they arrive in Palo Alto, Calif., for camp, they will join a team still trying to sort out its depth chart. Most notably, the backline is very much unsettled, and it remains unclear who will start at either of the fullback positions and what the central defense combination will be.

Through most of the final round of World Cup qualifying, it appeared as though Besler and Omar Gonzalez would be the first-choice options in the center of the back line. Gonzalez, however, has struggled for both club and country while the San Jose Earthquakes' Clarence Goodson has improved. Further complicating matters, Hertha Berlin central defender John Anthony Brooks chose to represent the United States instead of his native Germany and made the preliminary roster, and Stoke City right back Geoff Cameron is also a candidate for central defense.

The one common denominator among all of the defenders mentioned above? None of them have ever played in a World Cup.

“I’m confident in the guys we have on the squad to get the job done,” Besler said. “I think the defense is under the microscope because there is some new faces there. There’s not a whole lot of World Cup experience in the back. So there’s probably going to be some questions.”

“That whole thing is kind of past us and we’re just focused on what we can control and that’s coming together as a back four [and] trying to get better with each training session," Besler added.

It doesn't hurt that the man standing behind the defense has a fair share of U.S. national team and World Cup experience.

“I think Tim Howard has really stepped up and done a good job," Besler said. "He’s given confidence to everybody but he’s also taken control of how he wants to run things back there.”

In the midfield, Zusi faces his own series of questions. He has not been with the national team on a FIFA international date since World Cup qualifying ended last year. It has been nearly six months since he has played alongside the likes of Jermaine Jones, Jozy Altidore, Terrence Boyd, Aron Johannsson, and Mix Diskerud.

Where does he fit in? It's impossible to say at this point.

“The competition among the team is so high,” Zusi explained. “The competition for spots is so high that no one should be comfortable with where they are. I think Jurgen has preached it and shown that no one is a lock or is safe. Every person has to work harder and harder to prove themselves to book that plane ticket to Brazil.”

“I think we’re full of confidence, as we should be,” he concluded. “We’re coming off a historic year for U.S. Soccer. I think really everybody is excited to get down to business. It’s really been an incredible journey so far. This camp now is just the next step. That step is in the direction of something that is really big – which is the World Cup. We’ve still got a month of work to do.”

Brian Sciaretta is an American Soccer Now columnist and an ASN 100 panelist. Follow him on Twitter.

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