All hail the very underrated Kyle Beckerman!

Posted by Roger Bennett

Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesKyle Beckerman, now in his 13th season, hopes he'll finally make the U.S. World Cup roster for next season.

PANAMA CITY -- Try telling Kyle Beckerman the final game of the Hex is a dead rubber.

"Absolutely not," he declares with eyes wide open when I mistakenly describe today’s Panama clash as such. "Anytime you get a chance, it is an audition. So for a lot of us this is a stage to try and shine by helping the team win."

Beckerman's choice of words are revealing. With both Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley out of the squad, a more selfish understudy would view this as a cut-throat opportunity to grab center stage, but the 13-year veteran is sage. "For a guy like myself just trying to keep my name in the World Cup 23, with them there, without them there, I have to bring the same focus every day that can help my team win."

In his 13-year career, the Real Salt Lake veteran has never made a World Cup roster, a dream that first fueled his imagination as an 8-year-old in the suburbs of Baltimore when he feasted on the 1990 tournament.

"I was soccer crazy by then," he said. "My mom had to figure out how we could get the special cable station to pull it in."

Asked if he has a particular memory, he laughs and feigns amazement, "A lot of mullets."

The midfielder then proceeded to talk with wonder about the play of Bruce Murray, Desmond Armstrong, and Tony Meola.

"To see Americans play such a big opponent in Italy and just come up short -- you don't forget that as a kid."

From that day on, whenever, Beckerman left a note for his parents, he has signed it "Kyle Beckerman USA," a nod to his dream to follow his footballing heroes and experience a FIFA tournament. Like Mix Diskerud and Sacha Kljestan on this current squad, he now finds himself on the World Cup bubble: A 31-year old player who has been resurrected, and validated by Jurgen Klinsmann through World Cup qualifying and who must now seize every opportunity to prove he brings the right skills, mentality, and chemistry to fulfill his childhood dream and earn one of the precious 23 seats on the team’s flight to Brazil.

A polarizing character, Beckerman is often misunderstood.

Within MLS, opposing fans single him out. He's the footballing version of a wrestling heel, yet off the field he is known for his generosity and soothing sweetness. Though his larger-than-life public persona grants him a distinct place within American soccer culture, his play makes him blend in, enhancing the attackers and defenders that charge around him.

Asked to describe his contribution in his own words, the player keeps things simple. "My position is all about winning," he says. "I help the defense defend better and help the offense run a little smoother. I bring transition, and a bit of a bite."

In short, Beckerman is a Swiss army knife with dreadlocks.

The dirty work he relentlessly contributes in the heart of the midfield is often underappreciated. His pass completion percentage of 86.6 percent is the highest of any midfielder on the U.S. team, as is his turnover rate of 0.7 turnover per 90 minutes yet after making his USMNT debut in 2007, his international career has always been a perpetual fight from the periphery.

"How would I describe my U.S. career?" he says doggedly. "I really don’t know," shaking his head from side to side, as if reliving the mystery of his inability to nail down a more permanent place over the course of the last six years.

It had all started so brightly. Beckerman starred alongside DaMarcus Beasley, Landon Donovan and Oguchi Onyewu on the U.S. team that finished fourth in the 1999 U-17 World Cup and made his senior debut in 2007. But his international career came to a grinding halt as Bob Bradley gave him just 137 minutes during his tenure.

"I felt mentally as if my national team career was really done," Beckerman admitted in a quiet tone, which is the closest he comes to sadness. "I told myself it had been a lot of fun. 10 caps. One international goal. And I rationalized it away by saying at this level, everyone is good, so it comes down to coaches preference and I was not a preference of [Bradley]."

Beckerman proved to be as emotionally resilient off the field as he is physically on it, bulldozing through any negative feelings, and refusing to wallow. "I threw myself into my Salt Lake games," he says, "though I honestly missed playing with Landon, DaMarcus, and Gooch after coming up with them."

Eric Clapton's "Wonderful Tonight" begins to crank out of the restaurant speakers providing a fitting soundtrack to discuss Beckerman’s second coming under Klinsmann. In the German coach’s first game, Aug. 10, 2011, Beckerman not only received a recall, but was handed a starting role against Mexico. "It was a total shock," he tells me, reliving the moment. "All of a sudden I went from dead to getting called up and inserted into the starting lineup ... I had never met Jurgen, but I just know I wanted to take full advantage of the opportunity he had given me."

When asked to explain the thinking behind this recall, Klinsmann answers giddily. "Kyle is a role model of maximizing everything he has," he tells me. "If I need someone to point to and show another player how to maximize you potential then you look at Kyle, because that is why he is here [in Panama]. He deserves it. He just gives everything he has 24/7 no matter if he is on the bench or on the field."

Another gift Beckerman evidently has is self-awareness.

“One thing I pride myself on, is I am going to bring the same effort to practice every day that I do to a game,” he tells me matter of factly. “That is what I do. I never take a day off. So if I am not in the starting lineup, I am going to be challenging the starters so that they are ready. And if I do get on, I am ready to make the game easier for all those around me.”

Such an attitude is admirable, but does immersing himself in the dirty work leave the player feeling underappreciated?

"Not by the coaching staff here," he responds quickly. "They appreciate me. I think people who understand the sport realize how important my position is even if I am not on the scoresheet a lot. I wonder if he is ever tempted to try more "Stevie Gerrard Hollywood through balls" to get noticed. Beckerman chuckles quietly as if mulling the idea over. "A pass is either on or it's not. That has honestly never come to my mind."

The World Cup has, however. I ask Beckerman if it looms "like a giant carrot?" "I can almost taste it," he jokes with a smile. "I have never made a World Cup roster. It would be the greatest cap to my career," he says.

"If I don't make it, I will definitely be gutted, but I know I would have to pick myself up and carry on ... We are aware Jurgen is watching us every time we play, so every game feels like an audition to keep making my case. I know there are two guys in Michael and Jermaine who are going to pretty much be the starters so all I can do is push them in practice," he said. "My job is always to be ready if one of them goes down so we can still get a win without them. I am always ready to start. If I am on the bench, I am always ready to come in.

"That is my mentality every day. I am always ready.”


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