By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Dec 31, 2020) US Soccer Players – This month an iron man of American soccer called time on a great career. In doing so, Kyle Beckerman brought down the curtain on a momentous era for the game in his country as just about everyone on earth celebrates the end of a brutal 2020.
Now 38, Beckerman is the only non-goalkeeper in MLS history to play 20 seasons. He retires just two games short of 500 regular-season appearances, 61 matches ahead of his closest pursuer at the top of the all-time list. He’s experienced or achieved just about everything possible on the US pro landscape, from an MLS Cup title to a run to the Concacaf Champions League final to a Gold Cup triumph and a key role in the USMNT’s 2014 World Cup campaign. He was named to MLS’s “25 Greatest” list this year and even logged a stint on a now-defunct MLS franchise, the doomed Miami Fusion.
Beckerman is also the last active player from the iconic first class at the Bradenton Residency Program, US Soccer’s ambitious experiment to gather the nation’s top teenage prospects in a professional environment for the U-17 World Cup cycle. He and teammates like DaMarcus Beasley, Landon Donovan, and Oguchi Onyewu would show the value of the concept. It would power US youth development for the next 18 years and influence the construction of the coast-to-coast academy system we see today.
As he pursued all that success, Beckerman had to wage a mental and physical battle against inconsistency, self-doubt, and the ravages of time, as he hinted at in a press conference with reporters on the day he announced his decision.
“The World Cup game against Ghana was huge for me personally, because I think until you play in the World Cup, you’re constantly playing mind games, you’re telling yourself you’re good enough,” he said when asked about defining moments in his career. “You’re trying to pump yourself up before the game, saying it’s just a normal game, but in the back of your mind you know what this is.”
A surprise standout during the 2014 cycle, Beckerman earned Jurgen Klinsmann’s trust despite bigger names around him. He went the full 90 in all three of the USMNT’s group-stage matches. To this day the decision to bench him for the Round-of-16 loss to Belgium remains a potent “what if” for many fans.
“I told myself for so long that you can do this, you got this. And then to go on in that game, the first game in the World Cup, and win that one to get us off to a good start, it really, personally just gave me that confidence that I was right all along,” added the Real Salt Lake legend. “And then just to be a part of that run was just an amazing experience that went so fast, and I didn’t really have much time to look at it, but I definitely knew how important it was, and the part I played in that.”
There’s something for most everyone in US soccer to ponder, and perhaps celebrate, in that anecdote. As a community, we’ve spent most of the past quarter-century hunting for belief, for proof of both life and concept. Promoting this game and hoping that a few more people here cared about it tomorrow than they do today. Making sacrifices, financial and otherwise, to chip in on the collective labor of “growing the game,” that vague but powerful concept that inspired so many for so long.
“Being around for so long and seeing the growth and popularity of the sport, a lot of responsibility was felt – at least for myself and a lot of players – that we had a responsibility to help grow the game,” said Beckerman, “and so that was being a bit more accessible to media, to people, to fans. It’s just kind of ingrained in a lot of soccer players and guys that came in around my time and it still is today.”
Twenty years on from his pro debut at 18, this vision seems to be materializing. Beckerman’s league is more than twice the size it was then, with many, many more purpose-built stadiums and training facilities. Wages are higher across the board. Stateside television viewers have their pick of top competitions from around the world beamed into their homes year-round. The World Cup will return to these shores in a few short years. Perhaps most tellingly, today we not only see prospects starting their MLS careers as teenagers like he once did. Instead, they’re making the move to top European clubs, with multi-million dollar transfer fees attached.
Over the past 10 months and counting, this sport served as comfort and escape as we grappled with a deadly pandemic and ancient ghosts of racism and injustice. Eventually it too suffered at the hands of COVID-19, another reminder of our failures, our foolishness, our lack of control.
It’s sobering to consider just how long COVID’s shadow may stretch. Stadiums around the globe are still mostly empty. Youth World Cups are off. We’re processing news of yet another contentious labor vs capital faceoff between MLS and its players, and pondering how many soccer businesses will be among those meeting their demise in the ongoing recession. Just how secure are the gains made across Beckerman’s adult life, really?
If you’re feeling tattered and worn and looking for hope as the 21st century enters its third decade, maybe Beckerman’s journey can offer a bit of inspiration. The shaggy-haired kid from Maryland who took 15 years to climb from Bradenton to the World Cup, who was rarely spectacular in the conventional sense but so dogged, so enduringly smart and committed, made it 20 years in the top flight and walked away with his mind and body intact. Hopefully, this next era of American soccer, and life in general, features plenty more like him.
Charles Boehm is a Washington, DC-based writer and the editor of The Soccer Wire. Contact him at:firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at:http://twitter.com/cboehm.
More from Charles Boehm:
- After turbulent 2020, Black Players for Change look to turn tumult to triumph
- MLS players and the threat of an unwelcome deja vu
- USMNT takes care of business to cap a strange 2020
- USMNT squeeze in one more game before a tumultuous year’s end
Photo by Jeremy Reper – ISIPhotos.com