For the second year in a row, Kansas City is an All-Star city.
Baseball? That was so last summer. This summer, soccer. And if any American city should be the center of the soccer world for the next week, it’s Kansas City.
Not only do we have a franchise and stadium envied in Major League Soccer, we also have multitudes of uber-dedicated and engaged fans who consistently put on their own blockbuster show in the stands.
Adding to the excitement: Sporting Kansas City happens to be in first place in the Eastern Conference, and not one, not two, but a trio of our team’s players were among the 11 voted by fans onto the team for July 31’s MLS All-Star Game.
It’s time to meet them: Matt Besler. Aurelien Collin. Graham Zusi.
No. 5, defender
Besler, 26, is our hometown soccer hero, going back to his Blue Valley West days when he led the Jaguars to the Kansas 5A state championship. Off he went to Notre Dame and four trips to the NCAA championship tournament. No brainer: Sporting selected him in the first round of the 2009 draft, eighth overall.
The oldest of three boys in a sports-enthused family, he moved easily among baseball, basketball and soccer and finally decided on soccer after rolling and breaking a bone in his ankle in a summer basketball tournament.
On being the oldest brother: “Once I was in high school, I really was aware that I had two brothers who were kind of following in my footsteps and that I needed to set a good example.”
Plan B, if the soccer thing didn’t work out
Besler majored in pre-med and psychology at Notre Dame, so yeah, sure, let’s start a nickname for him: Doc. His dad is an optometrist. Senior year he was considering medical schools and other possibilities.
Soccer won: “I’ve been playing soccer my whole life. It’s the sport I really love. I told myself even if there was a small chance, I would give it everything I had, and now here we are.”
Easy. His parents, Diane and Greg Besler, because of their unbelievable hard work and dedication. His mom was the family “glue:” “I look up to both of them. Great parents, that’s where it all starts.”
Michael Jordan is his sports hero, and yes, the young Matt used to do this: “When the Chicago Bulls game came on, my dad would turn off the lights and turn up the volume, and I would come running out when Jordan did.”
He’s fully hooked on country music. Here’s how it happened: “A high school friend was big into rodeo. He would go to these small towns in Oklahoma and Texas to compete, and he’d come back talking about these small, country bands he had heard. One was the Eli Young Band.”
Off-season wedding in the works
He’s engaged to Amanda Miller. They knew each other in high school and got reacquainted a couple of years ago. The wedding is planned for December.
On his fiancee: “I am thankful for her. Amanda makes me a better person. We can joke and be competitive (she happens to be a very good athlete). She’s definitely one of the reasons for any success I have.
Thoughts on fellow All-Stars Collin and Zusi
“Collin, my ‘brotha,’ is a tenacious and dominant defender. Off the field, he’s a ‘citizen of the world.’ He really enjoys learning about different cultures and experiencing them. He’s a breath of fresh air with a lot of passion and energy.
“Graham’s one of the most talented players I’ve ever played with. He continues to get better, which is scary. He sets a great example for the younger players on the team. He’s one of my best friends, honest and loyal.”
Coach Peter Vermes on Besler
“He takes his craft extremely seriously. And now with his experience he’s gotten with the U.S. national team, he has become even more of a leader on our team. I expect even bigger and better things from him.”
No. 78, defender
Collin, 27, landed in Kansas City in 2011 after a bit of soccer globe-trotting and has made an athletic and cultural splash here, to say the least. From Enghien-les-Bains, France (Paris, basically), he’s known as a warrior on the field and a fun guy off.
His jersey number, 78, represents the district in France where he grew up. His neighborhood could be a dangerous place, but his parents were strict, he was able to stay out of trouble and he played a lot of soccer. “I was kind of crazy, discipline-wise, but my mother always kept after me.”
Early on, he had a plan: “I always wanted to be a soccer player, to play someday in America.”
Plan B, if the soccer thing didn’t work out
Collin’s Plan B is getting a dry run here next week. His other passion is fashion, and he is designing a clothing line he calls AC78. On Tuesday, he’s holding a fashion show, with teammates as his runway models, in the Power & Light District.
It’s not a newfound passion. As a youngster Collin always wanted to dress sharp: “Even with a simple white T and sneakers, there’s a way to wear them to look good. Fashion is a state of mind.”
He’s most interested in men’s fashions and particularly in helping men look good in suits: “That’s one of the things I’ll show at the fashion show. Suits should be fun to wear, not an obligation. Anybody can look great in a suit. I like a very slim, short-cut jacket.”
He finds inspiration everywhere: “I take inspiration for life, for soccer, for fashion, for religion in anybody and everybody, in the things I see and hear and do.”
When Collin pulls off his jersey — it happens — there are angels on his left shoulder and more ink down his spine:
“I got them done in Portugal. I like the art, and they reflect well their meaning. They are pretty much all about the Bible and represent moments of my life. I lost my mum when I was 18, and another is about my twin brother, who I love. He lives in Paris and is coming to the fashion show.”
His very long-distance romance
Collin’s girlfriend, Leonella, is in Venezuela, for now: “I love her. Things will work out. She has a big heart, and God made her come my way. I am so blessed. I thank God every day.”
Thoughts on fellow All-Stars Besler and Zusi
“I love winning and love people who give everything on the field. Matt and Graham are great soccer players. I have a lot of respect for both of them. And they are amazing people, very sweet people.”
Coach Peter Vermes on Collin
“A destroyer, he can definitely match up with anyone physically in the league. He comes out as an extremely aggressive-type person on the field. It’s great for our team. He also has grown as a leader.”
No. 8, midfielder
Zusi, 26, grew up in the Orlando, Fla., area and earned his star status at the University of Maryland in a most spectacular way, helping his team to national championships in 2005 and 2008. He’s known as the guy who plays at such a consistently high level he makes everyone around him look and play better.
His was another close and ardent sports family. Zusi took up soccer, lacrosse, tennis and basketball and focused on lacrosse and soccer in high school. His older brother and two younger sisters played collegiate soccer.
On his parents, Shirley and David, about giving him and his siblings their shot at athletics: “They were fantastic about doing whatever it took. They were very unselfish.”
Plan B, if the soccer thing didn’t work out
At Maryland, Zusi majored in criminology. Some great professors, including in forensics, got him hooked. His senior year he was drawn to the subject of counterterrorism.
Zusi can see himself, post-soccer, pursuing a career with an international bent: “I’m not sure I could do a desk job, maybe more of an investigator. Maybe CIA.”
His brother, Mike, who started kicking soccer balls his way before he could walk. They were four years apart: “I was always trying to be as good as my older brother. He helped my development so much.”
And great coaches along the way, plus veteran players who lent an ear and offered their help: “Davy Arnaud, Josh Wolff, Jimmy Conrad, Kevin Hartman — a long list of guys who have been there before, and I was lucky enough for them to care about some young guy, which they didn’t have to do.”
He loves hiking and camping, especially in Utah, the only drawback that it’s darn chilly there in the soccer off-season: “I just like nature. I like the simplicity of it, getting away from the rush of things.”
On a bit of a whim, Zusi and Besler one day took a trip to the animal shelter. You know how this ends up. Yep, each came away with a Labrador mix, sisters. Besler named his Gipper and Zusi’s is Baci: “They look just like Labs but a little smaller. Perfect size. They’re great dogs.”
Dating a KC gal
He and Abra House have been together for a couple of years now, somehow getting past the fact that her alma mater is the University of North Carolina, an ACC rival of Maryland.
“She’s overwhelmingly supportive. I know it can be difficult at times, especially with the amount of travel we do, but she handles it so well. She’s very understanding of the time and effort that goes into the game.”
Thoughts on fellow All-Stars Besler and Collin
“Matt and Aurelien are both massively deserving of this honor. They have become one of the best, if not the best, duo of backs in the league.
“Matt and I came into the league together, so we have become very close through they years. His family has been like family away from home to me, and I’m very thankful for how generous they have been.”
Coach Peter Vermes on Zusi
“An incredible professional, his game has grown by leaps and bounds. And I think he has an incredible ceiling that he hasn’t reached yet.”
To reach Edward M. Eveld, call 816.234.4442 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.