ORLANDO — Center back Matt Besler will start at least one World Cup qualifier over the next week as the U.S. national team makes a late push for a ticket to Russia. Last month, he made his first appearance under Bruce Arena in the CONCACAF hexagonal, starting at Honduras and contributing to Bobby Wood’s equalizer.
Besler, a 2014 World Cup starter in Brazil, has had a productive year, starting four U.S. matches en route to the Gold Cup trophy, captaining Sporting Kansas City to the U.S. Open Cup title and guiding SKC toward the MLS Western Conference playoffs.
On Tuesday, he discussed the national team’s precarious situation and other topics.
What’s the feeling in the team concerning the high stakes of these two matches?
“There is a lot of responsibility and there’s a lot of pressure. We all understand what is at stake and, at the same time, we will remain confident. It’s a good balance right now: the sense of urgency in the camp and the aggressiveness in everything we’ve been doing so far, but also no sense of panic or tension.”
Time is running out, though, to get it done …
“From the beginning when Bruce took over, it has been the same story that all of these games are pressure games and there’s very little room for error. But now we are at the very end and there’s almost no margin for error. These are obviously big games and we’ll see what we are about.”
I imagine you and the players are aware of the anxiety among fans and the U.S. soccer community in general …
“Obviously, we would like to be qualified right now; that’s the best case. We can’t change the position we are in; we know that. We can only look ahead. As a player, these opportunities don’t come around very often. These two games – these two games are the ones you can play in to put your country in the World Cup. When you look at it that way, it’s a big opportunity for everyone.”
Given the fact the team earned one point from the past two qualifiers, what do you tell people who doubt whether this team will qualify?
“We’ve had a good year, we really have. We had a slip-up against Costa Rica last month, but when you look at the year as a whole, there have been a ton of positives. We have a game at home against Panama to help get us to the World Cup. If you don’t take that opportunity as an American fan or an American player, what else would you want? Do you want to play Mexico in Mexico in order to get into the World Cup?
“We have a game at home in front of our home fans. Of course, Panama is a good team, but if you can’t take care of business against Panama at home, then I don’t know if you deserve to be going to the World Cup. That is as black and white as you can say it.”
And Trinidad and Tobago is out of contention and bringing in some young players, so even though you will be on the road, you should get points there as well next Tuesday, right?
“We’re going to be thinking about Trinidad as well, but right now, Panama is the one we really have to put all of our eggs in the basket. We need three points out of this game.”
Bruce has been platooning the center-back pairing throughout qualifying. Last month, it was Tim Ream and Geoff Cameron against Costa Rica and then you and Omar Gonzalez in Honduras. What has that system been like for the defenders involved?
“It’s the way it is. It’s the way Bruce has been organizing things. We’ve had success this year doing that, but you always come into camp with the mentality that you are going to play. Once you get into camp, you start to get a feel of how the camp is going to play out, of what the plan is from the coaching staff, whether they are going to try to play you in both games or if they already know you are going to be playing in the first or second game.
“There is always good communication on what we want to do. Bruce is a very good communicator. It doesn’t always happen that way [with different defenders in the lineup] because stuff happens. You don’t get a result in the first game, so you have to be more aggressive in the second game. Or someone is suspended or injured. You always have to have the mentality to be ready, but the way he has been doing it, everyone understands what the plan is.”
How does the team’s mentality shift between qualifiers in a short period of time, first playing at home and then playing away?
“I don’t think you can generalize home games and away games. Every game takes on a life of its own. Every game has a different game plan. Two home games aren’t going to look the same. We don’t talk about two home games the same way. It’s the same on the road. We went to Honduras under extremely difficult conditions, but we also knew we couldn’t afford to lose the game. And so those tactics are going to be different than if we go down to Trinidad because the landscape in the hex has changed.
“It’s never the same what you need out of a game. Ideally, we would’ve gone down to Honduras and won the game. It’s not like we talked about getting a draw. We went in there trying to get three points. We understood, though, all of the different challenges. We also understood where we were in the table. We said, ‘We’re going for three, but we have to get one. We have to get one.’ ”
The Costa Rica match was in New Jersey, but there were a lot of Ticos supporters there. Panama could have a good many fans here in Orlando on Friday.
“We hope not. We all hope it is a very pro-American crowd. If not, it’s not an excuse to lose the game. But it certainly helps. It helps us drive the game. It provides energy for us.”
Sporting events, of late, have become an epicenter for bringing attention to civil-rights issues and other political and cultural topics. Has the U.S. team discussed any possible gestures before or during the national anthem Friday?
“I think it’s going to come up. We will probably have a player meeting to discuss it. I can only speak for myself, but I am not planning on doing anything during the anthem. If there is somebody who felt strongly about it, I know that all of the players support each other. We’ll probably discuss, along with the U.S. Soccer Federation, the best way to go about things, whether you wanted to do something during the anthem or some other options. That’s a conversation I am sure we will have among the players but also corresponding with the federation.”
It would be different demonstrating with the national team than with your club. You are here representing the country.
“Anytime I am representing the national team, it’s a different feeling than representing the club team. You are extremely proud to be on that field and wear that U.S. crest.”
It’s a diverse group here too, right? So you have different opinions, I imagine …
“That’s the great thing about America and that’s the great thing about our team. It’s also one of the challenges for our team and for our country too. It’s bringing in a group of people from all over and coming together to try to compete as a team. You can make the same comparison to us as a country – trying to come together with different backgrounds and different beliefs, how you work together. It’s cool to think about it.”