By Kevin Koczwara
The 2009 season was a dream come true for Kyle Beckerman and Real Salt Lake. The team snuck into the MLS Cup playoffs as the last team to qualify. RSL had to go through Supporter’s Shield winners, (awarded to the best team of the regular season) Columbus Crew, to start. The team did that and made it all the way to the MLS Cup final where Beckerman and company had to take on the heavily favored Los Angeles Galaxy with American soccer icon Landon Donovan and English import, and tabloid favorite, David Beckham.
Beckerman lead the charge against the Galaxy as the captain of Salt Lake. Real went onto surprise just about everyone, beating the titanic duo of Beckham and Donovan, claiming the team’s first piece of silverware in club history.
Since the historic win, Real Salt Lake hasn’t looked back. The team finished second to Los Angeles in the MLS regular season with 56 points (15-4-11) and a record for fewest goals allowed in a season with 20 goals allowed in 30 games – a staggering .66 goals against average – and became the first North American soccer team to win its group in the CONCACAF Champions League group stage.
“The biggest thing was it [the playoffs last year] helped us turn the corner for road games. That was our biggest problem in the past few years and is why we struggled to get into the playoffs [last season],” said Beckerman. “It was the road form, once we did that [started winning on the road] we turned a corner. We really grew up in the playoffs last year and we were able to get the results in the playoffs. We have transferred that into this season, and we haven’t stopped. Now, we defend better and we’re more mature as a team.”
Maturity hasn’t been a problem for Beckerman since joining the league as a 17 year old back in 2000. The Crofton, Maryland, native signed a Nike Project-40 contract (now Generation Adidas) and was picked up by a veteran filled Miami Fusion team, where he learned a lot from the talented line up that feature the likes of American internationals Jay Heaps, Pablo Mastroeni and Predrag “Preki” Radosavljevi?.
“There were so players on that Miami team. Preki was really unbelievable. Pablo [Mastroeni] was just coming into his own,” noted Beckerman. “And then, Jim Rooney and Ian Bishop. was just a ton of guys I was trying to learn from.
“When I switched to playing as a more defensive midfielder I kind of tried to take as much as I could from Mastreoni. He was where I wanted to be. He was with the national team and playing really well. I liked his style of play so I tried to take as much as I could from him, but there were a number of players [to learn from]. There were numerous guys, not just one, and I tried to take it [lessons] from everybody.”
Despite coming in as a teenager with so much promise and a professional contract that includes college tuition, the veteran players on that Miami team didn’t resent a 17 year old Beckerman trying to steal their place on the field.
“It was different for me. Some guys came into the league and started playing right away, no matter how they played. It didn’t matter, they were going to play because they were going to play. For me, I was on peanuts, minimum salary, so it wasn’t like I was taking huge money over the guys that were playing,” said Beckerman, who had to grow up quick, but was allotted the time to developer as a professional under the tutelage of some of the top soccer players in America.
“You lose the ball and you’re going to hear it from some of the veterans. They are going to get after you, but it teaches you and you get better. You don’t want to lose the ball as much because you are going to hear it. And for the most part, players took me under their wings and helped me get better.”
When asked if the Project-40 program was the right choice, instead of going on to playing in college, Beckerman sees the experience as a definitive and positive career move.
“For me it was great. Coming from the Under-17 national team, we got to see quite a bit of what these other countries were doing when we were playing the under-17’s of Germany, France, Spain, and all these other teams. And you look at the roster and see that all these guys are already signed at 16 with the big clubs over there. So, for me, I wanted to get into that environment as quick as I could,” said the Salt Lake Cit captain.
“The first couple years were tough. We had a real good veteran team in Miami, and if I wasn’t playing I tried to work as hard as I could in practice and tried to take up everything I could, like a sponge, from all the veterans and learn as much as I could.
“I felt that if I kept working hard and keep trying to get better one day at a time then eventually I would get my chance. Whenever it [my chance] would come, I knew I would be ready for it. In that perspective it was good, it taught me that I had to be a little patient and put my head down and work hard. It helped me stay hungry. And then when the guys my age finally came out of college, I was already in my fourth or fifth year in the league and they were just becoming rookies. So, I felt like I had a big head start on a lot of the guys that went to college.
“For me it was great. I don’t know if we’re there yet or it’s the right thing that we are doing, but for me the Project-40 helped me develop at an early age.”
Beckerman wouldn’t get too many chances to see the field for Miami. The team was stocked with some of the best talent in the league and Beckerman was still young. In his second season Beckerman broke his leg in his first appearance of the year, he played just 14 minutes before the injury, and had to miss most of the season.
Then in 2001, Miami team dissolved because the MLS had to contract and cut the league from 12 teams to 10 ? the other Florida based team, the Tampa Bay Mutiny, were the other unlucky club to get the axe.
Beckerman was selected 11th in the MLS Dispersal Draft in 2002 by the Colorado Rapids. In his first year with the Rapids, Beckerman again saw limited time, only playing in 14 matches, starting in just five. But things soon turned around.
In 2003, he became a regular fixture the the Rapids in its midfield, logging 2,123 minutes and starting in 24 of his 28 regular season appearances. Beckerman helped the Rapids finish third in the West and reach the playoffs.
Beckerman would go on to play 145 times for Colorado and help the team reach the Western Conference Finals in 2006 before being traded in the middle of the 2007 season to Salt Lake in exchange for attacking midfielder Mehdi Ballouchy.
After the trade to Salt Lake, Beckerman stormed onto the scene and became one of the league’s top players. The midfielder took over as team captain in 2008 and helped the team make the playoffs for the first time in team history. Things finally clicked for Beckerman in Salt Lake because he found an organization with the right mentality and a plan for success, something he says was lacking from the other teams he played for.
“The biggest thing was I finally got a good coaching staff and with a club that actually cares from top to bottom. The owner is into the team, and that just trickles on down,” said Beckerman.
“In Colorado it was constantly a fight between the players and the staff, and the staff and its bosses. There was constant unrest. The owner didn’t care two licks about the team and then it just trickled on down.
“It wasn’t about winning, it was about : ‘This is how much I am going to lose and you guys deal with it.’ And that’s how the whole organization was. So, when I got here, it was a breathe of fresh air; everything is done properly here [Real Salt Lake].”
The attitude of Real Salt Lake’s owner, David Checketts, has helped Beckerman break out and become one of the league’s top players, earning three consecutive All-Star nominations from 2007 to 2009, with his passion for the game and positive approach to the team. The former New York Knicks president, has brought a winning mentality to Salt Lake and his approach has filtered down to the team.
“They [owners] should actually put an interest in their team and hopefully they will have good values,” said Beckerman. “You [an owner] could be really into the team and not know how to go about it. I feel like [David] Checketts knows what he wants. A lot of the players that come in here are not brought in because soccer [and the player’s skills], but also about what kind of character you are and I think that goes a long way in how your team is going to perform and fight for each other.”
Beckerman has been fighting for his teammates for over 10 years and in 2009 he became the youngest player to play in 200 games in MLS history. On May 6, 2009, in a game against the Los Angeles Galaxy, Beckerman broke the Beckerman reached the milestone at the ripe age of 27 years and 13 days old, and he has grown into his role as Sal Lake’s captain and holding midfielder, a position that may seem a little off kilter for a player whose off the field personality is completely different from the one seen winning possession for his team, sliding in and challenging strikers and midfielders on the break, and working so hard it looks like he may have to be carried off on a stretcher when the final whistle blows.
“My personality off the field is laid back and easy to get along with. I kind of like to say that when I have the ball you can see my off-the-field personality because I try to stay composed and try not to get crazy with the ball,” said Beckerman. “Part of a defensive midfielder’s job is to calm the rest of the team down when things are hectic and going crazy. When I get the ball, I want them [teammates] to see: Okay, he’s under control and relaxed. And now the rest of the team clams down and we get an extra second to make some movement.
“On the other hand, a big part is being hard to play against and win your battle. I want to dominate whoever I am playing against, whoever I am going to see most of the game. I want to dominate him and I want to help out the guy next to me beat his guy and make sure the fight is there for the team because a lot of our MLS games are down to our intensity and who brings more energy in the beginning of the game and who is winning second balls, and stuff like that.
“I get emotional, I get into the games. I’m a big competitor, so it brings it out in me when don’t have the ball I am definitely going to put in the extra work to get it back. When we do get it [the ball], then we can relax and let some of our playmakers, let Javier [Morales] go to work. There’s a saying: I’ll hold the piano for Javier and let him play it. And I’ll do that all day.”
The midfield pairing of Beckerman and Morals has worked since both players arrived in 2007. They have an understanding on the field and it has paid off for the team. Real hasn’t missed a beat this season and are poised to make another playoff run this year.
“We wanted to be solid in the regular season this year to show that we were a really good team last year and that it wasn’t a fluke that we won the MLS Cup,” said Beckerman. “We feel we play our best soccer in the playoffs. In the last two years that we’ve been in the playoffs. We’ve played real solid even if the regular season had been up and down. We feel that we’re in good form. It’s all about keeping in the right direction.”
The right direction for Beckerman would be for Real to become only the third team in MLS Cup history to repeat as champions.
Kevin Koczwara can be reached at email@example.com.