Matt Besler and his Sporting Kansas City team almost reached this year’s MLS Cup final, which takes place Nov. 20. What makes this an especially noteworthy feat is the team’s climb from last place earlier in the season and, on an individual level, the fact that Besler was not even sure he’d be playing professional soccer.
Besler guided his high-school team to a state championship in 2004 and went on to help the University of Notre Dame make four consecutive NCAA tournament appearances. He was named an All-American on the field and the National Soccer Coaches Association of America voted him the Men’s Scholar All-America Player of the Year as a senior in 2008.
In the professional ranks, however, the competition was particularly tough, so Besler wasn’t sure where he would be playing, or even if he would be playing at all. Nevertheless, he kept his faith in God, stayed focused on the field, and now starts as a defender on one of the best teams in the country.
In between recent playoff games in early November, Besler fielded some questions from Register correspondent Trent Beattie.
What are the highlights of the season so far that stand out for you?
I think opening up our new stadium and having such a good home record is a highlight from this season. I also think the fact that we were able to climb back from last place and go all the way to first place to finish as the Eastern Conference champions says a lot about our team. Now we’re advancing in the playoffs, when, at the beginning of the season, it looked like maybe we wouldn‘t even make it to the postseason at all.
Are there quite a few other Catholic pro soccer players (especially from South America)?
I would say that most of the guys that come in from South America are Catholic, but I don’t talk to them a whole lot because they speak a different language. Around the league you will find a lot of guys that are Protestant and a good amount of guys that are Catholic as well, regardless of which countries they come from.
How important was faith to your family growing up?
My family was a very Catholic family. My dad was raised very Catholic and went to Catholic schools his whole life. My mom actually grew up Methodist, but she converted to Catholicism when she married my dad. Attending Mass was important for my family, and I think my parents did a good job instilling those values in me and my brothers.
Has your Catholic faith influenced your soccer (and maybe vice versa, such as the discipline necessary for sports helping you to be more disciplined with the faith)?
Having my Catholic faith allows me to always feel confident and comfortable on the soccer field. Competition can be very intense, but knowing there are more important things in life and that God is in control helps to keep things in perspective. Then the confidence is there because you realize that, despite so much work and so many sacrifices, it still is a game.
In the same regard, my soccer career has always kept me on a set schedule and the discipline required to be a professional athlete carries over to attending Mass regularly and praying a lot. If I weren’t on as tight a schedule or didn’t have as many demands, I may not be as diligent in practicing the faith.
Were there rough periods in your soccer career or life in general that your faith has gotten you through?
Last year I wasn’t getting a lot of playing time at all, and it was a tough season for me, but I stayed strong in my faith, and that helped me get through the season. Also, at the beginning of my professional soccer career, I had no idea where I was going to play or even if I was going to play at all. Instead of worrying about it, I put a lot of confidence in the Lord, and it ended up all right.
What are some of your favorite aspects of the Catholic faith?
I really appreciate the eternal aspect of it; Catholicism will always be there. The same can’t really be said for soccer. As much as I enjoy playing it, soccer is not always going to be in my life, and everything else is going to come and go as well. However, my faith will always be there as the rock that gives support to everything else.
Former pro soccer player Chase Hilgenbrinck has entered the seminary to become a priest, and former pro baseball player Grant Desme has done the same. Do you have similar plans?
I do not have intentions of joining the seminary at this time, but I do intend on staying strong in the faith throughout my life. Whatever vocation anyone ends up embracing, the basic faith is still the same, with the foundation laid for us at baptism. Married life, religious life and priesthood are all continuations of that initial sacrament that has been likened to a door into the Church.
Do you have a favorite saint or devotion?
I like to pray the Rosary before games; that’s one of my rituals. You get into the right mindset by having a routine, and, of course, you get all the grace from the prayers as well. Mary is always willing to help us, if we only ask for it.
My favorite saint is St. Christopher, and I wear a medal with his image on it. I like how he is a strong man and how he used that strength to help someone in need. It shows that power and generosity should go hand-in-hand.
I also heard recently about Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, who lived in the early part of the last century. All the saints have something to offer, but he seems particularly interesting because of his youth (he died at age 24), his closeness to our own time, and the fact that he enjoyed playing soccer and other sports. He’s definitely someone to look into more.
Is there anything new about yourself you’d like to share?
I have a dog, a really small lab, and his name is Gipper. I named him after the famous Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne’s famous speech “Win One for the Gipper,” so that has some Catholic ties to it.
Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.