When the 2014 FIFA World Cup kicks off Thursday, 32 nations will begin the quest for the most coveted trophy in sports. The United States is once again among them, though our relatively inexperienced side faces a tough road, thrown into a group with powerhouses Portugal and Germany, plus Ghana, the squad that bounced the U.S. from the last two Cups.
But the Americans are ready for the challenge, and all week long, Rolling Stone will be profiling the players who hope to shock the world. Today, we catch up with Matt Besler, All-American defenseman at Notre Dame turned mainstay for Major League Soccer's reigning champions, Sporting Kansas City. He'll anchor a U.S. back line that's light on experience, but heavy on attitude, and ready to take on the best players on the planet.
How do you prepare for a match?
I don't have any pre-game superstitions, but I think every player has pre-game habits; I like to have a peanut butter and jelly about an hour before the game, I like to take a cold shower right after that, before I go out to warm-ups, to wake me up a little bit. I don't have too much of a routine.
But you don't have to make your own PB&J sandwiches, right?
No, we have a full-time nutritionist; she has a file for every single player; what they eat and when they eat it. Some guys like the PowerBar – Oh, I can't say PowerBar [laughs]. Some guys like the Gatorade bars. But for me, I'm pretty old fashioned, so it's PB&J. They definitely keep on you about your diet though. Except for these things called '20-Percent Meals,' where 20-percent of your meal can be your comfort food. The other 80-percent has to be in athlete mode.
So what's your dream 20-Percent Meal?
I love barbecue. Oklahoma Joe's is authentic. Jack Stack for dinner. Lately, I found this place called LC's BBQ, it's an awesome hole-in-the-wall place. I like trying different kinds, but, you know, I'm loyal to the K.C. style. Southern-style sauce is just too runny. The vinegar-based stuff doesn't do it for me.
Do you listen to any music before a match?
I'm a big country music fan. The songs get me in a good mood, they get me excited. So I'll keep a couple country songs on my playlist. I like O.A.R. too. My college teammates, we got into them, we saw 'em live, they're a great band to listen to before a game. There's music going all the time [in the locker room]. I don't know if I can reveal our DJ — he likes to remain anonymous — but he's been unbelievable this trip, he's put together a mix of classics and pop and hits, you've got, like 'Jack & Diane,' you've got 'Sweet Home Alabama,' songs you forgot about, then they come up on our pre-game mix and people start singing along.
Heading into the World Cup, the press keeps harping on the "inexperience" of the U.S. defense. What's your take on that?
This is something I've been asked probably a hundred times. I would say we're aware of it, but we don't feel like it's an issue. It's something that we can't change; there's nothing you can do to give you experience besides playing. It's not really our choice that we really haven't had World Cup experience yet, so I think we're all embracing that, coming together. The press might talk about it, but it doesn't bother me at all. If people want to question us, that's their right, but we're really not worried about it. We're confident in each other and we're confident in our group. We truly feel that if we play our best, that's going to be good enough to get out of the group and advance.
So if you're aware of what's being written, does that mean you Google yourself?
Oh, definitely. If someone says they don't, then they're lying. The [MLS] recommends it for us, about once every six months, just to check in and see if there's anything that's negative or not true, that will affect your brand in a negative way. So, yeah, I'm just following orders [laughs]. That's my excuse.
Are you aware there's a forum called "Matt Besler Sucks?"
Oh, wow, I wasn't aware of that one. Maybe I'll create a fake name and start posting about myself on there.
Aside from the "inexperience" thing, what's the one question you're tired of answering? Is it about Landon Donovan?
Mostly, I've been asked about playing Cristiano Ronaldo. That's been number one, number two has been the inexperience. I don't get too many questions about Landon.
You've been labeled the leader of the U.S. defense. How do you define your role on the team?
Everyone has a different role. I'm fairly new to the team, but having said that, I think I have a lot of responsibilities with playing center defense. I'm in the middle of everything, and you're required to be vocal, to try and be a leader. So I've tried to embrace that. I definitely understand that I'm one of the new guys, so I try to take things from the older guys, follow their lead, but I try to step up when I can, kind of have my own personality.
Speaking of personality, what are your thoughts on the U.S.'s Bomb Pop kit?
[Laughs] Well, they've definitely grown on me. At first, they were a shock to everybody, because they were different from our history of jerseys. But after wearing them and playing games in them, I definitely like them. I kind of like the white kits more. They're classy. When you put 'em on, that all-white, with the collar, you definitely feel it. You kind of feel like an American.