HERRIMAN — Seven months removed from his big brother starting four games at the 2014 World Cup, Nick Besler was drafted by the Portland Timbers with the fifth overall pick in the 2015 SuperDraft and the obvious comparisons and expectations immediately followed.
Besler had won an NCAA Championship at Notre Dame a year earlier, and even though he knew it would take time to acclimate to the MLS environment he figured his chance would eventually come if he put in the work.
The first year went by and he never got that chance, spending most of his time in the organization with the USL club Portland Timbers 2. The second year passed and his circumstances never changed.
“I thought maybe if I got a chance in Portland I would make the most of it, but I never got that chance,” said Besler.
Two years later, and knowing from experience how precious those chances are in MLS, Besler continues to make the most of his opportunities with Real Salt Lake as he’s playing meaningful minutes at center back during the homestretch of the regular season.
Not bad for a player who spent the previous six seasons playing defensive midfield, and began the season fifth on RSL’s unofficial depth chart at that position. In a pinch, the coaching staff believed Besler could play center back, but it was never the long-term plan for him to make that switch.
Besler wasn’t discouraged by his place on the pecking order behind four veterans. He knew from first-hand experience with the RSL Monarchs the previous season that a lot can happen between March and August in the soccer world. After all, he began the 2017 season as the captain of the Monarchs but finished it with Real Salt Lake after signing a contract in August.
“When you go into a season I think it’s really important not to put yourself anywhere on the depth chart as a pro,” said Besler. “I had all the confidence in myself to keep working hard to get the opportunity. Unfortunately, some injuries came up and that’s kind of how I got my chance, but it’s all about what you do with your chance and I think I’ve taken it as well as I could for the most part.”
Injuries have thrust Besler into starting duty at center back during two separate stints this season. The first came during a four-game stretch between April and May with the club posting a 2-2 record. The second stretch has involved six starts over the past eight matches and RSL is 3-1-2 when Besler is in the starting 11.
“Him stepping in when Marcelo (Silva) is out and filling in that role has been awesome to see,” said fellow center back Justen Glad. “He’s showing he deserves that spot and he’s played well and I really enjoy having him back there.”
The duo earned praise two weeks ago for helping hold Zlatan Ibrahimovic scoreless during RSL’s recent 6-2 thrashing of the L.A. Galaxy.
“Nick and Justen the last couple of games have formed a very good partnership and now it’s up to them to keep it going,” said RSL coach Mike Petke, who acknowledged he’ll have tough line-up decisions when Silva returns from the foot injury that’s sidelined him the past five games.
Petke said Besler’s willingness to battle, learn from his mistakes and maintain a great attitude are huge reasons why RSL extended him a contract toward the end of last season. It’s that same work ethic that’s earned himself a spot on the field.
Petke assumed it would take Besler a while to make the adjustment from USL to MLS, but injuries forced the 25-year-old into the lineup earlier than expected. That early experience has helped Besler slide right in during crucial August and September matches without a drop in quality
“A lot of that has to do with where we’re at as a team in the season. Maybe at the beginning part of the season we were kind of still trying to figure out who we were as a team, and I think some of the results we had we weren’t playing our best soccer,” said Besler.
The long-term future for Besler might still be at holding midfield, and perhaps as the air apparent to Kyle Beckerman when the 36-year-old captain eventually does hang up his boots. Until such a day though, Besler is making the most of whatever minutes he gets and isn’t taking anything for granted after his opportunity never came in Portland.
He’s having a blast along the way too, particularly with his friendship with Glad. During post-practice interviews this week both took playful jabs at the other.1 comment on this story
Besler is older than Glad by four years and reminds him of that fact when he can, “I think Justen kind of looks up to me a little bit.”
With 79 career starts compared to just 11 for Besler, Glad counters by saying, “Besler kind of looks up to me as a father figure,” he said.
The camaraderie has helped the two gel quickly and they’ll likely get another opportunity to start alongside each other again this Saturday against visiting Minnesota with Silva still recovering from his foot injury.