Take one look at the roster for the 1999 U-17 national team, and players such as Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, and Bobby Convey immediately catch the eye. Not only have they become regulars with the senior national team but their MLS careers were marked by nearly instant success. The progress of fellow '99 teammate Kyle Beckerman was glacial by comparison, which makes his rise the past few years all the more remarkable.
In the 2006 season, Beckerman didn't party like it was 1999; he played like it, enjoying a breakout season. Not only was his grit on the defensive side of the ball as consistent as ever but his seven goals saw him display a heretofore hidden ability to get into the attack, helping the Colorado Rapids get to within a game of the MLS Cup final.
The 2007 campaign was supposed to see a continuation of that trend for player and club alike. But although Beckerman continued to play at a high level, the Rapids struggled to maintain any kind of consistency, and on July 16, they shipped the U.S. international to bitter rivals Real Salt Lake in a straight-up swap for midfielder Mehdi Ballouchy.
"It's been a weird year definitely," Beckerman said. "In Colorado, it wasn't the same as last year. We were changing formations and lineups, and I rarely got to play with Pablo [Mastroeni] in midfield, so I would just sit in front of the back four instead of getting forward."
RSL coach Jason Kreis seems determined to return Beckerman to the box-to-box role that worked so well in 2006. And as the Real coach continues to assemble his team, it's clear Beckerman is the player he is building the side around, in terms of both skill and attitude.
"Just the amount of work [Beckerman] puts in all over the field is amazing," Kreis said. "He's not scared to put a foot or shoulder into guys. He's a true competitor. His attitude is fantastic. It's hard to think of him as a young player. He's 25, and he's still got a lot of soccer in front of him."
When Beckerman signed with the Miami Fusion back in the summer of 2000, taking on such a role was the stuff of fantasy. Not only was coach Ray Hudson more likely to don a muzzle than hand over his offense to an inexperienced rookie but his preference for veteran players further limited Beckerman's opportunities.
In Hudson's defense, the Fusion sides he put together were among the most entertaining in the league, with 2001 MVP Alex Pineda Chacon often manning the offensive controls. But the end result was that Beckerman found himself on the bench, a disappointment exacerbated by the fact that former U-17 teammates such as Donovan, Beasley, and Convey were thrown into the mix almost from the get-go. For a player who was the second-leading scorer on the U-17s behind Donovan, it was a tough situation to take.
"I was definitely happy for all those guys," Beckerman said. "But watching them play and feeling like I was on the same level as them, it was frustrating, yet it was something I couldn't control."
With advent of the Reserve League still several years away, Beckerman was lent out to the league's Project-40 team, which toured the country playing USL-1 sides and was composed of young players who bypassed all or part of college. It was a deal that took a turn for the worse when Beckerman's leg got broken in an April 2001 match against the Portland Timbers.
Yet with a permanent spot in the "Where Are They Now?" file looming, Beckerman slowly turned things around. He recovered in time to rejoin his Project-40 teammates on a postseason tour of England, and it was during that trip that Glenn Myernick first suggested that Beckerman play as a holding midfielder. It was a spot that was completely unfamiliar to him, but he didn't care.
"I was up for anything, because I was just thinking that for me to get on the field, what could I do?" Beckerman said. "I didn't mind it all. I really like it because you got the ball a lot, and before I was playing a little bit of outside mid, and I was thinking my best position would be in the middle."
But although Beckerman was happy to be seeing more of the ball, ramping up his defense proved to be a different challenge entirely. By his own admission, Beckerman "didn't know what defending was," and as a youth player, he was often content to just sit on the opposing team's defensive midfielder until his team won possession. But the Crofton, Md., native took to his new duties like a wolf on the prowl and added plenty of bite to his game.
"[The move] was a blessing in disguise because now I take total pride in my defense," Beckerman said. "I like playing there, and I think I'm good at it. I feel more of an honest player now that I have that."
Beckerman received an even bigger break when the Fusion folded after the 2001 season and the midfielder was claimed by Colorado in the dispersal draft that followed. No longer stuck on the bench, Beckerman continued his transformation into one of the league's better two-way midfielders, and he credits current U.S. international Pablo Mastroeni with helping round out the weaker parts of his game. But according to his former teammate, the biggest change in Beckerman has come from the neck up.
"Every year, [Beckerman] has gotten tremendously more confident, and I think that was what he needed as a young guy," Mastroeni said. "As far as his technical ability and his desire, they were always there."
Now, Beckerman is applying those traits to the RSL cause, a fact bordering on ironic overload given his rather testy encounters with the club while he was in Colorado. It's tempting to think he might be bitter about joining a struggling team, but Beckerman has settled in well in his new surroundings. Even before his team embarked on its recent two-game winning streak, Beckerman stated that he liked the direction the side is headed in.
"We're doing all of the right things in practice, and [Kreis] is bringing in the right players," Beckerman said. "It's just a matter of time."
And if Beckerman can lead RSL out of the wilderness, a party of 1999-like proportions surely will commence.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.