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Jul 23, 2014

Europe not Besler's only option to grow

It has been announced that Sporting Kansas City's Matt Besler and Graham Zusi have agreed to designated player contracts.

There were literally millions of reasons why Matt Besler decided to spurn offers from European teams and sign a seven-figure designated player contract that will keep him with his hometown Sporting Kansas City through the 2018 season.

It wasn't just the money. The starting U.S. national team defender explained some of the supporting rationale in a love letter to fans and friends that ran in Monday's Kansas City Star.

But believe it or not -- and judging by the reaction of many U.S. fans on social media after the deal was announced Saturday, many don't believe that staying in MLS is in Besler's or the Americans' best interest -- there are legitimate competitive grounds for the 27-year-old center-back to remain stateside.

"Re-signing in Kansas City doesn't mean I'm afraid to go play somewhere else," Besler, an MLS lifer who was among the best U.S. players in their World Cup second-round run in Brazil, told ESPN FC in a phone interview on Tuesday. "I really believe that I can get better playing here."

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Besides, it's not as if the clubs Besler was linked to overseas -- including Premier League strugglers Sunderland, now second-tier English side Fulham, and Germany's Freiburg, which finished 14th in the 18-team Bundesliga last season -- are world-beaters. Besler's performances on the global stage showed that he is capable of starting for any of those teams, but the volatile nature of the European game -- not least for perpetual relegation candidates -- would have made making the leap now, in the prime of his career, a risky proposition before you even consider the financial aspects.

While the terms of Besler's four-year, guaranteed pact have not been made public, rumors and common sense suggest it's in the neighborhood of the $1 million-per-year deal fellow U.S. center-back Omar Gonzalez signed with the LA Galaxy last year.

"Right now, with what I had in front of me," Besler said, "signing with Sporting and staying in MLS was the best option."

It could also be the best outcome for the national team. With his future settled, the Overland Park, Kansas, product can build on his successful World Cup experience and concentrate on becoming even more of a key player with SKC and the U.S. national team.

And even if they won't come every week, he'll still get opportunities to test himself against the world's best players. Sporting takes on Manchester City on Wednesday (9 p.m. ET, ESPN2/WatchESPN); he'll face Bayern Munich with the MLS All-Stars on Aug. 6; and there will be plenty of international games against top-end foes in Besler's future, too.

Matt Besler put an end to the gossip linking him to Europe by signing a four-year designated player contract with Sporting KC.

Perhaps the idea that MLS can't adequately prepare players for the highest level should be rethought, anyway, after domestic-leaguers like Gonzalez, Clint Dempsey and DeAndre Yedlin also acquitted themselves well in Brazil. Besler insists there are on-field benefits to be found at home.

"Of course there are some aspects of the game where you'd get better in Europe than in MLS," Besler said of the never-ending debate. "But there are some parts of MLS that make you a better player as opposed to Europe. The physicality of the game here means it's a grind for 90 minutes. Yeah, there might be more turnovers and less skill, but that also means there's a lot more transition, and that makes games hard. If you're playing on a team that keeps the ball 80 percent of the game, you don't have to do a lot defensively. In MLS, every team is so even that you never really dominate. It's back-and-forth, and you have to be tuned in the entire game."

Ultimately, the next four years will determine whether Besler's decision to stay put was the right one. What's clear is he has determined to prove the doubters wrong.

"People are going to have opinions no matter what you do," he said. "They think they know where you should play, but the fact is no one really understands what it's like to be in your shoes.

"I want to challenge myself in everything I do. I think to say that you can only get better playing in Europe is absolutely incorrect."

Doug McIntyre

Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine. He has watched or attended almost every U.S. men's national team game since Paul Caligiuri's "shot heard 'round the world" and has covered the Yanks for The Mag since 2005. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.