- - Sunday, June 8, 2014

NEW YORK — Two decades ago, Kyle Beckerman was confident in his World Cup dream. Three years ago, he had all but given up hope.

At that point, he was 29 years old. Fifteen months had passed since his last U.S. national team appearance. Missing out on South Africa 2010 appeared to be the end.

But the younger Beckerman had a touch of clairvoyance. Growing up in Anne Arundel County, he would leave notes for his parents to let them know he was out playing soccer — then tag his signature with “USA #15.”

The path to making that premonition a reality was longer than expected. Yet in his 15th professional season, Beckerman this week is traveling to Brazil to represent the United States in his first World Cup. Thanks to some late uniform swapping, he’ll do so with No. 15 on his back as well.

“I’m really trying to just soak it all in,” Beckerman said recently. “It really hasn’t totally hit me yet, but each day it’s a little bit more. When I get down to Brazil, that’s when I’ll ultimately feel it.”

After starting the Americans’ final exhibition before the World Cup, a 2-1 win over Nigeria on Saturday, Beckerman finds himself contending for a spot in the lineup when the U.S. opens the group stage against Ghana on June 16.

SEE ALSO: Jozy Altidore nets pair to end scoring drought as U.S. heads to World Cup

As an industrious defensive midfielder, Beckerman rarely steals the headlines. He’s there to stifle opposing attacks and play smart passes. If the 32-year-old goes unnoticed, he’s probably doing his job right. Although he’s known for his long dreadlocks and fondness of reggae music, those attributes belie his in-game ferocity.

Kyle just brings a determination,” U.S. midfielder Brad Davis said. “He covers so much ground on the field. He’s a difficult guy to play against, a guy who is not going to give up on any tackle or anything whatsoever. The more you play next to him, the more you start to appreciate him.”

A member of the U.S. squad at the 1999 U-17 World Championship, Beckerman spent time at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville and Arundel High School before entering Major League Soccer in 2000 through the Project-40 youth development program.

Yet it wasn’t until 2009 that Beckerman got his first prolonged look from the U.S. national team. Following an extended absence, the Real Salt Lake captain was recalled in August 2011 for coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s first game in charge.

After logging five matches in last summer’s Gold Cup, Beckerman started the September win over Mexico that clinched qualification for the World Cup. When Klinsmann named the 23-man roster for Brazil last month, Beckerman made the cut.

“He’s a Project-40 player, a youth national team player, a player who has worked incredibly hard on and off the field,” Salt Lake coach Jeff Cassar said. “To now have success in his later years, it just shows the whole plan of U.S. Soccer is working with investing in young players and getting them experience so they can move on and help the national team. He’s just an inspiration.”

Beckerman’s rise has been emblematic of Klinsmann’s faith in domestic-based veterans. As much as he wants his players to test themselves in the top leagues in Europe, the German soccer legend has kept an open mind toward MLS.

While Bob Bradley took just four MLS players to the 2010 World Cup, Klinsmann has picked 10 for this year’s team. And four of them — including Beckerman and Salt Lake teammate Nick Rimando, the third-string goalkeeper — are 30-somethings making their World Cup debuts.

“For Nick and myself, we kind of thought the World Cup dream was done,” Beckerman said. “For Jurgen to look at MLS and say, ‘I don’t care where you play, it’s how you’re playing and what you mean to your team,’ it was really cool. Both of us took that opportunity, that door he opened for us, and just ran with it.”

Since joining Salt Lake in a 2007 trade with the Colorado Rapids, Beckerman has been an MLS All-Star every season. Last year, he topped the league in completed passes while leading Salt Lake to the Western Conference title.

Considering Beckerman’s consistency on the club level, his national team emergence seems like an overdue reward. But as Cassar said, “You have to have him for a little bit to start to appreciate what he brings to a team.”

Now fans of the U.S. squad understand what those in the Rocky Mountains have known for some time.

“I see it day in, day out, how hard this guy works,” Rimando said. “He’s our captain [at Salt Lake], and he did not get that role just because of his game. He got that role because he’s a true leader. He’s the first guy on the practice field, the last guy to leave. To see him finally get what he deserves, it’s great.”

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