SAO PAULO, Brazil -- A floppy-haired, reggae-loving 18-year-old named Kyle Beckerman arrived in Fort Lauderdale 14 years ago and signed his first professional soccer contract with the now-defunct Miami Fusion of Major League Soccer.
"Just a waif, a boy so fresh and talented," Fusion coach Ray Hudson said at the time.
A state champion wrestler as a freshman at DeMatha High School in Hyattsville, Md, Beckerman used that fighting spirit and physicality as a midfielder, always willing to doing the dirty work to free up his teammates. He could also score, as he proved with the U.S. Under 17s on Feb. 5, 1998, when he scored the game-winning goal against Argentina, the first time the U.S. team won in Buenos Aires in 86 years.
Beckerman is back in South America with a bigger prize on the line. He is 32 now, hasn't cut his dreadlocks in nine years and will make his World Cup debut for the United States on Monday night against Ghana.
"Everything has come full circle," he told reporters last week. "You have to be ready when they call your number."
Beckerman has been playing in MLS since those Fusion days and is a seven-time league All-Star. He is in his eighth season with Real Salt Lake, where his coach is Jeff Cassar, his former Fusion teammate.
His road to the national team was long and arduous. He was one of the inaugural players to join U.S. Soccer's Under-17 Residency Program in Bradenton in 1999. His teammates were Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley and Oguchi Onyewu -- all of whom have played in at least one World Cup. Beckerman was always on the cusp but never quite made the cut.
Then coach Jurgen Klinsmann came along. Klinsmann loves Beckerman's selflessness and never-say-die attitude.
"We often talked about Kyle, and we keep talking about him," Klinsmann said this week. "He's one that covers others' backs, and that's literally what he's doing in the six role. You know he's looking out for his two center backs, and he's cleaning up whatever comes his way and he holds his position. That gives us another option, another card that we can play out there because we know he gets his job done.
"Chemistry-wise, he's an extremely important player to that group, because he has tremendous experience. He's always hungry. He steps on the field, even if it's a public training session, we know that he's gonna go 150 percent. It's just great to have him. Whatever his job is, he embraces it. He's positive about it, and he gets it done."
Beckerman's teammates echo the coach's sentiments. He continues to do the dirty work, allowing fellow midfielders Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones to push higher up the field. He also acts as an extra defender, lending support to the center backs.
"Kyle is a security blanket for us," said U.S. defender Matt Besler. "He's just a guy who always is in the right spot. Maybe for the casual fan he can go unnoticed, but he doesn't go unnoticed to us. He's a smart player, he knows where to be; he knows the game. It might be the time to take a foul, it might be the right time to kick the ball out of bounds to play smart, and it might be the right time to keep the ball. He just always seems to make the right decision."
Said Jones: "Kyle's the guy he loves to do the 1/8dirty3/8 work for the team. He's always one of the guys who push the players, never gives up. Outside the pitch, in private, he's really quiet. Sometimes he makes a joke and everyone's like, 'Oh, Kyle, you're here.' But on the field, he is gets noticed. He always gives us the back that we can go in front and don't care so much to come back. He's the guy who stays and cleans it all up."
And this, from goalkeeper Tim Howard: "Kyle is probably the most natural No. 6 we have. Michael and Jermaine have tools they can use on the flanks, but with Kyle you always have that rock that allows us to get higher up the field and press higher, and recover balls quicker. He is a key player."
When Beckerman was a young boy, he always signed notes to his parents with an autograph followed by "USA, No. 15." He dreamed of being a professional soccer player and a member of the U.S. team. Finally, he reached his goal, wearing No. 15 now.
As for his hair, Beckerman has an explanation.
"I don't know if I'm lucky or unlucky, but I've got this curly hair," he said. "When I was growing up, if I didn't comb it, it would just start to knot up. My mom would make me cut it off when it got all knotted. But eventually, when I moved out and didn't live at home, I let it grow. It's been about nine years since my last haircut. You have to wash them, but you don't cut it."
On Monday night, Beckerman will be easy to spot at the Natal Stadium. He will be the one with the wild hair, and the one doing the dirty work.
PIAZZA A BIG FAN OF SOCCER
You never know who you're going to run into at the World Cup. Hanging out at the Sao Paulo airport on Saturday morning was retired All-Star catcher Mike Piazza, wearing a pink Palermo FC hoodie.
It turns out Piazza, who has lived in Miami Beach for 12 years, is a huge soccer fan. He attended the Brazil-Croatia opener and was headed to Manaus to see England vs. Italy (his second team, along with USA).
Piazza said his father used to take him to see Philadelphia Fever games as a kid, and he remembered seeing Pele playing in the NASL. He dabbled in soccer himself, but his father told him there was more money to be made in baseball. "Good thing I listened to him," he said. If he did play soccer, he could see himself as a center back ("my lack of speed would hurt me at any other position").
He said he would love to see a Major League Soccer team in Miami, and he has been watching the developments of the David Beckham project closely.
"I hope David Beckham can reach a compromise with the city and get a team there," he said. "I have been in Miami 12 years now and love how the city has evolved. I remember going to Miami-Dade College back in 1987-88 and South Beach was just starting to change. Now, with South Beach and downtown and the Brickell area, it has really become an international destination. A soccer team would add to that.
"My kids go to school with kids from so many other countries, and soccer is a big part of the culture and fabric of our community. I'm not sure if the Port was the right spot, or the FEC slip. I'm a taxpayer, and I understand the concerns, but I think downtown would be great because people can go to bars and restaurants before and after, families can hang out in the area, it could be great. I really hope Miami takes that step and makes this happen. I would definitely go and would like to be involved."
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