It started as innocuously as possible.
Kyle Beckerman was getting ready for a match early in his time with Real Salt Lake when equipment manager Kevin Harter – K-Dog to most – handed him the captain’s armband. There was no meeting of the minds. No pomp and circumstance. No ceremony. From that day forward, though, the elastic captain’s armband has become as much a part of Beckerman’s matchday uniform as any part of his kit or cleats. It has become as synonymous with Beckerman as his signature dreadlocked haircut and Real Salt Lake had a new leader to take the club into a new era.
Many have come and gone since that day – players, coaches, front office staff. The club went from a struggling expansion side to sneaking into the playoffs to perennial contenders and MLS Cup champions. One constant has been the man bearing the armband. The captain. Kyle Beckerman.
His path to the Claret-and-Cobalt gave him everything he needed to lead the journey to the top of the mountain and into an echelon few reach in any sport. He’s an RSL mainstay. A midfield destroyer. A cornerstone to a franchise. The captain.
From a young age, Beckerman has been destined for greatness in whatever he sought.
Along with his older brother Todd, Kyle was raised by supportive and demanding parents in Crofton, Maryland. Anything worth doing was worth doing as well as possible. So the two boys put their noses to the grindstone in every endeavor.
“My parents were my biggest fans and my biggest critics. They did unbelievable stuff,” Beckerman said. “Without them, none of this is possible. It’s crazy where it can come from. They just had a drive in them and it was contagious for me and my brother.”
Early on, the pursuit was wrestling and he could not have done much better than his older brother as a role model. As a high-schooler, Todd Beckerman went 208-1 and won four national championships. He went on to be a two-time All-American at Nebraska and now is the Head Coach at Brown University.
For all of his own accomplishments on the soccer field, nothing brings a smile to Beckerman’s face like talking about the achievements of his older brother.
“My brother was one that I got to really look up to and see what happens when you get success. Just watching what he was doing and his work ethic and staying humble,” he said. “I had that front-and-center look at how to act and how to work and how to react in pressure situations. That was huge for me and that’s gotten me this far for sure.”
It looked like he would be following in his brother’s footsteps in the early years too. As a freshman at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Maryland, he won a state championship in the 112-pound weight class.
However, soccer was his true calling.
He was a regular on the youth national team circuit and after his freshman year, he focused his pursuit on the beautiful game. But that wrestling background set the groundwork for his future in soccer. His time on the mat helped instill in him the work ethic that would become a staple.
“There was this mindset that if you weren’t working hard, someone else was. You don’t have anyone else to blame when you lose a match,” he said. “As you get older, you get smarter and now I realize that any day could be my last. You never know. And I also want to set a good example for the younger guys. If they see me working my butt off, then they have to.”
Any time that lesson was forgotten, his parents were quick to steer him back on track.
Few in the game have known Beckerman and his family as long as Chris Wingert. In addition to their 11 years together in MLS with RSL and the Colorado Rapids, Wingert and Beckerman were also teammates on regional ODP teams and became quick friends.
Wingert saw there was something different about Beckerman’s approach when he came to visit on an off-week between ODP camps when they were just 13 years old. Taking the chance to spend some time on vacation with the Beckerman family in Ocean City, Maryland, Wingert was looking forward to patrolling the beaches. With a youth national team camp on the horizon, though, Beckerman would need to get some training in too.
After an hour or so on the ball, their attention turned to the waves crashing into the shore. However, the Beckerman matriarch had other plans.
“Where are you going?” Wingert recalls Meg Beckerman saying. “You’ve got to run.”
Wingert laughs about the story now and sees just where his teammate got his unrelenting approach to putting in the hard work.
“It’s a work ethic that his parents instilled in him and his brother Todd from an early age,” Wingert said. “It’s no accident that Kyle’s ended up to be a world class player and Todd a two-time All-American wrestler in college.”
What may seem a chore to some is a passion for Beckerman, though.
“I really do enjoy working hard,” he smiled. “You put in your work during the week, then the game is the fun part.”
On the field, Beckerman is unparalleled in MLS history. Playing the ever-demanding holding midfield role, he is the league’s all-time leader in games (422), starts (393) and minutes (35,117) by a field player. He reached all those benchmarks despite spending the better part of his career in the mix with the U.S. National Team, routinely missing stretches of each season while on international duty.
While players like Javier Morales and Fabian Espindola, Joao Plata and Alvaro Saborio have provided the offensive firepower through the years, Beckerman has been the backbone to set the table. Whereas the attacking players provide the dramatic flair, Beckerman is the steady pendulum keeping time – the heartbeat of the club.
“I’ve been around a lot of leaders – a lot of very good leaders and a lot of leaders that lacked a lot. Kyle epitomizes what you want,” RSL Head Coach Mike Petke, a teammate of Beckerman’s in Colorado before Beckerman was traded to Salt Lake in 2007. “He’s an extension of the coach on the field. The intangibles – he sets the tone with his work rate every day. In practice and in games he’s the one rallying the guys. I’ve honestly never been around a player that every day brings it like he does.”
That heartbeat can work itself into a frenzy at times, too. That passion is as much a part of Beckerman’s makeup as his ability on the field. His MLS-record 99 yellow cards are in many cases a byproduct of his desire and a driving force behind his success.
“He’s really emotional about things sometimes, but that’s what a captain needs,” said former Miami Fusion teammate and current RSL Assistant Coach Tyrone Marshall.
Added defender Justen Glad, “You can see it on the field. He has that bite and that willingness to win. He’ll put his body on the line and give you everything and do whatever it takes to win.”
Those traits helped him become a staple for the U.S. National Team in the buildup to the 2014 World Cup, where he started in three Group Stage matches as the U.S. advanced out of a group that included Portugal, Germany and Ghana. His 58 caps for the U.S. span the tenures of Bob Bradley and Jurgen Klinsmann and included key roles in the 2007 Copa America, the 2016 Copa America Centenario, three CONCACAF Gold Cups and two World Cup qualifying cycles. He has twice donned the Stars-and-Stripes at Rio Tinto Stadium and played four matches near his hometown of Crofton, Maryland.
When Albert Rusnák signed with Real Salt Lake in January, he sought out Beckerman’s locker in RSL’s locker room. Soon after, the first player to contact him and welcome him to the club was Beckerman. He serves not only as the welcoming committee for new players from abroad and the father figure for young players coming into the team from RSL’s Academy and the SuperDraft.
That was a trait he picked up from his former midfield partner in Colorado and a mentor with Miami – current Rapids Head Coach Pablo Mastroeni.
“Pablo was a guy that I played quite a bit with and to see what he did every day in practice … I saw the message that he would give the guys and the way that would make me feel,” Beckerman said. “To be that close to the captain and what that meant to the team definitely helped me grow as a player and a person.”
Whereas Beckerman is something of an amalgamation of things he picked up from Mastroeni and the myriad other eventual head coaches he played with throughout his career, his influence can clearly be seen on players coming through Real Salt Lake’s organization.
Whether it’s Justen Glad’s rapid development or the way Omar Holness had evolved as a midfielder before a knee injury ended his season earlier this year. A quick word of advice or encouragement here or a biting criticism there distinguish him from others in his position as teammates listen with extra attention not just because he wears the armband, but because he walks the walk, too.
“He’s been to a World Cup. He’s won an MLS Cup. He’s an All-Star. He’s done all that and he still brings it every day,” Petke said. “It’s invaluable for me as a coach to point to a veteran like that who’s outworking everybody. He shows everybody every day what it takes to get to the level that he’s at.”
Echoed Wingert, “Anybody new to the team sees how hard the captain works day in and day out in practice and in the games and how he approaches everything he does with 100%. I think that really sets the tone for the group. Everybody realizes that they have to give it their all if they want to be a part of this team.”
All of these are things that may be expected of a captain, but Beckerman takes them on naturally.
“The way I look at it, whether I’m the captain or not, I still have to act the same way,” he said. “I still have to be the best teammate I can be. With the armband or not, I’m going to be the same way.”
While Real Salt Lake has always had a slew of veteran leaders, Beckerman has stood out as the clear choice to captain the squad.
“Every team I played on, if you walked into the locker room you probably wouldn’t know who is the captain,” Rusnák said. “If somebody doesn’t know soccer and walked into our locker room, they would know straight away that Kyle is the captain. He’s got that image and charisma about him. On the field, he always speaks before and after the game. During the game he motivates you. He’s the right man for this team.”
Scanning the crowd at Rio Tinto Stadium or the streets of Salt Lake City, the red No. 5 jersey of Kyle Beckerman is ubiquitous. He has long been a fan-favorite as much for his impressive accolades on the field as his every-man lifestyle off of it. He is approachable, affable and friendly. His interactions with children are a direct contrast to the intense buzzsaw he is when the whistle blows and the game is on the line.
For those reasons, he has become synonymous with the Real Salt Lake name and badge.
“He’s the cornerstone,” Marshall said. “When you speak of RSL, the first name that comes to mind is Kyle Beckerman. That’s the first thing that comes to my mind, at least.”
When Petke was promoted to Head Coach, he met with his former teammate and the captain of his new squad. Having quickly seen how pervasive he was in the club and community, Petke wanted to be sure Beckerman knew that his coach understood the player’s role in the organization.
“Kyle this is your team,” Petke recalls telling him. “This is your organization. I’m not there yet. I hope to be here another 5-10 years and I can put my stamp on this organization like you do. But this is your team.”
Similarly, Wingert was recently speaking with a friend who planted a seed in his head that could not be refuted, labeling Beckerman the most important player to any club in the history of Major League Soccer. In 22 seasons, many players have come and gone and put their stamps on a club. Few though have been as universally recognized in a community and penetrated the market outside the realm of sports the way Beckerman has in Utah.
“I think Kyle means as much to this club and to this city as anybody has in this league,” Wingert said. “I don’t think you can overstate his importance to both the club and the city.”
For his part, Beckerman remains humbled by the praise, but focused on doing the things that got him into the position that he’s in.
He has big goals for the organization and sees the bigger picture. Every action in every game. Every meeting with every fan. Every tweet. Every interview. Every time he pulls on the jersey. It’s an opportunity to bring Real Salt Lake closer to the stratosphere where clubs abroad with 100 years of history orbit.
He’s seen the club at its lowest and highest and wants more than anything for the fans – whether they are at their first match or saw Brian Dunseth score the first home goal at Rice Eccles Stadium in 2005 – to feel like the players on the field put it all on the line for them. That they have the same passion for the crest as the fans in the stands and watching at home.
“When we got here there was a clean slate for the most part. We had everything here for us. They had troubled times before we got here and it was in a rut. We felt like the fanbase was here … they just need a winning team. We felt like if we can put in the hard work and stick together and keep pushing forward, the success was going to come. The reception we got from the fans … it’s just been incredible. When we finally did win the championship, they deserved it. It felt great to be able to give something to our fans who had been so loyal. That’s constantly what we’re after,” he said. “We just want to keep building the foundation that this club can stand on. Now you get to see clubs like Manchester United or Inter Milan and all the history and the foundation they were built on. If you have that solid footing, it can bring trophies and bring consistent success.”