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Player Spotlight: Going on a decade in Utah, Kyle Beckerman searches for a return to the summit

Kyle Beckerman remembers what it was like when he first got to Real Salt Lake.

An expansion team in 2005, the club had spent two seasons struggling in the league, missing the playoffs on each occasion. But after the 2006 season, the franchise acquired Nick Rimando in a trade. Then in the middle of the 2007 campaign, it hired then-player Jason Kreis as coach, traded for Beckerman and picked up Javier Morales - moves that drastically altered the course of the team, both on the field and off it.

“The biggest thing we did was to change the mentality. Before we got here, they didn’t have that winning mentality yet,” Beckerman told Goal USA. “It started from practice. We brought it every day, the new coaching staff implemented a lot of competition in practice. And all the guys that came were willing to put in the hard work.”

Though the team again missed the playoffs in 2007, the foundation was laid. In 2008, Beckerman’s first as team captain, the team made the Western Conference final. RSL won the league in 2009, made a run to the CONCACAF Champions League final in 2010, and lost in the MLS Cup and U.S. Open Cup final in 2013. And of course there were playoffs, in MLS, every year.

Until 2015.

Last season, the bottom didn’t quite fall out - RSL still qualified for the knockout stages of the CONCACAF Champions League - but the team struggled with a new formation, struggled with injuries, struggled with international call ups and in the end struggled in the standings. It was first time since Beckerman’s debut season with the team he missed the playoffs.

“It was extremely frustrating,” said Beckerman, who played just 26 games in 2015. “We made a lot of moves in the offseason that put us behind the eight ball. We tried a lot of new things last year. Sometimes we were going away from things that made us successful. So it was a tough year to take. But we tried to do and control what we could - work hard in practice and try to get ready for the next game.”

Building through the training field is a common refrain from the veteran. That filters through to the rest of the team, according Real Salt Lake coach Jeff Cassar.

“There’s so many reasons why (Kyle) is successful,” Cassar told Goal USA. "But he’s our captain, he’s our catalyst, he’s our leader, both on the field and off the field. He’s the one who brings the energy, brings the fight and everyone follows suit, because they have to.

“On top of that, he has an amazing soccer sense to recognize what needs to be happening on the field in difficult situations, whether it’s a good switch, a good through ball or a good tackle. He always recognizes what we need as a team.”

That can extend to making the new additions to the team feel welcome, especially young players even though Beckerman takes a largely hands-off approach.

“The big thing is to try to make these guys feel comfortable, to gel them into the team as quick as possible because I feel like if these guys feel comfortable, if they feel like they have friends around, they’ll play their best soccer,” he said. “That’s what we want - if they’re playing their best soccer, we’re all going to be a better team. And just pass a little knowledge to them - things I’ve learned over the years like taking care of your body, making sure you get a massage and doing the extra work after practice - little things like that.

“A lot of these guys have a good head on their shoulders where they’ve gotten this far doing the right thing. If I can add a little here and there to help them get to that next level, then I’ll do it.”

Now entering his tenth season with the team, his 17th as a pro, it’s simplistic to say RSL’s fortunes are tied to its captain - after all it had a successful regular season in 2014 despite Beckerman playing an important role for the United States at the World Cup.

However, given the veteran holding midfielder’s importance to the side, it’s fair to question how his absence, and the wear his body took at the Gold Cup, affected the side.

But international duty is something Beckerman takes pride in and actively prepares for.

“Going into the season I’m always thinking that playing all those games is a possibility, so I prepare my body and I prepare mentally for it,” he said. “It’s just the way it is, you’ve just got to be ready for it. I felt OK. Of course there are tough times when the games are super close and the travel, but I felt my body held up pretty solid last year.”

And if anyone is wondering whether Beckerman thinks his time with the national team is over, the midfielder is prepping and working hard to be called in for the Copa America Centenario this summer.

“I think you’re always hoping - whenever you get a chance to play with the national team it’s such a huge honor,” he said. “You’ve always got to be ready. That’s all you can do. Just try to be informed, try to keep your team up in the standings - that always helps - but you’re always prepared. If the call comes, you’re ready. And if not, you just keep working hard and hope for another chance.”

Turning 34 in April, those chances may not come around much longer, both with the national team and in league play. Yet, there’s no sign of quit from the veteran, who is hoping to add more silverware to his name before he calls it a career.

“My body feels good. I still have a love of the game, coming to practice every day, working hard and being around the guys," he said. "That’s all still there.

“One of the things I’d like to accomplish is to win another trophy. It’s just so much fun when you’re at the top of the summit. All the hard work - it’s trying to get back there to win another trophy. That’s a goal of mine for sure, to get another trophy before I call it quits.”

No player can outlast age forever, however. And Beckerman has given some thought about the future, even if he isn’t ready to make it his present just yet.

“I think being a part of soccer in some sort of way would probably be something I’d be interested in,” he said. “Both my parents were teachers, so I think I’ve got some of that coaching, teaching in my blood.

“It’s cliche, but you really have to take it one year at a time. That’s what I’m doing. Hopefully we’ll get back to winning a bunch of games this year, maybe win a trophy, and then go on to the next.”