As a kid, Kyle Beckerman always had his eye on the goal. He painted pictures of U.S. soccer stars, wowed classmates at Crofton Woods Elementary with his command of a soccer ball and even tagged his adolescent signature: "USA #15."
Attending the World Cup in 1994 crystallized his dream.
Twenty years after he watched a World Cup game in Washington, D.C., the 32-year-old Beckerman is set to play in his first World Cup for the United States, which kicks off its tournament Monday against Ghana in Natal, Brazil.
"Each day, it sinks in more and more that it's really happening," Beckerman said.
The midfielder told local reporters on a conference call last week that only when he arrived in Brazil and the tournament began would he "feel like it's really happening, like I'm not just dreaming."
He certainly knows what it's like to dream of a World Cup moment, having signed everything from yearbooks to Mother's Day cards with the "USA #15" tag as a child. It's much less likely he understood what it would take to earn that national team jersey.
'He'd dazzle us'
Though he starred in many sports early on, it wasn't hard to map Beckerman's future, those who know him said.
At Crofton Woods Elementary, "the sport of choice at recess was soccer and the games were dominated by older kids," said John Hanczaryk, a classmate. "When Kyle started scoring goals, the 5th graders were in awe. They kept asking, 'He's in second grade?' "
By 8, Beckerman was a soccer prodigy, Ryan McCauley said.
"After youth league games, Kyle would grab me and say, 'I want to try some moves on you,' " said McCauley, a longtime friend. "Then he'd dazzle us with all this stuff that we'd never seen. He smoked me. The guy was three or four years ahead of us, skill-wise."
Other sports beckoned but fell off his grid. In 3rd grade, Beckerman chose to play both rec soccer and football in the fall, but he soon dropped the latter — though not because of the challenge.
"Going straight from one practice to another, he didn't like changing all of that football gear in the car," said his mother, Meg Beckerman.
Beckerman grew up in Crofton, in a quiet, leafy neighborhood where he and other kids played pick-up games of street hockey, or lacrosse or soccer in the Beckermans' well-worn yard. Sometimes they simply stood in awe as the shaggy-haired kid with the gifted limbs performed a juggling act.
"In middle school, Kyle would bounce the ball off his knees, chest, head and feet, and we'd keep count of how many times he did it before the ball hit the ground," Hanczaryk said. "When he got into a rhythm, he could top 1,000. He was always out to break his record."
His bedroom walls were peppered with posters of Pele and other soccer stars, as well as a watercolor of Tony Meola, goalie of the 1990 U.S. World Cup team, a painting done together by Beckerman and his mom.
Come summer, he swam and played tennis at the Pointer Ridge Swim and Racquet Club in Bowie. But soccer always intervened.
"Kyle and his friends found a grassy area beside the pool, put some lawn chairs together to make a goal and played there," Meg Beckerman said.
'A big-boy decision'
The final sport he shed was wrestling. He'd followed older brother Todd onto the mat. Four years Kyle's senior, Todd Beckerman starred at DeMatha, going 208-1, then made All-America at Nebraska and is now the wrestling coach at Brown University.
As a freshman at DeMatha, Kyle Beckerman won a 1997 Maryland Independent Schools wrestling championship at 112 pounds before he transferred to Arundel to focus on soccer.
His parents saw it coming.
"In 8th grade, Kyle had just reached the semifinals of the Maryland Junior League State Championships when he took off his wrestling shoes and put on his soccer shoes," Paul Beckerman said. "He said, 'Tell them I'm going to forfeit my slot' — and he left to compete in [Olympic Development Program] soccer tryouts that afternoon. His mother and I were shocked, but Kyle had to make a big-boy decision, and he did."
In two years at Arundel, Beckerman had 28 goals and 7 assists as center midfielder. He made first-team all-state and led the Wildcats to 23 victories in 32 games. (His senior season was spent playing with the U.S. Under-17 team in Florida.)
"He was the best player on the field at all times," McCauley said. "He could have dribbled through an entire team by himself if he'd wanted to — sometimes you wished he'd just score and win the game — but Kyle always tried to feed others and make the assist."
Beckerman's soccer savvy was 20/20, teammate Mike Brady said:
"It was like he could see the whole field. And his first touch was amazing. Any ball that came his way wound up right at his feet — and Becks knew right where it was going afterward."
'Trials and tribulations'
Beckerman "thought things were going on a good direction" toward a World Cup spot after he helped the 1999 Under-17 World Cup team to a fourth-place finish.
U.S. Soccer quickly elevated some players from that squad to national team stardom — DaMarcus Beasley and Landon Donovan each starred in the 2002 World Cup, and they were joined by Bobby Convey and Oguchi Onyewu in 2006. Beckerman was forced to take the stairs.
He joined Miami Fusion FC in 2000 as part of the Nike/MLS Project-40, which paid a higher-than-entry-level salary to encourage young players to join the domestic Major League Soccer. Beckerman joined the Colorado Rapids after Miami folded in 2002, and he broke into Colorardo's starting 11 a year later. In January 2007, he earned his first national team call-up before a midseason trade to Real Salt Lake.
Beckerman flourished in Salt Lake under coach Jason Kreis, earning the captain's armband in the 2008 season and helping the club to an MLS title in 2009. Beckerman played in the 2009 Gold Cup, but he wasn't part of then-coach Bob Bradley's plans for South Africa in 2010.
"It hasn't been an all-rosy sort of affair," said Kreis, now coach of the expansion New York City FC. "There's been some trials and tribulations and difficult times for Kyle, and a lot of people around Kyle, including myself, were kind of wondering why he wasn't involved on a more regular basis in the national team. … I remember speaking to him on several occasions where he said, 'I think I'm done with the national team, I can't seem to get any foothold there.'"
U.S. Soccer replaced Bradley with Jurgen Klinsmann in 2011, and Beckerman became more involved. Kreis said Beckerman struggled with his role under Klinsmann as well. But Beckerman's play in MLS made him impossible to leave off the 23-man World Cup roster.
He enters the tournament as one of the most decorated players in the history of MLS, which was formed shortly after the 1994 World Cup. The seven-time All-Star has played more minutes in the league than all but two other outfield players, and despite his defensive midfield role, he has 34 career goals and 45 assists.
"Jurgen's big thing is he doesn't care where you play — it's how you're playing and what you mean to that team," Beckerman said. "I think he's seeing what I've brought to Salt Lake, and that's what I think got me on the radar to get a chance. Then he got to see me up close, and that's what got me here."
Now, he must find his way onto the field in a competitive United States midfield. Klinsmann has used Beckerman in several roles ahead of the tournament, and Beckerman knows — just as he always has — that it'll require his best effort to get onto the pitch and contribute to the American effort.
"I always thought when I did start playing with the men's team that every moment could be your last with the national team, so make sure you don't take it for granted," he said. "I never did. … You've just got to bring it every day. If you're called to start or come off the bench, you've got to perform well."
Pro team: Real Salt Lake
Hobbies off the field: Fishing, listening to reggae music, playing guitar, skateboarding and ping-pong
Twitter: @KyleBeckermanCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun