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ND graduates reunite in MLS

Joseph Monardo | Thursday, November 1, 2012

“Teammates” only begins to describe the relationship between former Irish players Matt Besler and Michael Thomas. Childhood acquaintances, former roommates and friends, Besler and Thomas have continued their careers together on their hometown MLS team after spending three seasons together at Notre Dame.

“It is something that we get asked a lot,” Thomas said in a phone interview Oct. 5. “Obviously me and ‘Bes’ were really good friends at Notre Dame. We grew up together around here [in Kansas], but we got to know each other a lot better there [at Notre Dame]. We would always kind of joke around about possibly playing with each other in the future and always going back and playing for your hometown team, how cool that would be.”

What began as a joke has turned into reality.

Besler, who made 73 starts and 90 appearances as a defender in his Notre Dame career, was a two-time team captain, three-time member of the All-Big East team and an All-American his senior season. The Overland Park, Kan., native went eighth overall in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft to the Kansas City Wizards (now Sporting Kansas City). Besler became the highest-drafted Notre Dame player to enter the MLS.

In 2010, Thomas went 19th in the second round to the San Jose Earthquakes but opted to play in the top Swedish league Allsvenskan for Halmstads BK. What was at the time a difficult decision to play in Sweden has paid dividends professionally and personally, the midfielder said, and has ultimately led the Olathe, Kan., native back ton Azteca Stadium in Mexico City. While the MLS All-Star team’s 4-0 loss to Manchester United was memorable, Besler said the call-up to the national team represented an important achievement and an experience he hopes to replicate.

“It was awesome,” he said in a phone interview on Oct. 4. “Awesome experience. I was so excited when I heard the news. It’s something I’ve been working toward pretty much my whole life. I’ve always wanted to represent the country I love. I was shocked first but once I was down in Mexico I wanted to take it all in and learn as much as possible but also show what I can do on the field. Looking back we were the first U.S. team ever to win in Azteca Stadium in Mexico so that’s something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

“I’ve been in contact with [United States coach] Jurgen Klinsmann and his staff. They said, ‘Continue to work hard. You’re on our radar.’ I’m hoping to get another chance here in the future.”

Besler said he attributes some of his professional success to lessons learned during his time as a member of the Irish squad.

“The culture that the team has at [Notre Dame] that [Irish] coach [Bobby] Clark brings to everybody, it sets you up for success in the professional game,” he said. “For me, other than the speed of play in the professional game, there weren’t a whole lot of adjustments I had to make with how things were done. [Notre Dame] runs its program like a professional team.”

Thomas, who started in 81 of his 83 appearances in an Irish uniform and served as a two-time team captain, also said the environment at Notre Dame helped prepare him for a professional career.

“With the players that I was surrounded with and the coaches and the facilities and everything, it really just showed me how lucky I was at the time and how much I wanted it that much more -you know, to be a professional,” he said. “I think they prepared me the right way on and off the field.”

Thomas said he is especially grateful for the role Clark played in his development.

“I mean, words can’t describe how much he means to me and everybody,” he said. “He is a very good coach on and off the field. He knows how to get the best from everyone. He was always someone who taught me how to be a disciplined player. … He really taught me just to be patient with everything and just to keep working hard and everything will fall into place.”

Now reunited on Sporting Kansas City, both players have benefited from their familiarity with each other both on and off the field, Besler said.

“I love playing with Michael,” he said. “I think it’s a great story and I think Michael is a great player as well. … I’m very close with Michael and he’s one of my best friends. It’s been nice to have that comfort level and we get along very well.”

Besler, the brother of current Irish sophomore midfielder Nick Besler, said he enjoys following Notre Dame soccer, especially this year’s team.

“I’m so excited for the team this year,” he said. “They’re off to a great start. I follow very closely and try to watch as many games as possible. I’m very happy and proud of how they responded to last season, [the first season in which Notre Dame failed to qualify for the NCAA tournament since 2000]. It was disappointing for them and for us as alums but they’ve done a terrific job of turning this thing around. I’m impressed.”

Thomas said he also enjoys following the No. 7 Irish (13-3-1, 5-2-1 Big East), who have had to overcome season-ending knee injuries to senior midfielders Adam Mena and co-captain Michael Rose. Still, Thomas said, Notre Dame has a chance to do this year something the Irish were unable to do during his time – or any other time in school history: Reach the national semifinals.

“[Mena and Rose] are both strong leaders and both really good players as well,” Thomas said. “But I think the players that have come in for them have stepped up big time. And you can just tell by watching, there is a swagger about them. They have a confidence and they seem to be playing the right way. … It’s not cockiness, it’s just confidence. If they can keep going, keep playing as well as they [have been], hopefully they will be the team to get the first final four for men’s soccer. And I am confident with the way I’ve seen them play. I just hope they keep it up.”

As the top seed in the Eastern conference, Kansas City will play the winner of the Chicago Fire and Houston Dynamo in a two-game series beginning Sunday.

Contact Joseph Monardo at jmonardo@nd.edu