NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- Who will be the most important player for the U.S. in Saturday night's massive grudge match against Mexico? There's goalkeeper Brad Guzan, who'll probably be called on to make at least one game-changing save. There's Clint Dempsey, still far and away the squad's deadliest scoring threat. Or maybe it will be Michael Bradley, the national team's captain and its beating heart.
For U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann, the correct answer might just be Kyle Beckerman.
The 33-year-old MLS lifer's name might not have the cachet of the others, but make no mistake: If the U.S. is to win in Pasadena, Beckerman figures to play a crucial part by sitting deep and thwarting El Tri's attacks in front of the American back line, breaking up plays before they can turn into dangerous scoring chances.
For all the qualities veteran midfielders like Bradley, Alejandro Bedoya and Jermaine Jones bring, there is still no member of the U.S. player pool that does those specific things nearly as well as the Real Salt Lake man. Don't believe it? Consider that when Bedoya was shoehorned into the destroyer role against Brazil last month, with Beckerman home resting his sore groin in part so he'd be ready for Saturday's tilt, the experiment lasted less than a half.
Beckerman is a specialist. He's consistent. He was one of the best American players at last year's World Cup. Indeed, when asked what he could've done differently in Brazil, Klinsmann pinpointed not starting the midfielder in the round of 16 loss to Belgium as the one decision he'd like back.
"After the World Cup, I had several clubs in Europe calling me saying 'Wow, we never knew that Kyle was such an influence on the field,'" Klinsmann said in a recent interview with ESPN FC. "I told them that three years ago, but they never wanted to watch his games. Kyle could've played his whole career in Europe if somebody would have seen certain things when he was 22, the way he cleans up."
Foreign teams weren't the only ones that overlooked him. Despite being a part of the same U17 national team class as DaMarcus Beasley, Landon Donovan and Oguchi Onyewu, Beckerman didn't become a regular with the senior squad until Klinsmann replaced Bob Bradley at the U.S. helm in 2011. He was in the new boss' lineup from his very first game (which, incidentally, came against Mexico), and for the most part, has remained there ever since.
"You get a coach that believes in you, trusts you to get the job done and has you in his plans and things change really quickly," Beckerman told ESPN FC. "Bob had his guys. I think his mentality was more 'We need guys that are in Europe.' Whether they were playing at the time in Europe or not, they were in before an MLS player."
Right up until the World Cup, Beckerman had no shortage of doubters. His pedigree and athleticism were questioned. Indeed, Klinsmann opted for the rangy Geoff Cameron in that game against the imposing Belgians, and the rare occasions when Beckerman has struggled came against physical, lightning-quick foes like Jamaica, which knocked the U.S. out of the Gold Cup in July.
But what Beckerman lacks in sheer brawn he makes up for with brains. And in any case, the 5-foot-11 Maryland native is ideally suited for Saturday's match against the technical Mexicans.
"There are going to be times when we're going to be under pressure," he said. "We can't break. We're going to have to be firm in there and defend, and when we get them under pressure, we're going to have to make them pay and finish our chances."
As much as Klinsmann values Beckerman's ability to extinguish fires before they ignite, the coach might appreciate his positive disposition and team-first attitude even more. Beckerman is beloved in the U.S. locker room for his lack of ego. Teammates know he'll never rock the boat. Take his reaction to getting benched for the most important game at the World Cup: After a stellar first-round performance, Beckerman had every right to be upset, and he was. But he also kept the bigger picture in mind.
"When he told me I wasn't going to start, of course I was a little disappointed," Beckerman said. "But I was like, 'OK, if you need me, I'll be ready.' I got on with it. It didn't matter.
"We had 23 guys there, and whether you played or not, you were part of the group. You want to start every game, but I understand that there's going to be times where decisions go for you, and times when they don't."
Asked where that mentality comes from, Beckerman is quick to say that as a younger player, he might have been a bit more selfish. But he cites his background in wrestling, in whch he won a state championship as a high school freshman, as a major influence on his mindset. "Wrestlers are all about discipline," he says. "There's a lot of, 'If you're not working, somebody's working harder.' I brought that mentality to soccer. Sure, it's a team sport, but a lot of times it's about winning your individual battles. If you win six out of 10 on the field, your team has a better chance."
The U.S. has a better chance against El Tri with Beckerman in the lineup. How many more opportunities will he get? Klinsmann hung up his boots at 33, and the coach has said that the outcome of this CONCACAF Cup could influence how long the veterans stick around before being replaced by the next generation. It won't change Beckerman's approach.
"The plan for this game is to get a win," he said. "I've been playing every cap like it could be my last for a long time now. I'm going to do it the same on Saturday."