DaMarcus Beasley will go down in history as one of the USA’s best attackers. Flying up the left side, dropping a shoulder to ghost past defenders left rooted to the spot, he earned the nickname Jitterbug as a fleet-footed, forward-thinking winger. He was as good cutting inside to goal as he was zipping toward the corner flag to deliver a cross.

So what is the 31-year-old doing as a defender in the CONCACAF Gold?

“I’m as surprised as anyone about it, believe me,” Beasley told FIFA.com on the eve of the tournament final against Panama. “I didn’t expect this at all, but defending is what I do now for the national team.”

With 19 goals in their five games so far, this USA side – even without stars like Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey – is one of the most attack-minded in recent memory. It’s an irony not lost on Beasley. “My natural instincts tell me to get forward, which I still do now and then, but my job is to make sure I stay with my man and make sure we don’t give up any goals,” said the player who holds the scoring record for an American in the UEFA Champions League.

I didn’t expect this at all, but defending is what I do now for the national team.

DaMarcus Beasley on his new role for USA

Beasley’s career with the national team stalled after being largely overlooked by former coach Bob Bradley at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, where he made just one substitute appearance. He struggled to nail down a starting spot for club side Wolfsburg in Germany after breakout stints with PSV, Manchester City and Glasgow Rangers. Injuries began to take a toll, months passed and it looked like Beasley’s time was up after 100 caps. “There was a whole year where I was on the outside looking in,” he said. “I just wasn’t getting called in.”

A move to Mexican side Puebla two years ago changed that. “I owe my return to that move. It gave me another chance,” said Beasley after the semi-final win against Honduras.  Klinsmann, who took over the US reins after South Africa 2010, noticed Beasley’s revived form south of the border. He also noticed that, in a pinch, he’d been used for his club as a left-back once or twice. “Klinsmann asked me if I could do that for the national team and I said ‘yeah.’ That was the whole conversation.”

With a spate of injuries to influential defenders, Beasley stepped into the left-back hole for FIFA World Cup qualifiers in March against Costa Rica and Mexico. It was a shock to US fans, but he performed admirably. “I get more and more comfortable in the role with every game, and I get a lot of support from my team-mates,” admitted Beasley, who has – on rare occasion – shown frailties in the tackling department. His challenge on Rodolfo Zelaya in the quarter-final against El Salvador led to a penalty kick, and a goal.

Klinsmann rates his transformed winger so highly that he named him team captain in the run-up to the Gold Cup. “It’s an honour just to pull on the US shirt again, to hear the anthem again, but to wear the captain’s armband is beyond anything,” said Beasley, who admits his biggest goal right now is convincing Klinsmann to take him to his fourth FIFA World Cup in Brazil next year. “I know when I look back on my career, this will be one of the special moments.”

Klinsmann’s affections for his on-field lieutenant couldn’t be clearer: “He’s is a pure giver,” the German said. “He told me he would play whatever role we asked. He’s tremendous.”

Panama replay
Should the States do the expected and beat Panama in the final on Sunday, Beasley, as captain, will have the honour of lifting the trophy first. But it’s not something he’s taking for granted. He and Landon Donovan were both part of the US side that needed penalties to beat Panama the last time the two met in a Gold Cup final in 2005. “It was very hot day and they pushed us the whole way,” said Beasley, who finished that tournament as top-scorer.

More recent meetings with the Canaleros haven’t been simple affairs either. A 2-0 result in Brazil 2014 qualifying in Seattle last month wasn’t cut and dry for the Americans, and Panama have included some of their top players, like goalkeeper Jaime Penedo and striker Blas Perez, for this Gold Cup. “They are a tricky team,” Beasley said of the underdog Panamanians. “If we don’t concentrate for the whole 90 minutes, we’ll be in trouble. This is not a group game. It’s for a trophy and everything’s on the line.”

Beasley’s clearly warming to the role of captain and spiritual leader and he’s ready to defend the cause one more time on Sunday in Chicago, where his club career began as a teenager with MLS’s Fire over a decade ago. “This is a chance to win something,” said the man who’s making the most of his second chance. “We don’t want the whistle to blow and think about what might have been.”