When USA take on Jamaica in Kansas City this Friday, the longest dreadlocks on the pitch won’t belong to one of the Reggae Boyz. That distinction will go to American midfielder Kyle Beckerman.

“I always liked the way dreads looked,” Beckerman, a no-nonsense middle-man who’s sparkled recently for Jurgen Klinsmann’s Stars and Stripes, told FIFA.com with a chuckle, dispelling any notion he might be a covert Rastafarian. “Luckily, or unluckily I guess, I just happen to have the kind of hair that will knot up pretty quick if I don’t comb it.”

Beckerman is hard to miss, and not only for his wild mane. A sturdy, combative midfielder, he drops deep to deliver the ball up to attackers like Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey. Easily dismissed as a destroyer, just another anonymous holding man, Beckerman has a subtle creative sense and can deliver a killer pass from deep.

These qualities haven’t gone unnoticed by Klinsmann, who’s called up the 31-year-old Beckerman far more consistently than previous coaches have. “You can’t find a better pro than him,” said Klinsmann whose faith in Beckerman was rewarded by head-turning performances en route to a CONCACAF title in this summer’s Gold Cup. “He’s totally committed and focused. Every time he steps on the field you know what you’ll get.”

Impressive against Mexico
The best performance of his 32 caps came last month when Beckerman deputised for injured Roma star Michael Bradley, stepping in to help orchestrate a 2-0 win over arch-rivals Mexico. It was a result that put the States through to their seventh straight FIFA World Cup™. “The atmosphere was amazing,” said Beckerman.

He crowded the Mexican danger-men out of the game in a dynamic performance in Ohio. “To qualify like that, beating your biggest rivals in front of a great crowd was just amazing. After we scored our first goal, you saw their heads drop, and we knew it was lights out after that”

Beckerman also knows what it’s like to be on the wrong side of the rivalry, having played in the humiliating 5-0 loss to Mexico in the final of the 2009 CONCACAF Gold Cup in New York. “I’m just glad we’re in the position we’re in now and not in their shoes.” While American confidence soars, Mexico’s woes are deepening. They face a nervous last two games still unsure of a place at next year’s finals in Brazil. “It just shows how crazy soccer can be and how quickly things can change,” Beckerman said.

I take pride in being consistent and steady.

USA's holding midfielder Beckerman

Having been overlooked for so long at international level, Beckerman is now in line to take part in his first World Cup finals. “Of course it’s in the back of my head,” he said with reluctance and maybe a hint of superstition. “I just need to take it one call-up at a time and take care of my body. But it’s a dream. It’s everyone’s dream who plays this game.”

In 1999, Beckerman was part of an experimental program launched by the US Soccer federation. Invited to take part in an exclusive development camp, he moved from his home in Maryland to Florida where he joined the best teenage players from across the country to live, breathe and sleep football. “It was a new thing. There was nothing like this in the States before,” he recalled of the residency camp, now a mainstay of the USA’s youth system. “We were kids and we were naïve, but we wanted to build respect for the US.”

They did, too. Beckerman and team-mates DaMarcus Beasley, Landon Donovan and Oguchi Onyewu finished fourth in the 1999 U-17 World Cup in New Zealand. It was the best achievement by any US men's team in a FIFA World Cup finals since the third-place finish at the first ever World Cup in 1930. And it sparked a new generation of stars, setting the States on the trajectory of regional dominance. But while the likes of Beasley and Donovan went on to become household names, helping the senior team to the World Cup quarter-finals just three years later, Beckerman drifted into a kind of obscurity. His was a slow burn to success.

The long road
He became an MLS professional in 2000, but he had trouble adapting. It took time to find his way. After four years and two clubs, he began to carve out significant playing time, and in 2007 he found a real home, a true groove at unfashionable Real Salt Lake. “The club is perfect for me. We’re like a family,” he said. “We play tough and our theory is simple: work hard for the guy next to you. It’s contagious.” 

Beckerman’s been an MLS all-star for the last five seasons. And as team captain he inspired the side, who were bottom of the league when he joined up, to the 2009 MLS title. He is the perfect embodiment of the blue-collar ethic prevalent in the Real Salt Lake organisation, a team without stars. “I take pride in being consistent and steady,” he said.

It’s precisely this steadiness that has the dreadlocked Beckerman back on the pitch with his old pals Beasley and Donovan, pushing hard for a spot at the World Cup. “I missed playing with those guys,” he concluded, thinking back to his early days in a USA jersey, taking on the world in New Zealand. “We all went our different ways, down our different paths, but here we are together again.”