Falling back in love with the beautiful game: Kyle Bekker’s journey to Forge FC

TORONTO – There was a time, if brief, that Kyle Bekker considered stepping away from the game of soccer entirely.

Riddled with self-doubt and disillusioned by the state of the sporting world around him, Bekker considered calling it quits, hanging his boots, and trying something else. Anything, really.

As he prepares to lead Forge FC into the inaugural Canadian Premier League season, Bekker brings with him plenty of experiences, both good and bad. They’re the sort of twists and turns that can lead one to a darker place – or, in Bekker’s case, the sort that allows a player to learn meaningful lessons toward personal growth.

The first of those lessons came in the form of reputation and expectations, very early in his career.

A backward start for club and country

Bekker came through the youth system in his hometown with the Oakville Blue Stars and quickly found success on both the provincial and national level. He moved first to the Mississauga Dixie Dominators, and, later, to Sigma FC, where he was first introduced to Bobby Smyrniotis, now his head coach at Forge.

Drafted third-overall by Toronto FC in the 2013 MLS SuperDraft, Bekker struggled to find his footing in the professional game. He wasn’t helped by circumstance: The Reds, under Ryan Nelsen and Kevin Payne, were still in a transitionary period. Bekker’s high draft selection put him under the spotlight immediately, and a surprise national team call-up in January of 2013 proved controversial, as Bekker had yet to suit up or play a professional game of soccer.

“It was weird,” Bekker told of his introduction in 2013. “I was lucky enough to train in a few MLS environments before getting drafted, so I had an idea of what it was. Then it was just a whirlwind with the draft. Everyone gets caught up in it. It’s relatively dumb at the end of the day, but it’s fun, it’s exciting.

“But then I get called into a January camp. I end up playing with the full national team before I’ve even played a minute professional. That, to me, was backwards. But what am I going to do? Say no?

“That’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. You can’t say no. And you don’t even have the mindset to say this is a little weird.”

That opportunity upended the natural order of things. Bekker went into TFC preseason a little late as a result.

“You come in new and people have a perception of who you are before you even get there,” Bekker said. “Once we got going, I was young, naive, and very excited about fulfilling my lifelong dream.”

Kyle Bekker suits up for Toronto FC during the 2016 Canadian Championship. (Canada Soccer).
Kyle Bekker suits up for Toronto FC in a 401 Derby tilt vs. Montreal. (Canada Soccer).

Bekker made 11 appearances in all competitions through his rookie season, then played 24 times in the next.

Change, however, was coming to Toronto.

Dallas, Montreal, and hating soccer

Near the end of Bekker’s rookie year, Tim Bezbatchenko stepped into the general manager’s role and Greg Vanney replaced Nelsen a little under a year later.

Bekker was then traded to FC Dallas for allocation money. It came out of the blue.

“We did butt heads,” Bekker admitted, referring to Toronto’s new guard. “There was talk that maybe I’d leave earlier, then I was going to stay. When (Dallas) came up it was a surprise to me, but I knew I needed to get out of Toronto.”

In Dallas, Bekker worked with Oscar Pareja – now the coach of Liga MX outfit Club Tijuana. Pareja had a reputation for giving young players a chance. Bekker describes him as “intense,” exactly the sort of mentality he responds to the most. “The complete polar opposite of what was happening in Toronto,” Bekker adds.

However, Dallas’ roster rules put him in an awkward position. Bekker was Canadian, and counted as an international player, of which only a limited number may play on any given MLS roster.

“The whole time I was (thinking) if I’m not playing, I have one foot out the door, taking up a valuable roster spot on the bench,” Bekker recalled. “It was a tough time.”

Months before his 25th birthday, Bekker found himself with his third professional club in as many seasons, traded to Montreal after making just nine appearances for Dallas.

Doubts began to creep in.

“Right away, I was like what is going on? Why can’t I stick? What’s happening?” Bekker admitted. “I’m the problem, clearly. You look internally, see what you’re doing wrong. It gets very frustrating.”

Meaningful minutes weren’t hard to come by in Montreal, though. Under both Frank Klopas and Mauro Biello, Bekker quickly figured his way into the Impact lineup. There were still plenty of ups and downs. Inexplicably to some, Bekker was released at the end of the 2016 season, as Montreal underwent its own transformation.

“Leaving Montreal, I absolutely hated soccer,” Bekker admitted. “I’m not afraid to talk about it. I was over the game, I hated everything it was about. I was frustrated with the business side. I don’t know if I was being honest with myself – was I doing enough?

“There is regret and frustration, but I was just done, and doubting if I was good enough.”

Bekker playing for Montreal against his former team Toronto Canadian Championship. (Canada Soccer).
Bekker playing for Montreal against his former team Toronto Canadian Championship. (Canada Soccer).

It wasn’t the first time he had found himself rudderless.

“Around 13, 14 I also hit a standstill. I was having a tough time,” Bekker said. “I was smaller than everyone – I hadn’t grown yet – I was still a little skinny kid. I was wavering with what I felt about soccer, my idea of it. I didn’t know what I was doing.

“Meeting Bobby, going into Sigma was big for me, in terms of where I was in my development, finding more confidence in what I was doing,” Bekker continued, emphasizing the technical aspects as key to his rejuvenation. “That side, the technical part, is the side I appreciate so much more.

“We’re actually doing this here in Canada now. It was a perfect fit, timing-wise, getting back to doing the stuff that I always loved, the basics, the fundamentals. That got me going.”

Now 26 and without a club, Bekker found himself at a similar crossroads.

A fresh start with a ‘band of misfits’

It was the work of another Canadian coach that rekindled his passion for the beautiful game – current Vancouver Whitecaps FC coach Marc Dos Santos, then with the San Francisco Deltas.

“One last kick of the can,” Bekker said, of his move to the Deltas. “Let’s see if I can find joy in this game, this thing that I’ve dedicated my whole life to. Before I walk away, let’s try one last time.”

If Bekker was expecting a professional group in the Bay Area dedicated to winning, what he found, instead, was what he described as a “band of misfits.”

“We had a funny group of guys. No one took themselves too serious,” Bekker said. “We were all in it for similar reasons: To get regular minutes, to enjoy it, and see if we could get something going.”

Bekker made 32 appearances for San Francisco that season, scoring four goals and registering six assists – things were clicking.

He, alongside fellow Canadians Nana Attakora, Karl Ouimette, Maxim Tissot and the rest of the Deltas would win the 2017 NASL Soccer Bowl.

Three days later, the Deltas would no longer exist. The NASL folded and the band was broken up.

Bekker found himself another club, his fifth, signing with North Carolina FC ahead of the 2018 USL season.

There, Bekker truly hit stride – he scored seven goals and added 13 assist in 36 matches. His play started to garner further attention. Life was good – no, great, in fact. And whatever doubts Bekker had about his place in the beautiful game had been more than quashed.

Then coach Bobby called, and Bekker was once again faced with a life-altering decision.

Stay and play in North Carolina, or go back to Ontario with his woes … and redeem himself where it all began.

In the end, there was no real choice to be made. Bekker became the first player signed in Forge FC history.

Stripping away the bulls—

Even after leaving Sigma, Bobby Smyrniotis always kept a close eye on Bekker.

Forge FC head coach Bobby Smyrniotis with his club's first signings, Kyle Bekker and Chris Nanco. (Forge FC/Twitter)
Forge FC head coach Bobby Smyrniotis with his club’s first signings, Kyle Bekker and Chris Nanco. (Forge FC/Twitter)

“It’s important he’s in a team that wants to and can play technical football. That’s where everything stems from,” Smyrniotis said of Bekker. “Players are very particular to a style of play, you know.”

Whether it was in Toronto, Dallas, Montreal or San Francisco, Bekker had not been utilized entirely correctly. In North Carolina, Bekker found his feet – and a leader’s voice, too.

“Something I missed in my career was being the guy who takes a young guy under his wing, helps him out, explains the reality of what is going on,” Bekker said. “Trying to be that voice in the room, finding my way of how I can step into a role like that? It was nice.”

That leadership role, coupled with his varied and dangerous skillset, is exactly what Smyrniotis wants out of Bekker in Hamilton.

Luckily, since his mid-career crisis of confidence, Bekker’s outlook on the game has changed drastically, too.

“What I found the last few years is that the lower leagues strip away all the bulls—,” Bekker said. “You don’t have all the fancy gear, you’re not treated big time. A lot of people are in it for the wrong reasons.

“I found that I just love soccer. This is what I want to do for the rest of my life in some fashion or another. I found that joy in it.”

That maturation process can be difficult, doubly so as professional athletes have to do it on a stage with an audience. But Bekker called it a “humbling experience.”

“You think about all the times you worried about the dumbest stuff – the money, what everyone else is doing – instead of what you’re doing on a daily basis,” Bekker explained. “You forget that we have this unbelievable opportunity to be a professional soccer player. This is my job. I could be sitting at a desk, doing something I hate, but I’m lucky enough to be doing this.

“I want to convey that – get out in the community, grow this game, connect with the fans – we can all be in this together.”

Back in Canada, ready for the upcoming season, Bekker is a new man. He’s eager to embark on this next adventure.

“The unique opportunity we have with the CPL is that we are starting from nothing,” Bekker explained. “How do we connect from the top down internally and then how do we connect the communities? How do we get this going on the right foot and keep moving in a positive direction?

“Every day, if we can look at ourselves and say we’re better than we were yesterday, even if it’s the most small, incremental thing, that’s something I want to be a part of.”

Renewed in his purpose, Bekker has emerged once again. This time, his introduction promises even greater days to come.