By Kevin Fixler
COMMERCE CITY, Colo. -- It's been quite a trip for Steven Beitashour, and more than just the lengthy one he took that included a couple international layovers before finding his way to the northern Denver suburb this past Saturday.
"I'm like, 'What time zone are we in right now?' I'm all over the place," said the 27-year-old, conceding some jet lag after a MLS match between his Vancouver Whitecaps and Western Conference foe the Colorado Rapids. "It was a long flight."
Following his time at the World Cup as a defender for the Iranian national team -- better known as Team Melli to its fans -- Beitashour (pronounced BAIT-uh-sure) set out from Sao Paulo, Brazil on Friday and flew to Toronto, then hopped another plane to Vancouver, dropped his bags at his apartment, caught a shower and changed into some Whitecaps gear, then returned to Vancouver International for a flight to Denver just a couple hours later. All to not even reclaim his starting spot at right back, nor enter the game.
"Beita's brilliant," said Whitecaps coach Carl Robinson during his postgame interview. "He's an attacking right back, he's one of the best in this league -- I said that when I signed him. He wanted to be involved and I made the decision before the game. What I didn't want to do was risk an injury to him."
"Realistically, it was about 20 hours of flying to get in yesterday to play today," added Beitashour, often wearing an ear-to-ear grin to go with his five o'clock shadow in spite of a shave earlier in the day. "That's pretty tough. It's definitely a journey. It would have been nice to play in the fantasy world, to just come in and be fine, no problem. This way it's smart."
His journey to Brazil and back actually began as an invitee of coach Jürgen Klinsmann in August 2012 for what would turn out to be a brief stay with the U.S. men's national squad. Beitashour -- then a member of his hometown San Jose Earthquakes and coming off a season in which he led his team in assists followed by the next as an MLS All-Star -- had heard rumblings from Iran, the birthplace of both his parents, as early as 2011, but dressed for his first international contest as a member of the United States for a friendly against Mexico (if such a thing exists). He went unused as a sub, however, and was never capped. Beitashour would have another chance with the Yanks in January 2013, but a sports hernia cut short the training camp call-up.
"Every time I moved it hurt," said Beitashour, "and how can you show yourself, you know? I looked like any other average player, and to be at the national team level you have to stand out, you really do. There has to be a lot of special things about you, not just blend[ing] in."
As chance and FIFA's transfer rule would have it though, that wasn't the end of the road for Beitashour. Since 2009, soccer's international governing body has allowed a one-time transfer for senior-level players of any age to another nation's team so long as the player holds dual citizenship and has not previously been capped, both of which Beitashour qualified under.
Like Klinsmann, whose search abroad netted six foreign players with American ties onto the 23-man roster, Team Melli manager Carlos Queiroz of Portugal scoured the globe for talent of Iranian descent, finding Beitashour, along with Dutch-Iranian Reza "Gucci" Ghoochannejhad, German-Iranian Ashkan Dejagah and German-Polish-Iranian Daniel Davari. An October 2013 call-up and subsequent cap for Beitashour after filing his transfer paperwork and he was named to Iran's World Cup team in June.
Based on the generations-old relations between the U.S. and Iran, which could politely be described as strained, it made for an interesting destination for Beitashour, who his Iranian teammates fondly nicknamed an abbreviated derivative of his last name, meaning "the heavens and the sky." But for Beita -- what everyone else he knows calls him -- any thoughts of the political considerations were far outweighed by the opportunity to live out the long-held dream of taking part in the World Cup.
"For me, it was all about soccer," he explained. "I didn't think anything past it, I just thought about playing soccer and really which one [I] had the best possibility of playing for and helping."
Under the impression he would start at right back for Team Melli, Beitashour never did enter a match during the preliminary round before Iran went winless and failed to advance from Group F. He said it was frustrating not to play, but is thankful for the once-in-a-lifetime experience of being one of only some 700 players in the tournament, and already has his deep brown eyes trained on Russia for 2018.
Meanwhile, the United States moves on to the knockout stage and faces Belgium on Tuesday. One of their own international transfers, Fabian Johnson from Germany, mans the right back position and has been one of the team's best players during the tournament. Still, many pundits view the rest of the defense as well as the lack of experience behind the 26-year-old as the roster's primary weakness.
It wasn't that far back that the offensively-minded Beitashour was a real option for the U.S., and, depending how the Yanks ultimately place as they head into the difficult match, he may just prove to be one of the homegrown American talents who got away. Beitashour said this notion is not something he spends too much time thinking about and remains happy with his decision.
"It's one of those things where I already chose and I've already played games and this is my country," said Beitashour. "If I'd played [in Brazil], it would have been a lot easier to be like, 'Yeah, this is easily the right choice,' but at the same time, if I had stuck around there, who knows if I would have got called in, who knows if I did get called in if I could have played. You never know, it's a guessing game. Unfortunately it just didn't work out because of the injury, and Iran's my national team now."
Back in Colorado for the night, Beitashour has exchanged the heat and muggy conditions of central and southern Brazil for dry climate and pristine evening temperatures. Sporting neon green and black spikes, striped white socks up to his calves and a bright orange penny over the black "33" on his back that shows through, he spends most of the match seated watching from a metal bleacher for the reserves.
At right back, Robinson opts for Nigel Reo-Coker, who has been playing in Beitashour's place while he was away. Perhaps it just isn't his night, but Reo-Coker is called for a foul in the box against the Rapids in the 35th minute, resulting in a converted penalty kick to increase Vancouver's deficit to two goals. He also collects a yellow card in the second half for pulling a player down from behind in the offensive zone, and the Whitecaps drop the match, 2-0. In similar fashion regarding the United States national team, we're left only to wonder what impact Beitashour might have had or what could have been had he landed a spot on the roster, dramatically altering the defender's World Cup travel plans and where he ended up.
"I don't know if it's different if I didn't have that sports hernia injury," said Beitashour, momentarily giving credence to the hypothetical, "and [Klinsmann] was real impressed when he saw me and then would've capped me. It would have been a whole different story. But like I say, everything happens for a reason. That happened to be it, and I'm here today."
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Kevin Fixler is a Denver-based writer who holds a master's from UC Berkeley. His work has appeared in Sports Illustrated, The Atlantic and The Daily Beast, among others. Follow him on Twitter @kfixler.