Over the past few weeks, fitness has been discussed more than it should be in regard to the Major League Soccer contingent in the United States men's national team talent pool.
One of the central figures of the situation has been Sporting Kansas City center-back Matt Besler, who suffered one of the biggest drops in form after the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil.
The controversy began after the USMNT's 3-2 loss to Chile in which the Yanks conceded late in the second half on two occasions.
"After the World Cup, a lot of players dropped their levels 30, 40 percent when they came back from vacation,” United States manager Jurgen Klinsmann said after the match, per Dan Itel of MLSSoccer.com.
“It doesn’t matter if they are in Europe or the US, you can’t do that at the international level," he continued. "You get exposed after minute 65 or 70 if you can’t go the speed anymore, and both ways, so there’s a lot of work ahead of us, ahead of the players first of all.”
Because of the key role he is supposed to fill at the international level, Besler was one of the main targets of the criticism.
Although he was not named specifically during Klinsmann's fitness rant, Besler was offended enough to comment on the situation.
“I think it’s unfortunate that a player has to answer questions about fitness,” Besler told Sam McDowell The Kansas City Star. “I won’t say anything about his comments. He can say whatever he wants.”
Sporting Kansas City manager Peter Vermes also chimed in on the situation in the same article.
“To expect those guys to be in top form at a January camp — and I mean this — I think it’s utterly ridiculous,” Vermes said.
While it may be unfair to a player to criticize his fitness at the annual January camp for MLS-based players, it is fair to question the state of Besler's game at the moment.
In the months following his return from South America, Besler and the Sporting defense conceded 1.3 goals per game. During a crucial stretch of the MLS season from August 23 to September 6, Sporting let in 11 goals in four games.
Besler did deserve his share of the blame when Sporting's collapse began, but he also had a few experienced players alongside him.
One of the 28-year-old's key allies in the back four was Aurelien Collin, who was the other half of the formidable center-back duo formed by Sporting on the way to the 2013 MLS Cup.
Although many regard Besler as the leader of the back four, Collin was a vital cog in the defensive machine as well.
All that will change in 2015, as Besler will become the go-to guy in the middle of defense after Collin's offseason departure for expansion side Orlando City.
Thanks to the absence of a solid partner in the back four, Besler is one of, if not the, top players under pressure to perform during the 2015 MLS season.
If Besler wants to silence the critics, especially Klinsmann, about his fitness and form, he can do so by turning into a defensive rock. Throughout the first four months of the MLS campaign, Besler will be tested by some of the Western Conference's best attacking units while he adjusts to a new center-back partner.
Who the consistent starter next to Besler is remains to be seen, as Kevin Ellis, Jalil Anibaba and Ike Opara are all candidates to replace Collin.
If Sporting wants to return to playoff glory in November and December, Besler needs to take the lead in the back four from the first game of the season on.
If Besler is able to thrive in his extended leadership role, he will be able to prove a point to Klinsmann that not only is he fit to play at the highest level, but he is able to command a top team's defense as well.
The USMNT defense has always been a fragile unit under Klinsmann. But if Besler can display the qualities required for a center-back to be dominant at the club level, he could parlay that into a successful CONCACAF Gold Cup.
Possessing a strong defense at the Gold Cup will be key for the Yanks, who will face stiff competition from Mexico and Costa Rica for the trophy.
If Besler is able to use Klinsmann's comments as added motivation, the United States could finally possess a reliable center-back.
Not only will the USMNT reap plenty of rewards from Besler's potential success, but Sporting will be able to challenge for its second MLS Cup in three years despite facing a tougher road to the final through the Western Conference playoffs.
While there may not be a perfect answer to Klinsmann's comments at the moment, Besler has a chance to silence the USMNT boss with a solid showing across the board in the most important year of his career to date.
Follow Joe on Twitter, @JTansey90.