Tony Beltran quickly became the fall guy following Real Salt Lake's season-opening loss at Seattle. The second-year player seemed overwhelmed by the moment of playing in front of over 30,000 fans, struggling mightily in the opening half of a 2-0 loss in which his disappointing performance contributed to the first goal.
RSL coach Jason Kreis was never worried about Beltran's seemingly fragile state of mind.
"He's a player I knew from the beginning he could handle disappointment and setbacks and move forward," Kreis said.
Beltran's mental toughness was a big reason why RSL selected Beltran with its first choice in the 2008 MLS SuperDraft, toughness that's been on display since the second half of the Seattle match. So now at the midpoint of the MLS season, and despite the frustration of bouncing in and out of the lineup, Beltran has overcome his glaring defensive miscue in the opener to become a virtual must-start.
Real Salt Lake owns a 3-0-4 record when Beltran is in the starting lineup since the Seattle match, and lately the defender's performance seems to get stronger in each match.
The turning point came in a May 6 performance against Los Angeles. With the heavy burden of marking Landon Donovan for much of the match, Beltran more than held his own, rendering the Galaxy star striker mostly nonexistent.
"That was his first chance to be back in the lineup and he had a really strong game, and from there forward he's improved in every match," Kreis said.
Despite starting the first three matches of the season, Beltran had been out of the starting lineup in the three weeks leading up to the Galaxy match. RSL's coaching staff didn't think Beltran was playing up to his potential and wanted him to take a step back and refocus.
"Such a big part of soccer is just confidence and where you're at mentally. When you're confidence is high, you're doing things you're comfortable doing and your success rate is higher," Beltran said.
Beltran regained that confidence against the Galaxy but he wasn't afforded the opportunity to build on it. Injuries and tactical decisions by the coaching staff kept Beltran out of the lineup for three of RSL's next four matches.
Ironically enough, Real Salt Lake lost the three matches Beltran sat out. Since his consistent return to the lineup, however, RSL is 1-0-2 including its two most impressive road results of the season.
Fellow outside defender Chris Wingert isn't necessarily surprised by Beltran's contributions.
"I've kind of said from day one he's a really good player. Of course he's getting better, he's such a good athlete, and the more experience he gets in this environment day in and day out he's going to continue to thrive," Wingert said.
The step for Beltran's maturation as a pro, according to Kreis, is his ability to become a consistent offensive threat out of the back. With Beltran's unwavering work ethic, it's inevitable that aspect of his game will come around as well.