SANDY — There’s a part of Tony Beltran that’s obviously jealous of the 23 players who will represent the United States at the World Cup next month.
The Real Salt Lake defender knows what donning the stars and stripes feels like, having been capped three times in the past year, including a start in an April friendly against rival Mexico in Phoenix.
“That feeling is addicting. It’s something I want more of,” said Beltran.
His club team is benefitting from that desire.
Since becoming a full-time starter in 2012 following the departure of good friend Robbie Russell, Beltran has progressively developed into one of the best right backs in MLS. But he’s not content with plateauing there.
Beltran is hungry to participate in future national team camps. That determination is extra motivation during RSL's training sessions every day, an inner drive to find the consistency that’s vital to his position.
“It’s pushed me to continue to get better, to continue to be consistent so I can be in good standing with Jurgen (Klinsmann) and he can come to rely on me and then hopefully I can get more opportunities to play for my country,” said Beltran.
Real Salt Lake coach Jeff Cassar, who’s worked with Beltran since he joined MLS as a 20-year-old rookie in 2008, has no doubt those opportunities will come.
Cassar believes Beltran is the best right back in MLS, a product of his terrific 1-v-1 defending on the wings combined with an attacking prowess that gets better and better each season.
“This year I really like the positions he’s putting himself in the attack,” said Cassar. “I think he’s going to be on the national team for a long time after this World Cup.”
Nat Borchers has played alongside Beltran through every step of his MLS career, and the confidence and swagger he carries now as opposed to early in his career is night and day.
“In the first two or three seasons he wouldn’t bark back to guys when we were barking at him. And then his consistency was an issue when he first started playing, and as a rookie it’s an issue for anybody. But he’s worked on that in his game and he’s obviously exceptional now,” said Borchers. “He’s not on a roller-coaster ride anymore.”
That wasn’t always the case. Four months into the 2012 season — his first permanent starting gig in MLS — Beltran was humming along proving management right in their belief in him. Then came that infamous back pass against the L.A. Galaxy.
First-place RSL was leading the Galaxy 2-0 less than 25 minutes into the match, but Landon Donovan intercepted a weak Beltran back pass to Nick Rimando. Donovan scored, and an hour later Salt Lake was scratching its head after a 3-2 loss.
Confidence reeling, Real Salt Lake fell out of first place a week later with another home loss to San Jose, and wasn’t a threat to contend for the Supporters' Shield the rest of the season.
It was a learning moment for Beltran, one he owned up to like a professional.
“It’s extremely disappointing because my teammates deserve better, the fans deserve better. (Jason Kreis) demands the best from us and it certainly wasn’t good enough,” said Beltran after that match.
The lesson was a difficult one to learn, but Beltran’s a better player for it. Watching and learning behind Chris Wingert and Russell for four years helped prepare him for those moments.
“I learned so much from those guys on how to be a pro. I learned what it takes to be a pro not only on a day-to-day basis on the field, but throughout an entire career — how to handle yourself, how to handle situations, how to take care of yourself,” said Beltran.
When Russell was traded to D.C. United after the 2011 season, Beltran had been groomed to take that next step and he’s thrived as one of the best outside backs in MLS. He was an MLS All-Star a year ago, and it’s hard to imagine him not getting the nod again this summer in a match against Bayern Munich in Portland.
Unsurprisingly, Beltran approaches all aspects of his life with the same passion and focus that he approaches soccer with.
Early in 2013, he purchased a home in Sugar House, and in many ways he derives as much satisfaction from a run to Home Depot and the successful conclusion of a do-it-yourself project as success on the pitch.
When he built a fence under his deck for his new dog Zuko, Beltran looked proudly at that accomplishment just like he would a Real Salt Lake shutout.
“It’s crazy the self-satisfaction you get and the sense of accomplishment. It’s something I take pride in because I remember when I was younger my dad took pride in the appearance of our home. It makes me feel grown up,” said Beltran, a Southern California transplant who said Utah feels like home after all these years.
“It’s gotten to that point. I always love and appreciate the town I grew up in, but when I go back there I don’t really feel at home anymore. I feel more connected to this place 'cause these past six years have had such an impact on my life.”
On his current professional and personal trajectory, there’s no telling what the next six years will bring. More home improving, more caps with the national team and an English degree from the University of Utah — which he hopes to complete in a year and a half after being recently re-admitted to the U. for fall semester.
“For so many years it was entirely soccer. I love being passionate about what I do. I love the fact I get to do, my first true love, for a living every day, but to be that entirely focused on one thing can be tough at times,” said Beltran.
When he steps on the field, though, he’s a focused pro with lofty ambitions.
Whenever RSL faces great strikers like Donovan or Robbie Keane or Chris Wondolowski, Beltran knows it’s going to be a tough day at the office. The reverse is becoming true as well. Beltran’s athleticism and tactical understanding make him a difficult player for opposing wingers to deal with, a reputation he has worked hard to achieve.
“He’s quick enough to stay with anybody in the league. You saw against Dallas he was with (Fabian) Castillo step for step, with (Je-Vaughn) Watson step for step,” said Borchers. “He’s got the athletic abilities, but he has the mindset. “
If he continues to shut down MLS attacking players, more opportunities will surely come with the national team post-World Cup.