SANDY — Over the past couple of years, and even the first few months this year, Real Salt Lake's three-man rotation at the two outside back positions has been pretty consistent. Chris Wingert has been the first-choice guy, Robbie Russell the second and Tony Beltran the third.
All three have played quite regularly over the past season and a half with RSL's busy schedule, but there's definitely been a pecking order.
It's why Wingert and Russell, and not Beltran, started both legs of the CONCACAF Champions League final back in April.
There appears to have been a shift in power the past few months though. The 23-year-old Beltran has started eight of RSL's past nine games, including Tuesday's victory over Wilmington.
"(He's) answering the questions for us and (he's) making the choices for us," said RSL coach Jason Kreis.
He believes Beltran's emergence has been a product of good training habits.
"I think people don't believe me when I say this, and I don't know if sometimes the players don't believe me when I say it, but he started to train every single day at an extremely high level. When you see that you recognize that this player is coming into good form," said Kreis.
The fluidity of the three-man rotation has been limited a bit by injuries to Wingert and Russell, and Beltran has capitalized. With as well he's playing, Kreis admits he'll have a tough time keeping Beltran out of the lineup in future games.
Beltran has always been above-average defensively, but it's been his inconsistency going forward that's kept him from taking the next step for RSL. This season he's pushing forward into the attack more confidently and his crosses have been much more dangerous.
In Tuesday night's win over Wilmington in the U.S. Open Cup round of 16, Beltran even scored his first-ever professional goal.
"Very nice to see Tony again with a really, really strong game all around. Now he's had multiple matches in a row where he's played at a really high level," said Kreis after the match.
Kreis went so far as to predict several more goals from Beltran this season, which Beltran didn't balk at.
"Now that I have one, why not get some more," said Beltran, who admitted he'll have to work on his goal celebration. Tuesday's goal caught him off guard, and he didn't quite know how to react.
Even though he had never scored a goal for RSL in any competition, he'd always felt comfortable on the ball. Even in high school and college he considered himself a pretty creative player. It's taken a while for that aspect of his game to transition to MLS, but it's slowly coming along.
"This is my fourth year, and think each year the coaches have been doing a really good job bringing me along and helping me out mentally and physically. And I just feel more confident this year," said Beltran.
RSL's coaching staff feels more confident in him too, so expect the starts to keep piling up.
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