Steve C. Wilson, Associated Press
United's Alecko Eskandarian, right, and Real's Nikolas Besagno struggle for the ball in a recent game.

In some ways, Nikolas Besagno is like any other teenager. During a Real Salt Lake training session earlier this summer, the 17-year-old strolled in about a half hour late, and his messy hair and heavy eyes were telltale signs he'd slept in.

Besagno quickly warmed up on his own for 10 minutes, and once he finally did join his teammates on the field, he was immediately heckled.

This is what separates Besagno from everyone else his age. When most teenagers sleep in, they miss something like first period English or math. When Besagno sleeps in, he misses a professional soccer practice and is teased by teammates.

If Besagno keeps playing the way he has the past three games, those same teammates might stop treating him like a teenager, because he sure isn't playing like someone who received his driver's license just last year.

While many kids his age are playing video games or just goofing off with friends this summer, Besagno is a starting center back in Major League Soccer, and the former No. 1 overall pick of the 2005 draft is starting to prove he belongs.

It's funny how quickly things can change.

Just 10 days ago, Besagno was fourth on RSL's central defender depth chart, and it was looking less and less like he would make any significant contribution in his second year as a pro. Almost overnight, he's now No. 1 on that depth chart.

The day before losing to FC Dallas on July 22, Real learned that outstanding defender Daniel Torres would miss six weeks with a sprained foot. By halftime of that Dallas match, Torres' replacement, Nelson Akwari, had to leave the game after a violent collision with goalkeeper Scott Garlick in which he injured his hip.

Besagno stepped right onto the field and played admirably in his third career MLS appearance.

Four days later against Chivas USA, he started his first game this year and learned a very valuable lesson in the process.

"I told Nik before the game, 'Ante Razov is going to camp out in front of you even though he's a left-sided striker because (Juan Francisco) Palencia goes back in the midfield, and Ante's not going to line up in front of Douglas (Sequeira). You're going to be his target," said Real coach John Ellinger.

So what happened? Less than 90 seconds into the game, Besagno got caught off guard and Razov slipped in behind him to bury the games's opening goal.

"He learned the hard way," said Ellinger. "My hat's off to him, he got better as the night went on."

That evolving maturity was obvious after the game as well.

After RSL gave up a stoppage time goal against Chivas USA and was forced to settle for a draw, most of the team's starters had already fled the locker room by the time it was opened for media access. The typically shy Besagno was one of the only starters remaining, and reporters flocked to him.

He handled the moment with unlikely confidence and poise.

"We work hard for 90 minutes, and it's just that one second when we lose concentration and it costs us the game," said Besagno. "It's frustrating, we've got to do better."

The team did just that last Saturday.

With the injury bug hindering Eddie Pope (foot) as well, Besagno was realistically the only choice to start at the back alongside newcomer Jack Stewart, who Real acquired in a trade with Chicago to help with the ailing defense earlier in the week.

Down a goal late in the game, Ellinger made the obvious tactical switch of replacing a defender with a forward, but surprisingly he left in his teenager.

"Nik continued to improve and be steady for us," said Ellinger. "My confidence in Nik at the end to leave him in when we went to three at the back was justified."

The youngster's good form the past three games is also further justification for Salt Lake selecting him No. 1 overall in 2005, a questionable pick in the eyes of many.

Even though Besagno is still very raw and has much to learn, he's quickly outgrowing the 6-foot height listed on the team's Web site, and he's proving why he was one of the best players at the under-17 residency program prior to going pro. Ellinger was his youth national team coach at the time, and once he was hired as expansion Real Salt Lake's first coach, he immediately began targeting Besagno with the franchise's top pick.

Ellinger never doubted Besagno's potential, but he probably didn't expect him to be contributing so well this early.

While with the residency program, Ellinger coached several defenders who've developed into pros, including Chad Marshall, Oguchi Onyewu, Nelson Akwari and Alex Yi. All four went to college before enjoying success at the next level.

At the rate Besagno's going, if he continues to improve, he could be an everyday starter by next season.