Michael Brandy, Deseret News
Real Salt Lake's Tony Beltran, left, has stepped into an important role sooner than expected for coach Jason Kreis after injuries and team struggles opened the door to playing time for the rookie.

Tony Beltran has proven himself to be a very quick study for Real Salt Lake.

Coach Jason Kreis would've preferred to bring the rookie along more slowly, but he wasn't afforded that luxury with Ian Joy's injury and early season struggles.

The third overall pick in this year's MLS SuperDraft has performed well in his seven appearances, and he's close to establishing himself as a permanent fixture in Real Salt Lake's starting 11.

"Confidence is high. I've put myself in a position now where I'm being considered for the first team every week, and that's always going to help your confidence," said Beltran.

It's been mostly smooth sailing for the polite, well-spoken rookie since the opening day of training camp. In winning the first fitness test of 2008, Beltran proved to his teammates and coaches that he's a committed, extremely hard working player.

The biggest concern for Kreis in training camp was Beltran's tactical awareness, but the rookie's made great strides in that area since February.

"Not only has he progressed, but I've been a big fan of Tony's since the start," said fellow Real defender Chris Wingert. "I love his game; he provides an athletic element a lot of guys don't have. He's extremely quick, and his attitude is one of the best young attitudes I've come across."

Beltran wasn't in the starting lineup for RSL's season-opener against Chicago, with the coaching staff favoring the more experienced Wingert and Joy at outside defenders. It was a fate Beltran expected from the beginning, and it didn't deter him whatsoever.

"It's tough to have expectations in your rookie year," said Beltran. "At the beginning of the year I told myself no matter what, playing or not playing I'm just going to keep working, and the hard work has paid off."

After making two appearances as a substitute in both blowouts involving D.C. United, Beltran's starting opportunity finally came on May 3 against the L.A. Galaxy. It was an auspicious debut. His failed clearance attempt led to the first of David Beckham's world-class goals in the 2-2 draw at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

"Coach talked to me the next day and said outside of that I did everything well," said Beltran. "It was one mental lapse, it's going to happen as a rookie. I have to realize that, I can't beat myself up over it. Had to learn to be a good pro and move on from that."

He followed up with two straight 90-minute performances, an increased role that no doubt played a part in his recent call-up by the U.S. Under-23 National Team to participate in the Toulon Tournament in France last month. It was an Olympic tuneup for the eight participating teams, and Beltran is hopeful he performed well enough to be considered for one of the 23 roster spots. Fellow RSL teammates Chris Seitz, Robbie Findley and Nate Sturgis are also in the hunt for a roster spot at the 2008 Summer Games.

To improve his chances both with club and country, plenty of work lies ahead for Beltran. He's still adjusting to the speed of MLS compared to his days at UCLA, and he knows he needs to be sharper and play quicker.

His coach would like to see him be a little more aggressive pushing into the attack, improve his one-on-one defending as well as being more aware of his surroundings to cover for his teammates.

It's a lot to take in for a rookie, but it's so far so good for Beltran.

"The tough thing is going to be consistent. I don't want to hit a wall, I've got to understand there are going to be highs and lows to the season," said Beltran.

E-mail: jedward@desnews.com