Sandy • If he had made the other choice, Tony Beltran might be in Lakes Forest, Ill., right now, teeing off at the BMW Championship.
As a middle schooler growing up in Southern California, Beltran spent a year on the Junior PGA circuit. But when it came time to dedicate himself to the sport he loved, the decision was an easy one.
"I like to think I made the right choice," said Beltran, now in his sixth year with Real Salt Lake. "But who knows? I may have won a major this year."
The thousands who watch Beltran lockdown attackers on Saturdays at Rio Tinto Stadium are thankful he settled on soccer. A month shy of his 26th birthday, Beltran is having arguably his best season yet as a professional. He's been called up the U.S. men's national team twice this year, helped his country win the Gold Cup, and made his first career MLS all-star appearance.
Even so, Nat Borchers believes his teammate doesn't get the credit he deserves.
"I think he still flies under the radar," Borchers said. "I don't think many in the league give him credit for how good he's been and how solid he's been for us."
Consistency has been Beltran's calling card in recent years. Last season, the right back played in all 32 of RSL's games. This year, he's played in 21 of 28 Â missing action largely due to call ups. And when Beltran has been absent, RSL has felt it. With the Beltran out for five straight games in July and early August, Salt Lake conceded 10 goals. In the team's 23 other matches, RSL is allowing just 1.08 goals per game.
Beltran, who was drafted third overall out of UCLA in the 2008 MLS draft, has fit well in Salt Lake's system. He has the motor to start the attack down the right flank and get back to defend one-on-one with an attacker.
Beltran credits RSL coach Jason Kreis and his staff for his development as a defender.
"When you're a young player, you can rely on your athleticism and speed to get by," he said. "You can take a bad touch but you know you're going to make up for it because you're a little bit faster than the other guy. But [RSL coach Jason Kreis] challenged me to always know what I was going to do with the ball, always be thinking head â¦ so I don't have to rely on those things and I can be a better soccer player."
In the other half of the field, however, Beltran wants to make a bigger impact racking up assists and scoring. He has yet to notch a goal in a league game.
"Over the years, the stats haven't quite been there for me," Beltran said Wednesday, after working on his crosses after practice.
RSL assistant coach C.J. Brown, meanwhile, said he believes Beltran is having a Best-XI type year.
"He's progressing every year," Brown said. "Now we're looking for him to be a leader. He leads silently. He does his job. He works hard. In training, he does everything you ask for. Now you start wanting him to push that on others."
That would be a different role indeed for the reserved movie buff, who enjoys anime and classic literature.
"Tony's a really low key guy," Borchers said. "Really intelligent, really thoughtful. He's not going to get in guys' faces, trying to get them ready for a game. On the flip side, he's always a guy you can count on."
Beltran's summer has been too busy to take in many movies this year. Instead, he'll have the memory of playing alongside teammates Nick Rimando and Kyle Beckerman as they raised the Gold Cup.
"Even though I only played one game that whole tournament, just to be a part of that group and win something, was very special," Beltran said of his favorite memory of the year. "Still, we've got three trophies to play for with RSL. So hopefully we can top that."
If not, there's always golf, though Beltran said he rarely plays anymore.
"But my dad still plays consistently," he said. "Every offseason I go home and play. It's good father-son time and he's never beaten me."
Tony Beltran file
Born • Oct. 11, 1987 in Whittier, Calif.
College • Played at St. John's before transferring to UCLA
Drafted • No. 3 overall in the 2008 MLS draft
RSL at Seattle
O Friday, 8 p.m.
TV • NBCSN