The news kept getting worse as Real Salt Lake orthopedic surgeon Andrew Cooper led fullback Tony Beltran through the MRI of his right knee: ACL tear, LCL tear, damage to the posterolateral corner.
“He discussed openly and honestly, ‘This is as serious a knee injury as they come,‘ ” Beltran said, applauding Cooper for his communication through every step of his treatment for an injury sustained at Colorado on Oct. 15.
Beltran, a 10-year RSL veteran, now is a little more than four months into what was projected to be a nine-month recovery process. He never has missed so much time for an injury, and Beltran has carved out a new role for himself on the team as he fights to get back on the field.
“I’ve really made an effort to be around [my teammates] as much as possible,” he said, “because I don’t want to disappear and not feel like a part of the team.”
The way he was injured — blindsided in a collision with Rapids forward Dominique Badji, for which Badji was issued a yellow card — left RSL coach Mike Petke fuming. He called it a “crap play” the next week, and the RSL front office was left to fill the hole at right back. Real Salt Lake signed homegrown player Aaron Herrera and former Blackburn defender Adam Henley. However, winger Brooks Lennon was pulled onto the back line due to injuries to the pair and versatile defender Shawn Barry.
“You wouldn’t even imagine how much help he is off the field,” Lennon said about Beltran. “I’ve had a lot of conversations with him over the past couple of weeks.”
Some revolved around positioning, how to augment the attack and communication with the center back next to him and the players in front of him. In others, Beltran encouraged Lennon to tap into the abilities that made him successful as a winger — his work rate, athleticism and feel for the game.
“I feel like a little bit of an observer,” Beltran said, “and that’s really the only place that I can make an impact is those small conversations with players here and there between games.”
The change in Beltran’s schedule due to his rehab work has pulled him away from team training sessions most days and away games, at least for now. But he has attended every home game and is a constant presence in team meetings and film sessions.
As he did when he was healthy, Beltran continues to rewatch every match and discuss it with captain Kyle Beckerman. He can provide another perspective, reminding his teammates that although the beginning of the season has been a disappointment, they still have earned more points than they had at this point last year.
“Being on the field, training with the guys every day, going what we go through, is almost like a language in itself,” he said. “And right now I’m not able to communicate in that language, so it’s just going out of my way to talk to each individual and help out in any way I can … and always be a positive presence.”
On a personal note, the injury has given Beltran a chance to spend more time with his infant son, Kaito, who turned 9 months old about a week ago.
Beltran understood that would be a positive byproduct when he heard the prognosis of his injury.
“But now having lived through it, having spent every day with him and really never spent a night away from him since that game in October and knowing what our relationship is now and seeing the way he looks at me and how excited he is to see me every day,” Beltran said, “it would be hard for me to — if I could — go back and change this happening because maybe our relationship is different.
“So that’s looking at, I want to say the bright side of things, but really the most important side of life. I love soccer, but all of this is really just noise compared to that. So I don’t know how I’d get through this without him and my wife. That much is for sure.”
The lost time still looms in the back of the 30-year-old defender’s mind as he remains acutely aware of how short professional soccer careers are. The missed opportunity to build off the momentum RSL cultivated in the second half of last season haunts him. It’s not guaranteed that he’ll even be able to return this season. But it’s certainly a possibility, especially if RSL turns this slow start around and makes a playoff run.
“The dream of … coming back and making a difference this year,” Beltran said, “that’s what fuels me in the moments week to week when it feels like every day is the same.”