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Player Spotlight

For Beltran, Mexico Match Was a Chance to Shine

A month ago, the idea that Tony Beltran had a shot at the 2014 World Cup was almost laughable. But an injury, a player dispute, and a strong showing against Mexico have changed the conversation completely.

BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
April 14, 2014
5:04 PM
INTERNATIONAL SOCCER FRIENDLIES are usually viewed as inconsequential exhibitions with little greater meaning. Last week’s 2-2 draw between the United States and Mexico, however, held great significance to several players—none more so than right back Tony Beltran.

Before the Mexico match, there were no pundits who even had Beltran on the radar of making the United States World Cup team. After all, the Real Salt Lake right back had not made an appearance for the national team since last summer’s Gold Cup, and he wasn't even invited to take part in the January camp—which is reserved mostly for MLS players.

The game against Mexico, however, saw Beltran raise his stock—dramatically.

Initially, Beltran was not scheduled to be part of the camp but a late injury to Brad Evans earned him an a last-minute invite. Later, when Puebla decided not to let DaMarcus Beasley and Michael Orozco play in the match, Michael Parkhurst was forced to shift to the left side. That left just Beltran and DeAndre Yedlin as the team's two right backs. Despite Yedlin’s callup to the original roster, Jurgen Klinsmann elected to start the more experienced Beltran.

For Beltran, this sequence of events provided a wonderful showcase at a fortunate time—a month or so before Jurgen Klinsmann has to submit a provisional roster to FIFA.

“I knew it was a huge opportunity to put myself in a position to be back in the conversation,” Beltran told American Soccer Now. “I was really disappointed after being involved last year not to get called into the January camp. But again, you have to use those setbacks as motivation. I thought I did well in the two days of training. As I always do, I try to leave it all out on the field.”

“Fortunately I was given the opportunity to start in the game,” he added. “I had to make the most of it because the World Cup comes once every four years to have even the possibility to be part of that roster is tremendous for any player. And of course I wanted to grab that with both hands.”

The start of the game was a little shaky for Beltran but he settled in as the game progressed. Most notably, the fast pace of the game was eye-opening, Beltran said, adding that it “was indeed a step up even from RSL—which is a very high level as well.”

Around the 10th minute, Beltran settled into the game. With Michael Bradley and Kyle Beckerman defending the middle, Mexico was intent on attacking exclusively down Beltran’s side, with very little going down Parkhurst’s side.

Beltran's highlight-reel moment came in the 28th minute when he sent a perfect cross into Bradley who headed it onto Chris Wondolowski for a goal and a 2-0 lead. Around that same point, Mexico was no longer able to create dangerous opportunities down Beltran’s side as the American settled into the game.

So why did it take this long for Beltran to have a breakout performance with the national team? According to him, one overlooked factor was the use of the 4-4-2 diamond midfield formation that Klinsmann decided to employ as opposed to his preferred 4-2-3-1. The diamond is a formation that has been employed by Real Salt Lake for years and Beltran has thrived under it. When Klinsmann told the team it was going to use a 4-4-2, it came as a surprise.

But Beltran said that the team embraced the shift because there was a belief they had the personnel to run it properly.

“Playing in the diamond formation was obviously very familiar to me,” Beltran said, "so that helps. I was able to see at what times during the game I was able to take advantage of space and get forward to be that third runner, which contributed to that second goal. The familiarity of playing with that system helped. Also, every time you put on that jersey you get a little more comfortable and a little more confident.”

Beltran took a knock in the first half but fought through it, securing 72 solid minutes on the pitch. It was a good day at the office for him.

“Jurgen spoke to me after the game,” Beltran said. “He said, ‘The more times you do this, the more times you play for the U.S., the more confident you become.’ That’s what I want. It’s an addicting feeling playing for the team.”

“I want to make a statement. I want to really show that I belong and that I can play at this level.”

Klinsmann was full of praise for Beltran after the game.

"I think Tony Beltran did an awesome job," the coach said. "We need to have at least two or three different systems for the World Cup to hopefully confuse the opponents a little bit."

As a former veteran of the US U-20 team and a Real Salt Lake team that is consistently among the best in Major League Soccer, Beltran is always eager to push himself. Even with the departure of head coach Jason Kreis, the club once again looks poised for success under new boss Jeff Cassar.

Already this year, the club has posted impressive wins over the Galaxy and Toronto FC, the latter was watched by Klinsmann who called up Beltran that night for the game against Mexico. "I think he still flies under the radar," Borchers told the Salt Lake Tribune. "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."

"Tony's a really low-key guy," Borchers continued. "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 is quick to credit Cassar for the team's strong start to the 2014 campaign.

"The mood of the team is very good," Beltran said. "Jeff is a fantastic man. He’s done a very good job. I feel like I’d run through a wall for Jeff and I think all the players feel the same.”

The 25-year-old Beltran may only have four caps with the U.S. national team, but he is now in his seventh season with RSL, and he has the calm demeanor of a seasoned veteran. He also has a strong perspective when it comes to 18-year-old U.S. starlet Julian Green.

"He’s a nice quiet kid and he’s a very young kid," Beltran said of Green. "It’s a tough situation to come into and obviously he’s at a very big club [in Bayern Munich]. I’m sure he’s used to exposure but to come into a media frenzy like that with such expectations this close to the World Cup, it’s a big thing for any young man to handle. I think he did it admirably."

"Seeing him in training for two days and then the game, my impression of him is that he’s a very technically gifted soccer player," Beltran added. "He has a good mind for the game. You can see even in some games of 5v2 we were playing the day before the game–his ability to see where the outlet is, what he needs to do with the ball to keep it, it was very mature."

"He’s got a lot of potential."

As does Beltran. While he is bullish on MLS and happy to see top American players like Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley returning to the league, he does not rule out the possibility that he will make an attempt to play in Europe at some point. For him, it is about continuing to push himself.

“I grew up admiring players and leagues overseas,” Beltran said. “It’s been on my mind, of course. The thing I want most is to continue to play somewhere where I always stay motivated and am able to challenge myself to get better and be in a position where I can win trophies and make the most of my career. So far I’ve found that in abundance at Real Salt Lake."

"I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time at Real Salt Lake," he added, but "who knows what the future holds?”

“It’s an exciting time for MLS," Beltran said, "and when you put on a U.S. jersey you are mindful of that and that the players in this league can be great players.”

Brian Sciaretta is an American Soccer Now columnist and an ASN 100 panelist. Follow him on Twitter.

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