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Beckerman gets defensive

During Kyle Beckerman's rookie year in 2000, he got a scolding from Miami Fusion teammate Jim Rooney during a scrimmage for not getting back on defense.

Rooney, a workhorse on that talented Ray Hudson-coached squad, could bite his tongue when he saw the same work rate out of midfield veterans Preki and Ian Bishop, but not from a fresh-faced 18-year-old. So he let him have it.

It was one of the first of many lessons in Beckerman's professional career. One could even say that it was the precursor to the current resurrection of the Crofton, Md., native's game -- as a defensive midfielder for both the Colorado Rapids and the Under-23 National Team -- where he looks like a different player as a 21-year-old than the one seen three years ago.

Back then, defense was the last thing Beckerman thought about on the soccer field. His mindset was on scoring, whether it was finding the back of the net himself or setting up one of his teammates to get to the goal.

As an attacking midfielder, he had always found success, no matter what level, and was only one year removed from being the focal point of the wildly-successful U.S. U-17 side's offense. That's saying quite a lot, considering his teammates included Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley. In fact, his 10 goals and six assists in international play in 1999 ranked second on the squad, just one point behind Donovan.

But now he was playing against men, not teenagers. And the star appeal Beckerman had after the '99 U-17 World Championships that later garnered him a tryout with Hertha Berlin in Germany meant nothing to the group down in South Florida. Many of his teammates hadn't even heard of him when he showed up midway through the season as a recent high school graduate.

Though he would earn his keep by scoring his first MLS goal in his first start for the Fusion in the regular-season finale that year, Beckerman's career didn't go exactly as he would have liked to over the next two seasons.

In 2001, he broke his fibula while playing with the Project-40 team in the spring, and then was forced to change teams when Miami's team fell by the contraction wayside later that year.

Moving to Colorado via the Dispersal Draft at the end of 2001 meant proving himself all over again, and another group of established players in front of him on the depth chart for the 2002 season.

Even though the Rapids were forced to play without Pablo Mastroeni for the month of June due to the World Cup last summer, Beckerman only got five starts in 14 appearances, and not one in the second half of the season. Though he was improving, his role weighed on him as he saw many of his former teammates on the U-17 and U-20s making an impact around the league.

"I got impatient," said the 5-foot-10, 155-pound midfielder. "It was frustrating to see a lot of my friends and guys I've played with performing when I knew I could be, too. In Miami I had all those players in front of me, and then I come here and there's Valderrama, of course. I finally just started concentrating on getting better each day, each week, and each year. And that helped me stay positive."

Even though the Rapids coaching staff wasn't looking at Beckerman to be a starter in the preseason due to the arrival of Frenchman Gilles Grimandi from Arsenal, he was a player they kept mentioning behind closed doors.

"He just kept getting better and was really working hard," said assistant Steve Trittschuh.

Beckerman thought the time he spent with Glenn Myernick's U-23 squad as playing a part in his sharpness so early in the season, as well as an internal slogan he kept carrying around inside: "No excuses."

In a strange twist of fate, Grimandi returned home to France before ever playing a match for Colorado, leaving another gaping hole in the midfield next to Mastroeni.

After playing in three of the first five matches, the starting role was given to Beckerman, and he's been in the middle of the park for the Rapids ever since.

The ball skills and savvy were always there, but it was the ever-developing defensive part of his game that finally made Hankinson deem him ready in the team's 4-4-2 system that features dual holding midfielders.

"His game has grown," said the third-year Colorado manager. "He grew up as a playmaker, but he's now able to sit back more and move the ball around. He really has the potential to be a great player for us."

No matter how much the coaching staff works with him, Beckerman's real class sessions come simply from watching his midfield partner, Mastroeni.

"Of all the guys I've played with, Pablo's been my main influence," he says. "Pablo is in the prime of his career and he's now a World Cup veteran, so I try to take advantage of every opportunity to watch him closely and learn. When we're out there together, he knows that if he goes forward, I'll hold, and when I go forward, he'll hold. It works out well."

With Mastroeni out of the midfield and in the central defense in place of Robin Fraser (back spasms) last Saturday against New England, Beckerman was the key figure in the middle.

At times, he tracked back far enough to get slow rollers from goalkeeper Scott Garlick, and at other times he was pushed up top on the break.

On one such occasion, Beckerman pounced on a misplayed ball by Revs defender Rusty Pierce and shot down the right side of the box before nailing a right-footed cross to the far side of the area, where Chung was able to knock it down with his chest and hit a hard shot that deflected off of Jay Heaps into the goal.

But, overall, Beckerman was slotted back more defensively than partner Seth Trembly.

"Sometimes," he says, "I get so concentrated on my defensive assignments that I don't pay attention to getting forward. But as I get more comfortable, I will add that in and step it up to help link to the forwards."

Trittschuh said he could envision Beckerman partnering with new Sheffield Wednesday signing, Darryl Powell, who is expected to arrive in the Rockies later this week.

Such a scenario seems likely when Mastroeni is away with the National Team at the Gold Cup throughout the month, and also if Mastroeni's services are needed out of the back in the future since there's no telling how Fraser's back will heal.

Either way, Beckerman has earned his spot -- finally -- and he's seemingly back on the fast track he once ran on. That includes his candidacy for a spot on the U-23 squad that will represent the U.S. in the Athens Olympics in 2004.

"That's always been one of my goals," says Beckerman, who'll be competing with highly-touted MLS rookies Ricardo Clark (MetroStars) and Logan Pause (Chicago) for defensive midfielder duties. "It'll be a heck of a team to get picked for, but if all goes right for me for the club during the season and whenever I'm in camp for Mooch (Myernick), I think it could happen for me."

Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at: shaketiller10@yahoo.com.