The word always comes up whenever the conversation turns to him.
At just 19 years old and already entering his fourth season of professional soccer, Real Salt Lake’s Luis Gil possesses the kind of rare and tantalizing blend of skill, youth and experience that often leads to the word his coach never used with his player.
“When Luis came that was my original mindset — to keep him out of all that, to never use the word ‘expectation,’ ” RSL coach Jason Kreis said, “to never listen to what the pundits were saying or what the outlying influences or pressures were to make him become the next great U.S. soccer player. For me, it wasn’t about that. It was just about developing Luis the right way.”
Kreis and Salt Lake avoided the temptation and pressure to demand immediate results from their potential superstar. As a new season draws near, that patience could pay off in a big way for Gil and his team this year.
“He’s ready to come in and be an impactful player,” said general manager Garth Lagerwey, who helped bring Gil to RSL before the start of the 2010 season.
Gil, who won’t turn 20 until November, missed nearly the entire preseason schedule as he trained and played for the U.S. Under-20 national team. Playing in an attacking midfield role, Gil showed why Salt Lake thinks so highly of him. He scored on a penalty kick to beat Haiti and assisted on a goal against Costa Rica. In the quarterfinals of the tournament, Gil scored and notched an assist to help give the U.S. a berth in the U-20 World Cup this summer in Turkey.
“He was the man,” Lagerwey said. “They ran their attack through him. … He had a hand on almost every goal they scored.”
“I bring back a lot of confidence and energy,” Gil said after returning to Salt Lake.
The challenge will be converting that into results — and goals — in Major League Soccer play.
“He doesn’t have to be the man,” Lagerwey said. “He doesn’t have to be the only leader. But he has to be in situations where he demands the ball, and he says, ‘I’m going to show up.’ When you talk about going five games at the end of the year without scoring, you need individuals. ‘The team is the star’ works 99 percent of the time. When you get a ball on your foot in the last minute in front of the goal, somebody has to take personal responsibility. Somebody says, ‘I’m going to put the team on my back and I’m going to score.’ We need that from Luis.”
Gil was born in Garden Grove, Calif., the son of a former semi-pro soccer player who once told ESPN he was paid $20 for every goal he scored. Gil wowed from an early age and earned youth trials and interest from top clubs such as Arsenal in London. Ultimately, however, he spurned international interest to play in Major League Soccer. Kansas City won a lottery for Gil’s rights but traded them to RSL, one of the few teams Gil had said he would play for.
His first year in the league, the kid who had been touted as “the next big thing” in American soccer never played a match with his team.
“It was hard on him,” Lagerwey said. “It was hard on us. He just wasn’t ready. You could see the talent and you could see the ability, but he wasn’t ready. But ... in that year he learned how to be a pro and he grew up as a person.”
Kreis spent that year carefully developing Gil, working to avoid the issues that had plagued so many other young players before him.
“It’s unfair for anybody to have expectations on a 16-year-old player who has just become a pro,” Kreis said. “We’ve had countless players who have been in that boat before and a countless number of failures.”
Gil “surprised” his coach by earning 1,288 minutes in 25 regular-season appearances. Last season, Gil played in 30 MLS matches, scoring a goal and tallying three assists.
“This year we hope for more,” Kreis said. “But let me be clear: I don’t think the success of Real Salt Lake lies on Luis Gil’s head. I just don’t. We need to be patient. He’s still a young player, a young man, and he’s going to have his ups and downs. We need to be prepared to nurture him through those downs and reward him when there are ups.”
Gil says his next step is scoring more goals, but he doesn’t feel added pressure.
“I feel like every year is a year to improve and always get better,” Gil said. “Breakout year? I don’t have to say it has to be, but hopefully it is.”
RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando does believe this could be a breakout year for his teammate. He credits Gil’s hard work and RSL’s patience for setting that up.
Rimando was in Washington when D.C. United made 14-year-old Freddy Adu the youngest player in the MLS. Rimando came with Adu to Salt Lake as part of a trade in 2007 and watched later that year when Adu left for what would prove to be a disappointing international run.
“He was just a little kid, Freddy,” Rimando said. “But there was a lot on his shoulders and a lot expected of him. RSL groomed Luis the perfect way — didn’t throw him into the fire, didn’t put a lot of expectations on him. He came in knowing that it’s going to take time and that’s exactly what it did. And now look where he’s at.”
Luis Gil bio
• The Garden Grove, Calif., native is entering his fourth season with Real Salt Lake, but won’t turn 20 until mid-November.
• Scored 1 goal and tallied 3 assists in 30 Major League Soccer appearances last year.
• Helped the U.S. Under-20 team earn a World Cup berth by scoring 2 goals and notching 2 assists in qualifying.
RSL at San Jose
O Sunday, 8 p.m.
TV • CW30