Real Salt Lake: Luis Gil is on the cusp of stardom
Sandy • No sound emitted from the television in the lobby of Rio Tinto Stadium. But out of the corner of his eye, Luis Gil peeked to see what was transpiring almost 7,000 miles away. The U.S. men's national team, playing in an international friendly against Ukraine in Cyprus due to political unrest in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, had just gone down 2-0 late in the second half.
Gil noticed, but didn't flinch. He briefly turned his attention to the TV and just watched. The 20-year-old many consider to be a face of American soccer for the next decade or beyond watched his countrymen struggle, but didn't hang his head or clap.
He studied it for a minute or so.
"When you have a young player with a general sense of understanding of how soccer is played and when a young player shows that rhythm and mathematics involved in soccer," said ESPN analyst and former U.S. international Alexi Lalas of Gil, "that's wonderful to see."
Entering his fifth season in Major League Soccer with RSL starting Saturday, Gil is the pillar of a still-retrofitted foundation of the club. And the humble, emerging youngster has successfully morphed the hype of his skill and potential into the reality analysts and fans saw as a 16-year-old once courted by luminary soccer clubs Arsenal and Real Madrid.
"He knows what he's good at, he knows his strengths and he not getting ahead of himself," said teammate Nat Borchers. "He's not looking at that million-dollar contract down the road, which he may get one day."
Having entrenched himself in the right side of RSL's patented diamond formation, Gil had the best season of his career in 2013, starting 30 of 34 MLS regular-season matches, including five goals. The four matches he missed was due to his spot leading the U.S. U-20 World Cup in Turkey last summer, where he scored a goal and an assist.
Gil dolls out full credit to former RSL coach Jason Kreis and the coaching staff for allowing him time to see the game from a distance early on in his pro career. RSL acquired Gil, who'd signed a Generation Adidas contract with MLS, in February 2010 in a trade with Sporting Kansas City.
"I know coming up with national teams and stuff like that there's hype, but coming into this league I feel like Jason kept it off of me," Gil said. "He kept the expectations off of me and didn't let me be thrown into the fire right away."
The progression Gil has seen in himself from 2010 until now is realizing his position demands more than quick changes of direction or fancy footwork around the box.
"The game's changing a lot and you need a lot of defensive work now," Gil said. "Me coming into this league, I would say I had zero of it. Coming up with youth teams, I was an attacking midfielder and you just have one job: Attack."
The small steps Gil's taken may have taken longer than he or fans had hoped, but his evolution and versatility was enough for U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann to call him into January's month-long camp, which also featured a two-week dry run in Sau Paulo, Brazil. Gil's performance throughout camp was considered a success, enough to make his first-ever first-team cap with the U.S. on Feb. 1 at home in Southern California against South Korea.
Klinsmann gave the RSL youngster the nod in the 75th minute of the 2-0 win.
"It's the top of the pyramid," Gil said. "It's a whole different feeling and hopefully I get another chance at it."
The 2014 FIFA World Cup starts June 12 and Gil's possible inclusion remains a long-shot, but even being mentioned as a possibility doesn't please him.
"You can be mentioned, but it doesn't really count until you actually get there," he said, "so that's going to be up to me."
The running joke RSL general manager Garth Lagerwey and Kreis once used was that by the time Gil began to unlocking his capabilities, they'd no longer be employed by the club.
"Because when you sign a 16-year-old," Lagerwey said, "it may be for the next guy that he's tearing it up for."
Lagerwey said Gil is as talented a player the club has ever had and believes he will be a fixture on the national team for the next World Cup cycle. Gil remains under contract until after the 2015 season, yet Lagerwey added that RSL has initiated conversations on a long-term contract. If Gil continues to improve on his skills and become that star player on the national team, could he look elsewhere? Lagerwey said having three of the top U.S. talents in MLS now Michael Bradley (Toronto), Landon Donovan (L.A.), Clint Dempsey (Seattle) could create an environment for young Americans to stay stateside.
"It'll come down to what Luis wants," Lagerwey said. "Does Luis want to live his dream in American or does he want to live it in Europe?"
Time will tell.
But Gil remains the self-effacing surfacing star his teammates commend and the guy who loves taking his puppy to the park, watching movies and playing Xbox.
"I'm just an ordinary guy," he said. "Nothing special about me."
Luis Gil file
Age • 20
From • Garden Grove, Calif.
Pro career • Entering fifth year with Real Salt Lake, started 30 of 34 matches in 2013, scoring five goals with three assists.
International career • Played at U-20 and U-17 World Cups for the U.S., made his first-team debut on Feb. 1 in a friendly against South Korea.
Acquired • In February 2010 in a trade with Kansas City.
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