How Diego Luna emerged into a regular starter for RSL

Luna scored his first MLS goal and added two assists in Wednesday’s 3-1 win over St. Louis.

(Jeff Roberson | AP) Real Salt Lake's Diego Luna celebrates after scoring during the first half of an MLS soccer match against St. Louis City Wednesday, June 21, 2023, in St. Louis.

Moments after he curled a shot around the goalkeeper into the back of the net, Real Salt Lake forward Diego Luna backpedaled toward the sideline with joy. It was the first goal in his Major League Soccer career, and it came in the a road win over St. Louis on Wednesday.

But while Luna smiled wide and tried to savor the moment, he went through an internal struggle: He didn’t know what to do as a goal celebration.

“I kind of freaked out a little bit,” Luna said.

So his celebration was just an exclamation coupled with a half-punch of the air, as if his joy and relief were competing to determine which would surface. It was indicative of a player who knew he had a goal in him, but had to overcome a lot to get there.

“Being an attacking player in our setup, the most important thing is the output and the final product,” coach Pablo Mastroeni said. “I think the pressure of that and him carrying that was released when he scored that first goal.”

Luna arrived at RSL in 2022 after a stint with the El Paso Locomotive in the top division of the United Soccer League. He had already played for several youth squads of the U.S. Men’s National Team, so his addition to RSL was met with optimism and intrigue.

He appeared in 13 games during the 2022 season, but received inconsistent minutes. To start 2023, preparations for the Under-20 World Cup meant he was away from RSL much of the time.

It wasn’t until recently returning from international duty that Luna has started to show what he can do.

“I think for me, it’s like my season did begin after I came back from the World Cup,” Luna said. “I can solely focus on RSL and not worry about where I’m gonna be next weekend or stuff that’s gonna happen.”

Mastroeni said after Wednesday’s game that Luna “carries a lot of pressure” because fans and the media are “always pushing for Diego to get more minutes.” His performance against St. Louis makes it easy to see why — a goal and two assists in 83 minutes of action.

Luna has started the last three games for RSL. If his play of late continues, he could be featured in the starting lineup for the remainder of the season.

Luna said keeping up his level is play will come down to keeping his head in the right place.

“I think I’m having fun. My confidence is there,” Luna said. “I think it’s just about keeping the mentality right and keeping my mindset — on bad days, on good days — just staying strong and on a good slope.”

Mastroeni has been pleased with Luna’s play, but preached patience as well.

“There’s no doubt that he’s going to be a fantastic player,” Mastroeni said. “But like everything else, it takes time. Experience is created by going through a lot of hardships.”

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