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‘There’s still a lot more of Diego Luna that we haven’t seen,’ RSL’s Diego Luna says

The 20-year-old star has big dreams for his club and country going forward.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Real Salt Lake midfielder Diego Luna, center, celebrates after scoring the winning goal during a shoot-out, in MLS soccer action between Houston Dynamo and Real Salt Lake, at America First Field, in Sandy, on Monday, Nov. 6, 2023.

Most teams wouldn’t want a 20-year-old taking the last kick in a penalty shootout — but then again, most teams don’t have Diego Luna.

“Pablo (Mastroeni, RSL manager) asked me if I wanted to be fourth or fifth,” Luna told The Athletic, after his Real Salt Lake side had beaten the Houston Dynamo on penalties in Game 2 of the first round of the MLS playoffs. “I already visualized this whole thing in my head, where we make it to the fifth guy. I wanted to be that guy, so I told him fifth.”

RSL’s first four kickers did their part, each making their kicks. Goalkeeper Zac MacMath contributed, too, saving an attempt from Dynamo midfielder Amine Bassi to set the stage for Luna to turn his visualization into reality.

Clark dove to his right, correctly guessing which direction Luna would direct his kick. The attacking midfielder perfectly placed it underneath the bar and above Clark’s outstretched hand, sealing the result before peeling off to pump up the crowd in jubilation.

“Having the crowd behind you in games like that really means a lot,” Luna said. “The celebration with my hand behind my ears and stuff like that — a goalkeeper I used to train with, Erik Jasper, is on the (United States) deaf national team. He told me to do that celebration, so I did. That was a celebration for him.”

But as Luna can attest to, things change quickly in soccer.

A week later in the decisive Game 3, RSL once again faced penalty kicks against Houston. This time, having scored the equalizer to send the match to a shootout in the first place, Luna shot third. After Houston fans threw debris on the field during his walk-up, Luna switched his placement, going to Clark’s left. This time, Clark guessed correctly and parried the penalty away. Another missed kick in the fifth round allowed the Dynamo to close things out, ending Luna’s breakout season.

Luna was the only RSL player (and one of 13 across all teams) to score twice in the postseason to date. His six created chances were tied for the team’s lead. It’s just the latest chapter in what’s been an already engrossing young career to date.

“I think that there’s still a lot more of Diego Luna that we haven’t seen,” Luna said, “and that’s gonna come out. I think I’m starting to show who I am, but I think there’s a big percentage of what I’m capable of doing that is yet to come, either this year or next.”

While his flicks and weaving runs catch the eye, equally important to Luna’s emergence is his precocious presence off the field.

“He’s an incredibly mature kid, period,” general manager Elliot Fall said. “I’ll never forget when he came into the locker room. He walked around, introduced himself to everybody, and immediately earned the trust of a veteran group.”

Then again, a professional locker room was not exactly a new environment for Luna. The Bay Area native made a big decision to leave home (and the San Jose Earthquakes academy) at age 15, heading to the Barça Residency Academy USA in Casa Grande, Arizona — the same program that counted Julián Araujo, Caden Clark, and Matthew Hoppe among its past products. By the time Luna was 17, he made the unusual decision to not join an MLS setup but rather El Paso Locomotive in the USL Championship — the U.S. second division.

The gamble was that such a move would allow Luna more on-field opportunities, and it paid off handsomely. He played 41 league matches in the span of just 14 months, scoring 13 goals and adding seven assists — all before he turned 19. RSL came calling in June 2022, signing him for a then-USL record fee of $250,000, while the Quakes got a nominal fee for his homegrown rights.

Although Luna has, to use his own word, a “stocky” build, he has used that physique as an asset in operating as a creative playmaker. Capable of playing on either wing, Luna feels most at home as a number 10, pulling strings between the lines.

“I’m quick, and I’m fast,” Luna said, “so I think it helps me get around defenders and hold them off. I have good balance, so it does help when guys are running onto you and you’ve got to protect the ball. Turning in those half-spaces, I think it helps a lot. I think it does play a role in the player that I am.”

Luna is an electric player when in form — confident on the dribble, but equally adept at making quick decisions to not give opposing defenses time to adjust.

With how vital Luna has become to RSL’s success, it’s easy to forget that he wasn’t a regular starter until midway through this season. But even with that caveat, his numbers compare favorably to many of the league’s brightest young talents.

Still, Luna is aiming for more than one good breakout season. He has not been shy about his desire to play in Europe, even dating back to his time in El Paso. The winter before he signed with RSL, he and Canada international Jayden Nelson had trials with Belgian club RSC Anderlecht. Luna also believes he could thrive in the first divisions of Spain, France and Italy given the nature of those competitions.

“There’s clubs that I’m interested in, that caught my eye — Anderlecht, teams in France, teams in Italy that play a style that I could really fit in and help,” he said. “It’s all about the right place at the right time that’s going to help the player succeed and, of course, help the team succeed. I think it’s all about what’s going on at that certain time.”

He isn’t necessarily holding out until the “right” club comes calling, or one with a higher stature; he recognizes that every move is part of the bigger picture.

“I’ve been a player that always worked his way up the ranks,” Luna said. “I think that’s the type of player that I am. Whether it’s starting in a top-10 league in Europe and making my way up (to further heights), I think that’s something that’s fine with me. That’s how my life has been, and that’s how I’m going to take it.

Luna reiterated multiple times that he isn’t in a rush to leave RSL given how quickly he’s felt at home with the club. He won’t be looking to force a move this winter, nor does he feel a move needs to come together next season. For now, he’s assessing all options and ensuring that, if he does eventually leave the club to cross the Atlantic, it’s the right situation for all parties.

After all, he has more to consider than his own career at this point after the birth of his first child.

“There’s been another motivation with my newborn son, who’s now two months old,” Luna said. “I think that’s played a big part for me, it’s flipped the switch. You know, it’s hard to even explain — it’s just that’s all you think about and you work for and it’s kind of a whole other motivation to add onto what I’ve been working on individually with my own mindset.”

If you’re hoping to catch a glimpse of Luna with the U.S. national team program now that his MLS season is done, you’ll need to wait.

Gregg Berhalter’s squad for the senior USMNT’s upcoming games against Trinidad and Tobago omitted both of his first-choice wingers — Christian Pulisic and Timothy Weah — due to injuries. Teammates of Luna’s from this spring’s U-20 World Cup squad had gotten calls in the past, including attackers Cade Cowell and Kevin Paredes, goalkeeper Gaga Slonina and defender Jonathan Gómez. But for now, Luna will have to wait to break through at senior level.

“I’m not surprised,” Luna said of his lack of involvement with Berhalter’s team. “I’m just gonna keep working. I think I can keep my head down, keep producing, keep becoming the best player that I can be. If they don’t call me in, it is what it is. Everybody sees different things; everybody can believe in something that they want to believe in, but I’m gonna keep my head down and continue to develop so that if that time comes, I can take advantage of it.”

Luna was initially going to be called in for this month’s pre-Olympics training camp in Spain, according to sources with knowledge of the program’s plans speaking anonymously to respect their relationship with the federation. The sources added that Luna is still expected to be a crucial part of the potential Olympic roster, with another camp expected to take place in December.

However, Luna pulled himself from this squad at the last minute following an emotional end to his MLS season which left him mentally and physically drained.

Luna, who is also eligible to represent Mexico, says he has not been in contact with Berhalter or Mexico head coach Jaime Lozano. At this point, it’s fair to say that playing for either national team would be of interest. However, Mastroeni has said he still expects the U.S. 2024 Olympic team to heavily feature the playmaker.

“Everybody wants to play international football, right?” Luna said. “That’s a dream of theirs. Mexico is definitely not a closed door — it’s an open door. Of course, it’s all about what’s right for me, what’s going to be the best opportunity, stuff like that.

“Of course, with the U.S. in the (U-20) World Cup and multiple camps, the CONCACAF (U-20 Championship), all of that, it would be cool to finally make it to the senior level with the U.S. But of course, any door and any opportunity given at the right time and the right situation — yeah, the door for Mexico is open. I wouldn’t shut that out.”

— This article originally appeared in The Athletic.