Diego Luna is uncharacteristically exasperated.
In the belly of Shell Energy Stadium, wearing his team issued Real Salt Lake polo and an expressionless look on his face, the young midfielder known affectionately in Salt Lake County as “Moon Boy” stares blankly into a computer screen after the biggest game in his young career.
Space City hasn’t been kind to Luna this year, and last Saturday’s round one 2023 Audi MLS Cup Playoffs defeat to the Houston Dynamo is no exception.
While the U.S. Open Cup Semifinal loss to Houston back in August still stings of what ifs and if onlys, Saturday’s loss dealt a different kind of frustration.
This is the look Luna personified.
RSL’s number 26 shone under the Texan night sky, scoring on his postseason debut, his third goal in as many games, becoming the youngest-ever postseason goalscorer in Claret-and-Cobalt history at just 20 years old.
When KSL.com’s Caleb Turner asked him about his latest achievement, Luna holds his gaze into the laptop and concisely but politely replies:
“I think it felt like another goal. Of course, you're happy when you score goals, and I don't think what type of game it is changes that. I think it's a goal and you feel happy in the moment, but the most important thing is the result. And my goal means nothing if we can't get the three points.”
As Turner asks his final question of the night, “What can you guys do better in the next to hold on there at the end and get the result?” Luna’s eyes shift far to the right, and it’s apparent he is no longer in the room as he answers, but rather at the edge of his own 18 yard box, replaying Houston’s game-winning goal over and over again.
“I think we can be more organized and I think there were silly mistakes on that goal. Losing the ball in our defensive third is something that we don't need to mess around with, and I think we need to just clear it, that’s on me individually. In moments like that, just get the ball up the field.”
Nearly every professional athlete will tell you how upset they are when they lose a postseason game; just as many will likely have it weigh on their face like Luna.
A month into his 20’s, and with numerous injuries across the spine of RSL, what sets the U.S.A. U-20 Youth National Team International apart in recent weeks is how he has stepped up as a leader both on and off the field, and in taking accountability.
When Real Salt Lake hosts Houston at America First Field on Monday for a must-win game two, RSL fans will expect the same from their young starlet from Sunnyvale, Calif. They’ll also likely wager Luna will be more than ready to step up on the field as well as the podium yet again after the next most important match of his life.
Luna’s mentality is what the RSL front office was betting on when it took a chance on the then 18-year-old in the USL Championship. From that standpoint, they couldn’t be happier.
The talent is there and it’s special. After dipping his toes in Major League Soccer last season, Luna leapt off the deep-end in 2023, asserting himself in Head Coach Pablo Mastroeni’s starting XI, especially as of late.
After a quiet start to the season and leaving for the U-20 World Cup during parts of May and June, Luna returned to Utah and immediately started to get to work, starting 19 of 24 possible games for RSL across all competitions since June 10, recording 5 goals and 3 assists along the way.
When looking at the data provided by FBref, his dribbling ability and creativity jump off the page.
From this chart, which compares Luna to other midfielders during the 2023 MLS season, the young playmaker reads as a player who is a dangerous carrier of the ball, loves to take his defender on one on one, and an inventive spark in the final third.
There’s a reason Luna was named in MLSSoccer.com’s prestigious 22U22 list earlier this year, and being in the 97th percentile of shot-creating actions for league midfielders is impressive in itself.
Tactically, Luna has made it no secret that his favorite position to play is the classic number 10 role, where he more regularly runs out for the USYNT. For those unfamiliar, a trip to YouTube university to watch the likes of Mesut Ozil, Riquelme, and Isco would be a great start. In the most basic sense, a number 10 operates centrally behind the striker, above the rest of the midfield and helps orchestrate the attacking phase of play while also linking the midfield to the forwards.
Soccer romantics, fanatics and general enthusiasts will likely always gravitate to this legendary position, even as it's arguably been phased out of the game as time goes on and tactics evolve. However in MLS, the #10 still reigns supreme with stars like Luciano Acosta, Emmanuel Reynoso, Tiago Almada and Carles Gil often leading the league’s highlight reels and MVP voting.
The question has been posed as to why Luna hasn’t played in the 10 role often at RSL and the answer takes on a multitude of reasons. This season, when fully healthy the Claret-and-Cobalt usually roll out in a 4-4-2, which means four defenders, four midfielders and two forwards. In the engine room of RSL’s most used formation are two central midfielders, who are each flanked by a wide midfielder. It is here out wide, where Luna was often deployed throughout the regular season.
When looking at Luna’s 2023 season heatmap thanks to Sofascore, you can see he loves to operate in the halfspaces between the wide area and the center of the field. As a wide midfielder, he’s offered the freedom to drift inside and help RSL operate through the center, or find overlapping runs from the fullback behind him.
There are some great examples of this from RSL’s impressive 3-1 road win against Saint Louis CITY back in June. Set up in a 4-4-2, Luna scored his first goal this game and also recorded two assists. As you watch the highlights (never a bad time to watch these), take a look at his positioning and the space he has.
On decision day at Colorado and against Houston last weekend, RSL lined up in a 3-5-2 which essentially was three defenders, two central midfielders, two wingbacks, a #10 (Luna) and two forwards.
This clip below helps demonstrate why playing Luna centrally is so tantalizing.
For RSL Technical Director Kurt Schmid, Luna’s ability to play both wide and centrally is only a plus.
“I don't think he has a position he has to play for us, I think he can play either one of those roles. I still think it's easier for him in a wide position, because he can find a little hole in the half space and get himself unmarked and get on the ball a little bit easier, and I think for me, the right place to play him is anywhere where he gets on the ball more.”
To Schmid’s point, when RSL played the LA Galaxy on October 14 lined up in a 4-4-2, Luna had 73 touches, leading the team. When RSL lined up in a 3-5-2 with Diego at the 10 the next week against Colorado on Decision Day, he finished with 45 (Against Houston in Round One last Saturday, 38). A small but recent sample size.
“If having him start wide gets him on the ball more, that's better for our team,” Schmid said “If putting him centrally means that he doesn't see the ball as much, then we have to weigh that against the quality of his actions when he does get the ball. And, you know, if those are so much higher quality, then maybe it makes sense.
But if they're the same quality, then I'd rather have him get on the ball more. So it's, it's a little bit of a catch 22.”
MLSSoccer.com writer and MLS ExtraTime host Matt Doyle shares a similar feeling as Schmid.
“I think Kurt hit the nail on the head In terms of getting him in a spot where he's getting reps on the ball, not just because It helps the team because he's very good at ball progression and good in tight spaces and doesn't give it away cheaply, but just because you want talented young players to get on the ball more often.”
“I think it's worked in that sense. And with the idea that he gets a little bit better at reading defenses. You can eventually move him into the interior full time and, and have him be that, that classic number 10.”
“Go to his FBref radar and across the board, he's adding so much value. It's insane. What he's not really doing at a high level yet, though, is the final ball. It's not because he doesn't have the vision or the touch. It's because when you go from youth soccer, USL, to MLS, in the span of, really, like, 24 months you're making a number of big jumps, and the hardest thing to do in this sport is to play the final ball.”
“He's already done the ball progression and understanding where and how to receive in traffic and, the defensive part, he's been a monster. He's always already checked those boxes and then the final box, you check that and he's the, he's your number 10.”
What’s so exciting about Luna at the moment is that the final ball is starting to come through. The young midfielder has scored in his last three matches for RSL, and his influence on the team has only grown as the season’s unfolded. When it comes to potential, Luna has only just started to tip the proverbial iceberg.
“The United States hasn’t produced a ton of players like him historically, because I do think he is a real number 10,” Doyle said. “I think he's a guy who if he stays in MLS, four years from now, we could be talking about him the way we talk about Lucho Acosta, Tiago Amada.”
“Look, if he keeps developing over the next 24 months the way he's developed over the last 24 months, I don't think there's a cap for him in what he can do. He looks like a kid who could be a centerpiece of a title contending team to me.”
Both Doyle and Schmid have watched enough players and seen enough soccer to make your head spin. For Schmid, he’s seen plenty of players with loads of potential, that’s his job, for him, it’s about who will maximize it.
A key aspect in doing that, according to Schmid, is mentality. So much so that when scouting Diego while he was at El Paso Locomotive in the USL Championship, he spoke to the Club’s head coach, one of his former colleagues, who only reassured him of Luna.
“There are more players than people realize that have exceptional potential and that top end potential,” said Schmid.
“There are not enough players that have the mental side of the game to fulfill their potential, I think, one of the key parts for our signing of Diego was talking to his coach and after that, there was no doubt in my mind.” Then when he showed up here, I remember the first day of training, you know, Pablo came in and I was like, Hey, how's Diego?
“And he was just like, Oh man, what a great teammate.
I didn't have any concerns about his mentality before that, but then hearing that it just reinforced it all. It doesn't guarantee that he's going to be this big time player necessarily, but, it does reassure us that Diego has a really, really good shot at fulfilling his potential, better than most people have.”
Back in the Houston press area, minutes before Luna sat down in front of the computer, and took the responsibility for the Houston goal while glancing over his own, his head coach Pablo Mastroeni sat down and answered a question about his young midfielders performance.
“I thought he had a fantastic game.
I think we have to be better on the ball to get guys like Luna and Sava on the ball and in better positions. The one thing I'll say about the goal that he scored. It really came from an incredible amount of effort to break beyond and get to the spot that he got to. That takes a lot of dogged work.
It's really interesting, sometimes it takes a while for a young player to kind of grow into his own. I've seen in the last three games a transformation in Diego and not in his attacking capabilities, but in the commitment that he has to the team and doing all the little things to help everyone else out.
Obviously scoring in three consecutive games is monumental for a young player, but he's shown a lot of leadership on the field, his communication, his positioning, his decisions are getting better and better.
I’m so super proud of the young man. I think he's put in a lot of work in the last year to really take advantage of these moments, and now we just need the rest of the group to follow.”
As Luna takes his seat in the following minutes, he is pissed, like everyone else in the Real Salt Lake locker room, but ready to face the noise. That’s just who Diego Luna is, and is growing to be.
The talent and even more so mentality of the young midfielder in his first MLS postseason match shone through Shell Energy Stadium in Houston last Saturday. Here’s to it shining even brighter in Utah in game two, and this time, everyone, Luna included, goes home happy.
There are still tickets available to watch Diego Luna and Real Salt Lake take on the Houston Dynamo in the win or go home game two of the best of three playoff series on Monday, November 6. Come experience the magic of America First Field during the playoffs and cheer on the Claret-and-Cobalt as they battle to keep their postseason dreams alive. Tickets available here.
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