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He's Got Next: Zavier Gozo

“There’s a little bit of Thierry Henry in him,” said Real Monarchs Manager Mark Lowry when asked about his 17-year-old phenom attacker Zavier Gozo. “He’s got that kind of graceful running where he glides past defenders. He can go wide, he can go inside … so there’s a Thierry Henry vibe about how he plays.” There’s almost no higher praise a youngster could receive from his manager - but nobody in the RSL organization is surprised by the buzz around the Club’s homegrown virtuoso.

It’s a warm, sunny day in South Florida - Gozo and his Real Salt Lake Academy U-17 teammates are just hours away from kicking off their fourth match of the 2024 Generation Adidas (GA) cup. It’s a tournament that’s captured the attention of the soccer world for its astounding collection of young players, Gozo certainly among them. He’s made his mark at the RSL Academy, with Real Monarchs, in the USYNT system at multiple levels, had debuted for Real Salt Lake at the MLS level and now looks to make an impressive showing while stacked up against the best junior talent the world has to offer. As traditional footballing powers such as Ajax and Manchester United field teams within a stacked field of 40 clubs from every corner of the globe - it’s interestingly enough a rare opportunity for Gozo to compete against players his own age.

“It’s a great showcase event for him…it’s the right thing for him to do. Any chance he can go and get a high-level U-17 game is an excellent opportunity,” said Lowry

So far through the tournament, the team has posted a record of 2-0-1 with Gozo contributing two goals. His best moment of the tournament so far, Gozo showed off the skills Lowry opined about late in the second half of RSL’s victory over Atletico Nacional on Easter Sunday. He received the ball from winger Omar Marquez who had just beat two defenders and sent Gozo a cross. Receiving the ball just inside the top of the box Gozo ripped a left-footed volley on his first-time touch in the top corner for the game-winner, preserving the 17s unbeaten record who would go on to win the group by five points .

Having turned 17 just in late March, Gozo is not only one of the brightest stars the Real Salt Lake organization or the Beehive State has to offer, but is one of the brightest young stars on the continent - and he hails from RSL’s backyard in Eagle Mountain, Utah. Gozo came on for the Real Salt Lake first team last year at just 16 on October 14th against LA Galaxy, becoming the third youngest debutant in RSL history. Club scouts aren’t the only ones salivating over the talent of Gozo however, as he’s spent time in the US Men’s Youth National Team setup with the U-15, U-16 and, following a call-up to training camp in early March, U-17 squads.

Gozo joined the Real Salt Lake organization as a member of the Academy in the fall of 2021. In his first season with the RSL Academy, Gozo established himself as a prolific goalscorer, leading the team with 16 goals in the regular season, while scoring multiple goals at both the Generation Adidas Cup and MLS NEXT Cup tournaments, winning the latter’s Golden Boot award. In his second season in the RSL Academy, Gozo was elevated to the U-17 squad, once again leading the way, netting 10 goals in 10 games while also contributing one assist.

Despite often appearing as a possible sub on Pablo Mastroeni’s bench with the Real Salt Lake first team in recent times, the lion share of Gozo’s minutes this year have come with Real Monarchs in MLS Next Pro competition. His performances this season suggest nothing other than a continuance of this promising trajectory. Notably, he collected his first brace as a professional on March 27 with Real Monarchs against Minnesota United 2, notching both of SLC’s only goals in the victory. The match is a case study in three examples of what makes Gozo so electric. 

First, he shows his athletic superiority. An optimistic ball played over the top of the defense is turned from nothing into something when Gozo uses his frame and pace to box out and speed by his much larger defender, forcing a bad challenge and earning an early red card. Then, he shows his knack for goalscoring and anticipation. Teammate Daron Iskenderian has his shot deflected in the box and Gozo calmy reads its path before slotting in an important equalizer. As calmly as you like. Third, he shows his creativity and off-the-ball positioning. Reading the game against his instincts to get forward as a winger and striker, Gozo slots himself behind an attacking teammate pushing through the box, more resembling the positioning of a #10 (Center Attacking Midfielder - Advanced Playmaker), in anticipation of a regressive pass - clinically depositing the chance with a cerebral off-speed shot into the corner netting.

Captain and leader of the Monarchs, defender Keller Storlie, was asked about his first-hand knowledge of the problems Gozo creates on the pitch. “I’ve dealt with this personally. It’s his shiftiness when he has the ball and his dribbling. He’ll dice you up and cut you up if you let him. We saw it in the [Monarchs vs. MNU2] match too … their center backs were having a tough time with him when he was going 1v1 at them … I think his work ethic is something to praise as well. A lot of forwards sometimes can be lazy but that is not the case with Gozo. He definitely works hard and is willing to run for the team and press, which I really appreciate as a defender. And then I think as a person, he is just a really good person as well. He’s an awesome guy to talk to off the field, and on the field you know he’ll have your back.”

But it’s not what he did collecting his first brace that is so fascinating, MLS Next Pro has come to expect dazzling performances from Gozo at this point - it’s the role in which he performed that makes it so special. Lowry was asked about the versatility of his young attacker.

“Anybody that can play two positions really well is gonna have a good chance of being selected. Coming through the academy he was a nine (striker), and scored a lot of goals. But then when you move up to the first team level or the Monarchs level - you now as a young player have to find a position you can get your feet wet. I think he’s found [his spot] on the right…but we can’t lose sight of the fact he could be a really high-level number 9. He has the quality to do both,” said the Monarchs skipper. While he admits it’s an exciting challenge to maximize the development of Gozo’s game with a diverse set of on-field circumstances, it’s a challenge any manager would love to have.

Touted as both a pacey winger prospect with creativity and technical ability out wide along the touchline and as a physically imposing striker with aerial prowess, strength, shooting and an ability to stretch the pitch, Lowry has explored an innovative approach to Gozo’s skill set, working within his fluid system to set up Gozo with opportunities.

“In [the Monarchs] system, we like to call it a 3-2-4-1, that 1 at the top of it has to be a guy that really stretches the back line - that plays into his skillset … so we’ve now got options to play underneath him to other players but also if we need to go longer he gives us that outlet.” Lowry continued, “Every single game he steps on the field, he affects the match in a positive way.”

When asked what about Gozo allows him to be utilized so effectively in so many different tactical alignments, Lowry said “Gozo is special … just how he can affect the game - whether it’s with his speed, his work rate, he’s relentless with his running, he creates a lot of problems for defenders.” But it’s not just on-field performance that earns a player the trust of his manager, “And he’s a good kid. All the soccer stuff aside, he’s genuinely a good human being with a good upbringing. He comes in every day and does his job.”

He’s been thoroughly impressive as a player and as a person, but the coaching staff also raves about Gozo’s quality as a student of the game. They say that he loves the game, he lives the game, he has “fire” and it would seem he’s aware of the hard work needed to capture his potential. “He listens right, he doesn’t come in with an ego. When you give him advice, when you give him information, you can tell he’s listening and he’s taking it on board. In the video sessions he’s in the front, he’s locked in, he’s looking at the screen. He’s a great learner and he’s very coachable. He’s a kid you can push and he does respond well to that.” 

It seems to be a theme that those in his orbit can’t speak about Gozo’s quality as a player without also bringing up his quality as a person and teammate. “He’s just a good teammate overall. He’s willing to work for the team … You know he wants to win, he’s competitive, and he wants the team to be at a higher level,” said Storlie about his teammate and friend. 

You can catch Gozo in action next as the Real Salt Lake U-17 academy squad continues their fight in the GA Cup this week, with matches streamed live on Apple TV through an MLS Season Pass subscription. To learn more about Gozo and the other exciting prospects in our Club, click here.