Luis Gil: From prospect to key cog, 18-year-old playmaker thrives at Real Salt Lake

Luis Gil: From prospect to key cog, 18-year-old playmaker thrives at Real Salt Lake

Luis Gil, as one of the premier young players in this league, has been on a bit of a meteoric ride in the last year and a half, transitioning from a season where he didn't feature at all to one where he's seen as a key cog to our side's functioning.

In 2011, Luis Gil, a promising playmaker aged only 17, got his first MLS start in our roundly heralded early demolition of the Los Angeles Galaxy. He played only 13 minutes in that match, finding two passes, making a tackle and conceding a foul. It wasn't exactly a bad start, but on the back of that performance, if you were to tell a neutral observer that this kid be one of our key players in less than a year's time, you'd likely be laughed out of town. Young players so rarely make transitions that quickly, after all, and though he was on a Generation Adidas contract because he was incredibly highly rated, predictions were still a bit more reserved. Perhaps rightly so.

Luis made a single appearance after that — a 2-0 win at New England — before Real Salt Lake's season made a momentary spiral down the drain when the talismanic Javier Morales was removed from consideration by a late tackle against Chivas USA. Morales, undoubtedly a strong, influential teacher for Gil, looked to have his season ended. It was only through a minor miracle that he recovered as he did, but during his absence, Luis Gil got his first real opportunity as a player.

Gil, though, would spend some time not getting more than a cursory a look in while Jason Kreis tried some other options in the playmaking spot. Collen Warner and Andy Williams both featured in that spot at the center of the diamond, but through a series of injuries and other considerations, Gil was handed his first start in a 1-1 draw against Philadelphia Union in mid-June. Though he wasn't a revelation, Gil impressed: 35 for 48 in his passing, with most of his unsuccessful passes coming from headers showed well despite the draw, and his five for six tackling showed a player with bite and drive.

He played 83 minutes during the match, with RSL coach Jason Kreis placing a great deal of trust in his ability to handle the pressure. Fitness is perhaps what kept him from staying in longer, but as a young player, it wasn't a real surprise, all things considered. It didn't take long for him to get his first full 90, though: In a 3-0 over Toronto FC at the Rio Tinto, Luis took his spot at the top of the diamond and stayed there. It wasn't a spectacular performance, but it was promising, no doubt. He didn't look intimidated or overawed, and that he lasted the whole time was certainly to his credit. He made three consecutive starts from there, going the full 90 again in a 2-0 win at home over FC Dallas.

Three off-the-bench performances later, Luis finally found his first goal. It was a 3-0 over New York, he was in the attacking third, and he let rip from outside the box. Nobody quite expected it, but right before the halftime whistle, our 17-year-old playmaker found his first goal. It was a goal from a player beyond his years, such was the poise and power he put behind it. The highly rated youngster was really starting to find his feet in the league.

Watch Luis Gil's first Real Salt Lake goal

From his first start on June 11, 2011 to today, you could count the number of matches he's not seen time in on one hand. Five matches missed in more than a year's time is a good record for most players, but for a teenager, it was really something. It wasn't a case like Freddy Adu's, either: Luis was in a system where he was being brought along at a reasonable pace, and through a series of unfortunate events, he was growing up more quickly than most would have thought possible. But it wasn't a marketing effort, and he was never handed a starting place.

With his first goal, he found himself quite firmly implanted in the side, starting seven straight matches and playing the full 90 minutes in three of them and scoring another goal on the way. Javier Morales was starting to recover, and Luis Gil had seen himself go from a promising youngster to a key player in his absence. Though the season ended with disappointment in the playoffs, Gil could take some pride in his performances.

When 2012 started and it seemed Javier Morales was finally entering the final stage of his recovery, Gil's escapades continued, and he went another seven straight matches as a starter, finding a goal against — surprise, surprise — New York Red Bulls. He's only missed two matches this season, having come back early from international duty with the U.S. Under-20s with injury, and already in 2012, he's finding more and more minutes.

Despite the return to fitness of Javier Morales, Gil still features: Against Portland on Saturday, he came in for injured Ned Grabavoy and played on the right side of the diamond, getting forward well and successfully completing four dribbles — a high mark for a striker in MLS, but for an attacking midfielder, an even better result. Though he has yet to go 90 minutes — in part owing to injury and in part to a deeper squad at the club — he is visibly growing in his play — and in his stature.

He's played 53 percent of the minutes available in 2012 — an improvement over the 42 percent of 2011 — and played in 90 percent of the club's matches so far. While his time played when starting has decreased from 75 minutes to 68 minutes, he's gone from an average of 22 minutes per off-the-bench appearance to 32 minutes.

Luis may still lack a bit of that drive to control the match — that will come with time — but from his first start out of necessity, he's looked a better player every week. He will certainly graduate from the Generation Adidas program this year, pushing his not inconsiderable salary to the salary cap, forcing Jason Kreis and Garth Lagerwey to make some difficult decisions about his role in the squad. It's hard to imagine, though, that Luis Gil — still only 18 — could put in any stronger argument for the management to find a way to keep him at the club.

The photo of Luis Gil celebrating his 2012 goal against New York Red Bulls comes from the inimitable @smackdowntay. Check out his gallery of photos from this season and explore his archive. It's well worth the time.