With U-20s, Luis Gil has opportunity to prove his value as playmaker

Victor Decolongon

He's a fantastic young player, Luis Gil. He's quite easily the most experienced player with the U.S. U-20s, with whom he's just traveled to Mexico to join: 19 years old, Gil has played in 54 regular season matches for Real Salt Lake and is swiftly moving into an established role in the midfield.

He's been called the future of the United States National Team for some time. It's a premature assessment, perhaps, as the calls started when he was still only 16, but he was, after all, a magnificently talented youngster. He's pegged for that ever-complicated number 10 spot, and he's shown bright signs of succeeding in that position.

As a 17-year-old, Gil was handed his first start for Real Salt Lake in a 1-1 draw against Philadelphia Union, sharing playmaking duties with Ned Grabavoy and Andy Williams. It wasn't a breathtaking start, but it was enough to earn him minutes off the bench soon after, coming on for Fabian Espindola and going on to establish himself as a genuine option for Real Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis.

It was the absence of Javier Morales, whose obliterated ankle saw him miss most of the season, that gave Gil his first real opportunities at the club. There were always going to be chances for Gil, of course, but the hole the absence opened offered opportunities.

He took those opportunities and crafted out more. Luis Gil became, for a time, the solution to Real Salt Lake's post-Morales slump, and even if he didn't always create, he was always active. For a player who, all things considered, might have been deemed too young for a physical league, Gil looked ready. Having played 25 games in 2011, it was clear that Jason Kreis thought he was ready for at least some action, even if his hand had been forced slightly.

2012 saw the return of Javier Morales in a fuller sense, but Luis Gil adapted to that, too. He became an option not just in the playmaker role, but on either side of Real Salt Lake's diamond, positions which demand considerably more of a player in defense and afford less opportunity to find cutting passes. He transitioned ably, picking up minutes whenever possible. He became one of the first options off the bench, and if a midfielder maybe wasn't 100 percent, Gil was there to step in and start.

Inevitably, with that transition came less time as a playmaker. Luis Gil started to show as a more complete playmaker, but there grew doubts that he was a long-term solution for the coveted number 10 spot, as the understudy to Javier Morales. A sense that, perhaps, he was better suited for the side of the diamond — where he'll undoubtedly be handed much playing time as a surprisingly veteran player in a revised midfield.

Today, Luis Gil joins the United States U-20 squad in Mexico as they prepare for the CONCACAF U-20 Championship, a tournament which could give the U.S. a berth into the U-20 World Cup. As the most senior player with the squad and, perhaps, as the player with the captain's armband, Gil has some real responsibility thrust on his shoulders.

The opportunity afforded him now is immense: While Real Salt Lake has in the past withheld Gil from international duty, a regional tournament and an international tournament are too much to keep him from. Gil has a chance to establish himself as a player whom play flows through and not around, who demands the ball, who leads a group to a title challenge. The team won't live and die by him, but how he performs and leads will play an important role.

If there's one thing that could be criticized about Luis Gil's performances in 2012, it's that, at the top of the diamond, he failed to command play, to let play flow naturally through him. In a more established, veteran side, that can be difficult: Everyone, at all times, demands the ball, and he has to assert his dominance in a vital position. As the veteran among the youth, Gil has a chance to do just that — and to bring that back to his club form.

It's set to be a breakout year for Gil. It's his fourth with Real Salt Lake, and he's nearing the end of his youth team opportunities. How far he goes from there is up to him.

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