The road from teenage starlet to capable, contributing professional is a perilous path that seems to result in flameout more often than success.
In the United States, hype swirling around youth stars can sometimes become overwhelming, and players anointed and developed at the Bradenton Residency program with the U.S. Under 17s falter as often as they reach their potential.
U.S. Under 20 Men’s National Team and Real Salt Lake midfielder Luis Gil, in his fourth year as a professional, appears to be edging towards a development success story. With over 50 pro appearances in MLS under his belt, recently helping the U20s qualify for the World Cup in Turkey, the midfielder turns 20 this November and has made significant strides since competing as a 15-year-old at the U17 World Cup in 2009.
It’s been quite the road from turning pro at the age of 16 to this season, and one of the keys to his development thus far was being patient early in his career, as it took him over a year and a half before his debut with RSL.
“I look back at it now and I know I wasn’t ready but you want to be on the field,” Gil told TopDrawerSoccer.com. “But you’ve just got to be patient with stuff like that, you just can’t be put in situations [too early] and make yourself look bad. [You just need to] be patient and your opportunities will come, your time will come.”
His head coach, Jason Kreis, has seen a player enjoy an all-around development since joining the club back in February 2009.
“I don’t think there’s any one part of his game that he’s improved more than others,” he said. “Every facet of his game he’s become a better professional, better athlete and obviously he’s become a man. He’s still a young man, but I think physically he’s maturing and that’s showing up in his game.”
Midfielder Kyle Beckerman, a teammate who also came through the Residency Program in Bradenton, played a big role in helping Gil make the transition to MLS.
“Obviously it’s two different positions, but I feel like this team is a big defensive team and I learn a lot from him,” Gil said. “I’m not saying I’m trying to be the type of player he is, because he is who he is, he’s a great player. He’s shepherded me ever since I came to the team and I’ve looked up to him since. I’ve learned a lot from him defensively and he’s always encouraging me and stuff, that’s the big thing I’ve liked from him.”
The strides that Gil has made during the first few years of his career benefitted the U.S. U20 team under Tab Ramos at the CONCACAF qualifying tournament in Mexico. The midfielder was by far the most experienced pro on the team in terms of first team games played, not to mention prior youth World Cup games.
Gil backed up that experience with his performances on the field, making three starts and scoring a goal against Canada in the deciding match that secured a World Cup berth. After the game, Gil returned to RSL for the start of the MLS season, where he’s transitioned into a starting role with his club team.
Despite that success – and his transition to this level going well so far – Gil knows that he still has much to work on.
“I’m still developing, I’m only 19 even though it’s my fourth year now,” he said. “A lot of people are excited and there are expectations and stuff, but I felt like I’m still growing as a player, still feel like I need to get better in my attacking mindset, playing that No. 10 spot, you’ve got to be dangerous. And I feel like as the year goes on, that’s where I want to improve the most.”
For Kreis, it’s a matter of continuing to manage the young talent and making sure that he doesn’t get too far ahead of himself, and as a coach, ensuring that he emphasizes Gil’s development.
“I think the challenges are always keeping the player with his feet on the ground,” the head coach explained. “Not reading too many articles about what this person, that person thinks about him . . . You want to do good by him by developing him and by our country by developing players like this to hopefully help out for our club first and foremost, but at some point you want to develop players like this to be influential with the national team.”
Along with the goal of working on his offensive skills, Gil also indicated a desire to find the back of the net more often for his club (he has three career goals so far). Not to mention have the chance to represent the United States again, this time in Turkey.
“Any time you have the opportunity you have to play for the national team you want to be a part of it,” he said. “It’s a big opportunity to represent your country and I feel like it’s a good thing to be a part of and have on your resume.”