19-year-old Diego Luna is continuing to find his way with Real Salt Lake during the 2023 MLS season and although Pablo Mastroeni has plenty of veteran attackers to call on to lead his attack, it was Luna who paved the way to three points on Saturday night.
Luna became the youngest RSL play to register a multi-goal performance as RSL claimed a 3-1 home victory over the New York Red Bulls at Rio Tinto Stadium. The 19-year-old winger scored twice for RSL before Jefferson Savarino’s late goal served as insurance in RSL’s 10th league win of the season.
Luna served as one of the U.S. Under-20 men’s national team’s key performers this spring as Mikey Varas’ squad reached the quarterfinals for a fourth-straight tournament. Now as Luna continues his 2023 schedule with a surging RSL squad, the young attacker and his head coach credited his U-20 World Cup involvement for helping him improve at club level.
“I think it was a lot of confidence and a lot of stuff going through my head that was clogging me up,” Luna said postgame to reporters. “What shows is when I’m free and I’m having fun playing, it shows who I really am, so I think that was something when I came back. I felt free and open to the game and relaxed and able to play.”
“I think the hardship that Luna went through, and then with a good U-20, put him in a position to dig in a little bit deeper,” said Mastroeni. “He gets played over the top, and he makes a tackle inside the six-yard box. We can talk about all the attacking stuff, he’s a very talented attacker, but when you commit to that kind of work, now you become a part of the team.”
Luna had to wait for his opportunity with RSL, featuring with Real Monarchs in MLS NEXT Pro and El Paso Locomotive in the USL Championship before enjoying a larger first team role this season. After 13 MLS appearances in 2022, Luna has already tied that mark in 2023, while also adding three goals and one assist in seven starts.
His cleverness and final-third awareness were on display on Saturday as the homegrown attacker scored twice inside of the Red Bulls box, on two different offensive scenarios. Luna’s goalscoring and playmaking abilities will only continue to grow as the current season rolls on, while RSL has Cristian Arango, Damir Kreilach, Danny Musovski, and Savarino to also carry the load.
“His growth has been fantastic,” Mastroeni said about Luna’s growth from 2021 to now. “The expectations aren’t that he’s going to score every game, but that he’s going to do the work that the team requires in order to get success.”
“I think the ceiling is high for Luna,” Mastroeni added. “I think he can achieve some great things. He’s got a lot of tools that you can’t teach. They’re innate, like the way his brain works about soccer, the passes that he makes, the way he sees the game. He’s got a great perspective on what this game’s all about, and he’s showing it every day in training.”
Luna is one of several young attacking talents that could have a future with the USMNT if he continues on his current developmental path. Several of Luna’s USMNT U-20 teammates such as Paxten Aaronson, Jalen Neal, and Cade Cowell have all made their senior debuts in recent months, and remain on the radar with Gregg Berhalter returning as head coach.
He might have to wait for his opportunity, just like he did with Real Salt Lake, but Mastroeni believes Luna can become a senior national team player in this current pool of players.
“He’s got a great shot,” said Mastroeni about Luna’s USMNT potential. “I think him being a part of this group, and the form that we’re currently in, puts him in a great position to go into a January camp, and show Gregg [Berhalter] that he’s more than capable of playing at that level.”