Too many times has the supposed prototypical American soccer player not lived up to the expectation set by the coaches, the media and the fans. Freddy Adu is always the first case study you look at, but he is by no means the only one.
Brek Shea has struggled to deal with the hype of being the new, yet undoubtedly talented, fresh-faced kid to go on and meet the expectation to take USA’s left wing for himself while Eddie Johnson, Marcus Tracy and Danny Szetela are all other prime examples of those who made the highly anticipated transfers to Europe only to find returns to MLS (or to NASL, in Szetela’s case) the most viable option, after failing to make an considerable impression worthy of one of Europe’s elite to sweep them off their feet.
Right now, Jozy Altidore could face a similar situation should his time at Sunderland not work out, while Shea is battling hard to silence his critics and get in contention to start for Stoke City. U.S. internationals Juan Agudelo and Aron Johannsson are in Eredivisie looking to prove their worth as well.
There seems to be the trend in MLS that in order to fulfill your potential, you must go to Europe. But in 2013 and ’14 there have been many U.S. players making the return to the league where their careers began.
Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Maurice Edu and Michael Parkhurst are a notable few who found that cracking Europe was not vital to having a fruitful and entirely fulfilling soccer career. MLS may not be able to offer the thrill of lifting a UEFA Champions League or an English Premier League trophy, but it can allow an American to be part of the growth of his own domestic league (which is booming) and get a lot of fan and media support in doing so.
One of those who looks to have their feet firmly on the ground, not lured away by the excitement and the hollow promise of a vast increase in wages that Europe has to offer, is Real Salt Lake’s Luis Gil.
At just 20 years of age, Luis Gil has made 84 appearances for Real Salt Lake and played over 20 games in each one of the last three years. The young playmaker has the kind of experience that many U.S. Soccer players do not reach until the age of around 25 – only Freddy Adu can really compare in terms of regular appearances in MLS at the start of his career. The main reason for this, of course, is the fact that Gil made the decision to go pro at the age of 16.
He did not go through the SuperDraft system, the pressure cooker the scouts and the coaches scrutinize to find a young American soccer player seeking a professional contract. Instead, Gil went straight from playing for SoCal youth soccer juggernauts Pateadores to the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. in 2008.
Then he made the decision which in 10 years’ time could be perceived as either the biggest mistake of Gil’s career or the best decision he could have made.
He rejected the callings of Arsenal, who offered him a contract after a successful trial, to sign with MLS on a Generation Adidas contract in February 2010. Gil was traded from Kansas City Wizards on the 23rd of that month to Real Salt Lake, where he has been ever since.
Technically gifted with a subtle first touch, deceptive sinuous movements and the type of awareness of a player twice his age – Gil has been making slow, steady progress in Utah. The U.S. U-20 international has gone from a benchwarmer in his first year of professional soccer to a regular starter on a team which undertook a major overhaul at the start of the 2013 season.
Looking purely at two of soccer’s most fundamentally important statistics – goals and assists – Gil had two goals, no assists in 25 appearances to his name in 2011; one goal, three assists in 2012 after 29 games; and five goals, three assists in 2013 in 30 games played.
There is clear evidence of Gil becoming increasingly productive as he matures. This has translated to international football as well, as he has gone through the ranks from U-17 level to successfully earning a cap for the senior team in a friendly against South Korea on February 1 this year.
Clear signs suggest that U.S. Men’s National Team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has Gil in his mind for the full national team, maybe not in time for the 2014 World Cup, but certainly 2018. Gil’s humility earned him the captaincy of the U.S. U-20 National Team at the World Cup in Turkey last year, and suggests what a contented mindset Gil must be feeling going into the 2014 season.
Gil has been making tangible signs of progress, unlike so many former U.S. players who perhaps rushed into moving abroad, purely on the basis of potential. Real Salt Lake, under the tutelage of GM Garth Lagerway and the former coach Jason Kreis (now at expansion club NYCFC), have done incredibly well in ensuring that Gil’s progress has not got to a point where so much pressure could weigh on him and act as a hindrance.
Pressure is perhaps what led to the demise of players such as Adu, whose youth career had been so well-documented that the feeling of expectation on a teenager must have been apparent.
Blame cannot be placed on the college system for players entering professional soccer too late, as there are countless examples of those who have gone on to illustrious careers.
However, perhaps if more emphasis was placed on slowly developing skills in MLS first, whether via bypassing the college system or not, before the possible chance of making the leap across the Atlantic. Then not only less expectation could potentially be ensured, but also enables the individual to be given more regular playing time which – in turn – gives more room for potential to be fulfilled.
Once Luis Gil’s career is over, he may become renowned as being the trailblazer for seeing a future in MLS rather than abroad and an inspiration for youth players and their parents who still have the age-old perception that Europe is the only genuine option for forging a pro soccer career.
In a number of interviews, Gil has clearly stated he has no regrets turning down the chance to play for Arsenal as he knew, logically speaking, that starting for one of the world’s most prestigious clubs at the age of 16-17 could have proven to be very difficult.
Gil is developing in MLS, not Europe – and that can only look good for the U.S. domestic soccer scene.