Editor’s note: this story was originally published May, 2, 2022.
If you consider the top developmental setups in American soccer, few USL Championship clubs likely come to mind. Most second-tier teams are too new, too cash-strapped, or too “win-now” to invest real resources into youth. That isn’t to say that the USL hasn’t produced excellent players: Jose Gallegos (San Antonio to SønderjyskE), Jonathan Gomez (Louisville to Real Sociedad), and Ronaldo Damus (Orange County to GIF Sundsvall) are all examples of players who have excelled in the USL and moved on to greener pastures.
The courage to give opportunities to young players represents a natural risk for teams. Few clubs have shown a greater willingness to push through that risk than the El Paso Locomotive with Diego Luna.
Luna, an 18-year-old dual national eligible to represent both the United States and Mexico, has experience at FC Barcelona’s residency academy in Arizona and is a key part of the U.S.’s U-20 national team. He was named to the USL’s All-League Second Team in 2021 and was a finalist for the Young Player of the Year award, losing out to the aforementioned Gomez. What makes Luna special?
ANALYZING LUNA’S GAME
Luna is a multi-talented threat as an attacking midfielder and the numbers prove it. He tallied 9 goals and 5 assists in 2021 and he already has two goals and one assist in 2022.
Further, he rated in the 91st percentile among attackers for total expected goals and assists last year and already ranks in the 85th percentile in the same category this season. El Paso has been a top-five attacking unit in each of these campaigns, and the teenager has been in the 87th percentile or better for total passes completed in each season. At his best, Luna involves himself in every stage of buildup while providing a mixture of creativity, incision, and goalscoring.
LOOKING AT THE TAPE
The tape shows these impressive aspects of Luna’s game. Typically used as a No. 10 or left winger, he is adept at camping out in the halfspaces and taking every inch of available space. Luna positions himself to break forward after turnovers and he comes deep to spark breakouts with his dribbling. That same ability makes the teenager a potent threat running at defenders in the box. Luna is truly two-footed and his vision and finishing are strong as well.
If there is a question about the attacker, it’s about his lack athleticism. So far, though, he’s shown enough skill to move beyond those limitations.
Looking forward, Luna has impressive potential. He drew interest from MLS clubs and numerous teams in Europe in the offseason and his nascent international career is one to watch. He’s already a lovely dribbler with a shot threat and quality passing, and he may get a chance to show those things with the U.S. at the U-20 World Cup in 2023. No matter how far he goes at the international level, Luna is a boon to the USL development model and a case study in the value of giving youth a chance.