How El Paso Locomotive found success without Diego Luna

Quick
Hits
  • The El Paso Locomotive sold U.S. youth international Diego Luna to Real Salt Lake on June 2, but are still getting results even without their young star 
  • The Locomotive are undefeated since Luna’s transfer, so what’s behind their success? 
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The El Paso Locomotive sold U.S. youth international Diego Luna to Real Salt Lake on June 2. Luna, who was lighting things up in the USL Championship, has since made his MLS debut and starred at the Concacaf U-20 Championship for the United States. Dealing with Luna’s absence was always going to be difficult for El Paso…and yet, they haven’t lost a single game since he moved to RSL. 

The Locomotive’s four wins and three draws in seven games have boosted their playoff odds from 37% to 67% by my statistical modeling, and the eye test matches the data. 

What have the Locomotive done to stay undefeated over the last month?

Dealing with adversity, quality talent

For one, El Paso has learned to work around an inconsistent, absence-riddled defense. Around the time of the Luna sale, Harry Brockbank, a right back, left the club to return home to England. His replacement, Shavon John-Brown, quickly went down with an injury. Yuma, who had played more than 75% of El Paso’s minutes in 2022, left with a knock minutes into this weekend’s game against Colorado Springs. 

Head coach John Hutchinson hasn’t hesitated to experiment with his thin roster to fill the gaps. Matt Bahner, a veteran defender most comfortable in the center, has performed well enough at right back. Hutchinson also toyed with playing attacker Ricardo Zacarias at the spot but quickly pivoted when the trial failed. Players like Andrew Fox and Martin Payeres have stepped up in the middle as well.

The net result is a back four that can hold its own and rely on goalkeeper Evan Newton to bail out the team after any defensive mistakes with his excellence in net. Newton has allowed just four goals from 28 shots on target since Luna’s move to MLS, good for an 85.7% save percentage over that stretch, which would lead the USL if extended over the entire season. His presence is vital, and it’s been a pleasant development after El Paso’s home crowd booed him during struggles earlier this year.

Building from that solid presence in the back, Eric Calvillo has filled the Luna-sized hole in midfield. The Salvadoran joined El Paso after helping lead Orange County to a title last season, and he has four goals in a box-to-box role since the beginning of June. So far this season, Calvillo ranks in the 93rd percentile for expected goals and the 63rd for expected assists among midfielders, which is extremely impressive. His recent contributions have been invaluable.

Dylan Mares has also been fantastic as El Paso’s No. 10. He and Calvillo drive play on the dribble, and Mares’ passing vision and ability to link play set him apart. Sebastian Velasquez’s return from injury plus solid cameos from teenagers Noe Coutinho and Diego Abarca have also been useful in filling Luna’s minutes. Crucially, the Locomotive are sticking with their 4-3-3 formation and continue to press high and hard, maintaining a positive style of play.

Luna also occasionally slotted in on the left wing in that 4-3-3, a spot now occupied by players like Josue Gomez. Switching between that role and the No. 9 spot, Gomez has three goals and two assists during this unbeaten run, including the winner against Colorado Springs over the weekend. His movement and poacher’s instinct give El Paso a different dimension from the ball-dominant starlet, but the team is really no worse for wear. 

More than anything, the continued success has been a team effort. Newton is a rock in goal, the defense does just enough, and an electric counter driven by players like Calvillo and Gomez gets the Locomotive the goals they need to earn results. The personnel may be different, but the results – and the style behind those results – are every bit as strong.