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SSFC Spotlight: Diego Luna stands out during 2022 CONCACAF U-20 Championship

The Real Salt Lake attacker may have been the biggest surprise in Honduras.


With a 6-0 victory over the Dominican Republic, the United States captured the 2022 CONCACAF U-20 Championship, securing qualification for the 2023 FIFA U-20 World Cup, the 2024 Summer Olympics, and perhaps the 2023 Pan American Games. Many players stood out over the seven-match schedule, particularly on the attacking side. A notable emerging talent is Diego Luna of Real Salt Lake, who racked up one goal and five assists. The 18-year-old midfielder recently made a record-setting move from the lower leagues and looks to be soaring on an upward trajectory.

Luna was born in Sunnyvale, California and began playing with Palo Alto SC. He joined the San Jose Earthquakes youth set-up in 2015, competing at the Dallas Cup and Generation adidas Cup but was “unhappy with his development there” and had “greater” goals. The attacker departed the MLS side, leaving home at 15 years old to attend the Barcelona Residency Academy. The Arizona-based club that has produced several American youth internationals “showed [him] how to mature earlier than a normal teenager and strengthened [his] mindset” while developing his “tactical, physical, and soccer IQ.”

In April of 2021, El Paso Locomotive signed the 17-year-old to a professional deal. “It’s super enjoyable being here,” he said after putting pen to paper. “The special thing is that I had opportunities from other clubs, and it makes it that much more special. I could have picked other clubs, but I picked El Paso because of the environment, the staff, [and] the way they play. There was something about El Paso – from the club to the staff. The environment spoke to me and I wouldn’t want it any other way, to be honest.”

In his first season, Luna exceeded all expectations, scoring in his first professional start. He contributed nine goals and five assists in 32 USL Championship appearances, resulting in being named to the Team of the Week three times, earning All-League Second Team accolades, and included as a finalist for Young Player of the Year. The club praised his professional mentality, technical ability, and handling of pressure, displaying a distinct freedom to his game. While competing against “physically superior veterans,” the teenager completed 84.5% of his passes, including playing 40 key passes and always “making sure to have fun” instead of “overthinking.”

Despite visiting clubs in Belgium and Portugal, Luna opted to stay with El Paso and continued his scoring ways with four goals and two assists. His manager referred to the “18-year-old sensation” as “the best player in the entire [league].” Having seen enough, Major League Soccer side Real Salt Lake purchased him for a reported USL-record $250,000 transfer fee.

Luna turned down interest from “a number of European teams” due to his new club’s developmental pipeline. “I am grateful for the faith RSL has in me and my abilities, and I look forward to contributing to the team,” he said. “After speaking with the front office about their strong interest and plan for me, I am convinced this was the right move for my career.”

A few days after signing, Luna made his debut, playing two minutes in a 2-1 loss to the Vancouver Whitecaps. Real Salt Lake is enjoying a solid season, currently at third place in MLS’ Western Conference. However, the club is struggling to generate chances and score goals, which could present an opportunity for the new addition, especially after his searing run of form in Honduras.

At the international level, while Luna is eligible for the United States and Mexico, he has been a regular call-up in the former program beginning with the USMNT U-14 squad. He appeared in every match at the CONCACAF U-20 Championship, including starting in the final. Emerging as a key player, his two assists helped obtain a key 2-2 draw with Canada during the group stage. The tournament provided the opportunity to play “meaningful hard games,” allowing him to form a “brotherhood” with his teammates.

An attacking midfielder and false nine with a high ceiling who can also play on the wing, Luna enjoys “combining, dribbling, creating chances, and scoring goals.” While being “involved in every stage of the build-up,” he is “adept at camping out in the half-spaces and taking every inch of available space,” positioned “to break forward after turnovers” and checking back to “spark breakouts with his dribbling.” The ambidextrous attacker fearlessly charges at defenders, looking to make the perfect pass or pick out the corner of the net. His former manager described him as having the potential to be “one of the top players in the world” due to his “skills, mentality, and humbleness.” A “low center of gravity” and “great balance” allow him to “bounce off challenges,” which pair well with deceptive strength and pace.

His flair on the pitch and one-on-one skills appear to be natural reflexes. “The thing I’ve thought about, actually, is when I’m doing that, I have no idea what I’m doing,” shared Luna. “When I used to play in [the] academy and club and stuff, kids would ask me, ‘How did you do that move?’ or, ‘How did you do that?’ and I’m like, ‘What did I do?’ I didn’t know what I did. It’s just something that’s happening while I’m doing it, and when it’s over, it’s over. I don’t plan to do a move ahead of time, it’s just as I’m doing it, I’m doing it, and that’s it.”

Still at the beginning of his career, Luna is an exciting prospect who had an excellent youth tournament and should be considered a top talent in his age cohort. However, potential is a fleeting and unproductive metric, with training and experience required for continued development. The next few years with Real Salt Lake will be crucial to provide the necessary opportunities and challenges for growth. Time will tell if his road eventually leads to Europe and the senior national team, but the early signs are promising.