KANSAS CITY, Mo. – For 24 hours in February 2010, 16-year-old Luis Gil was a Kansas City Wizard in name only.
On Saturday afternoon, nearly four years and 100 MLS appearances later, Gil will pull on the claret and cobalt of Real Salt Lake and do his best to make sure the only other club to hold his professional rights fail in their quest to capture their first MLS Cup since 2000.
Had circumstances been different, Gil might be lining up next to Graham Zusi and Benny Feilhaber in the Sporting midfield, a precocious jewel on one of MLS’ most dominant sides. Or perhaps the now 20-year-old might even be competing for a place in Arsenal’s stacked midfield alongside Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey.
Instead, thanks to a decision to stick close to home despite interest from the biggest clubs in the world, a weighted lottery and a trade conducted via a closed-bidding process, Gil is on the precipice of making history with RSL, a test case for prudent youth development in a league still trying to perfect the transition from talented teenager to productive pro.
“It was obviously a blessing to have the opportunity to play professional,” Gil recalled to MLSsoccer.com, “but at the same time it was a scary moment, a nervous moment making such a big decision.”
Fortunately, it’s one that appears to have worked out, in one way or another, for all parties involved.
Had he entered the 2010 MLS SuperDraft, there’s little doubt that Gil would have been a first round pick. At worst, someone would have taken a flier on the slight but supremely gifted teenager from Southern California at the beginning of the second round.
But most SuperDraft entrants don’t have the options Gil had that winter, just months after turning 16 years old.
Manchester City had expressed interest in the young midfielder. So had Real Madrid. And thanks to his Mexican passport, clubs south of the border were circling as well, ready to poach one of the US’ top youth talents.
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But one club towered above all the rest.
Arsenal had been watching Gil for the better part of a year, including up close during a training stint with the club in May 2009, and he impressed the Gunners enough that they expressed interest in signing the young midfielder following a Round of 16 run in the U-17 World Cup later that year.
MLS stepped up to the plate as well, loath to lose one of the brightest young American talents without at least throwing its hat in the ring. The league dangled a lucrative Generation adidas contract in front of the 16-year-old and his agent Mike Gartlan in hopes that he would stay home.
“He was arguably the most technical player to come through the US system since Claudio Reyna,” Real Salt Lake general manager Garth Lagerwey told MLSsoccer.com.
Gil’s choice eventually came down to a pick between Arsenal and MLS, and international adventure vs. the comforts of home.
Gil was offered an academy contract with the Gunners, which meant he would spend the next two years bouncing around Europe and Mexico before hopefully signing a first-team contract once he turned 18. That would be followed by two years on loan in Spain in order to receive a work permit in the United Kingdom, a process Mexican star Carlos Vela had just endured.
“Not many people know what the situation was,” Gil said. “It wasn’t like I was going to go straight to London with Arsenal.”
The alternative? Stay close to home to start his professional career, close to creature comforts, close to friends and family. And, of course, close to everything a teenager might need to transition gracefully to a man’s game – and adulthood.
Facing the prospect of bouncing around on loan out of sight and potentially out of mind of the Arsenal braintrust, Gil settled on MLS. But he wasn’t willing to go just anywhere.
Since he’d trained – and impressed – with River Plate’s U-15s as a 12-year-old, those around Gil had known this moment was coming. The aim, as Gartlan and Gil’s father Auriliano saw it, was to keep the pressure facing the teenager as minimal as possible for as long as possible, and land with a club that wouldn’t rush him into the spotlight.
So as negotiations with MLS progressed, they narrowed their scope to two clubs that Gil would be willing to join, and that would keep him on the West Coast and wouldn’t rush his development: the Seattle Sounders, an immediate success as an expansion franchise, and Real Salt Lake, the league’s reigning champions.
It wasn’t quite so easy for the league to accommodate that, however. Since he was a Generation adidas signing, Gil would have to enter the league via weighted lottery, theoretically leaving his fate to chance.
But before the draft even took place, the league had assured Gil he would eventually land with either Seattle or Real Salt Lake, regardless of which team actually won the lottery.
“We already had a couple teams lined up before [the weighted lottery] even happened,” Gartlan said, crediting MLS vice president of competition and player relations Todd Durbin with keeping the deal alive. “That was a contingent on him signing with the league really.”
“I was fortunate that I was given the decision to kind of choose a few teams that I wanted to go to,” Gil added. “That made it a little easier on me that I had an idea of where I was going.”
Kansas City won the lottery and expressed an interest in swaying the young man’s mind enough for him to consider a move to the Eastern Conference, but as expected, it didn't take.
The league then turned to a rare mechanism that would even the playing field between Seattle and Real Salt Lake when it came time to lobby Kansas City for Gil's rights. The league had pulled similar strings at least once before, after teenage phenom DaMarcus Beasley starred at the Under-17 World Cup in 1999. Beasley was allocated to the Los Angeles Galaxy, but he was immediately shipped to his preferred destination with his hometown Chicago Fire.
In Gil's case, Kansas City technical director Peter Vermes considered blind bids from Seattle and Real Salt Lake and eventually settled on the offer from RSL, which included a second-round pick in the 2011 SuperDraft and an international roster spot for a year. And, perhaps most intriguing for all parties, a minority percentage of any future sell-on fees if Gil one day went abroad.
Like DaMarcus Beasley before him, his final destination came down to anonymous bids from the approved parties, one of which would then be chosen by Kansas City technical director Peter Vermes.
For Real Salt Lake, the hope was that Gil would live up to his potential and develop into a contributor a few years down the line to offset the upfront cost. For Kansas City, an immediate payoff plus the prospect of a nice chunk of allocation money should Gil once again draw foreign interest was too much to pass up.
“For sure, there was nervousness,” Lagerwey said. “Part of it was that we were giving more than Luis was worth at that time. It really was a long-term investment.”
As far as investments go, Lagerwey and Real Salt Lake can certainly feel confident that they’ve sunk their resources into a bull market when it comes to Gil.
After failing to log a single minute in his first year in the league, the versatile midfielder came to preseason hungry to make an impact and broke into one of MLS’ elite sides as a 17-year-old in 2011, making 25 league appearances, including 14 starts, and scoring two goals.
And his integration into the team, watched over from start to finish by Lagerwey and head coach Jason Kreis, has remained steady from there. He made19 starts in 2012 and enjoyed a breakout year in the starting lineup this season with five goals and three assists after the club traded Will Johnson to Portland.
“I’ve got a feeling that he’s got another pocket to delve into, so to speak," Kreis said of Gil. "He’s got another level to take his game to that only he knows about.”
And by all indications, this is just the beginning for one of MLS’ brightest young talent. Barring a multi-million dollar transfer, Gil will be in Salt Lake for the next two seasons, a contract the club has already indicated they’d like to extend.
“We all hope that Javi Morales can play forever,” Lagerwey said. “But if it turns out that that’s not the case, we like to think that we have an heir apparent in Luis Gil. This is player who could be with us for a long long time.”
Unless, that is, Europe or Mexico come calling with an offer that RSL can’t refuse. And that's a prospect fairly likely after Gil captained the US team during this summer’s U-20 World Cup, shining brightly despite a group-stage exit.
“To be honest with you, our phone didn’t ring as much after the U-20 tournament as I thought it might,” Lagerwey said. “There were other players at that tournament that got more hype. In my opinion, those are players from bigger markets. Part of what Luis is suffering from on the transfer market is national television exposure, and I think our playoff run is really going to help him with that.”
Does that mean Gil has any regrets about passing up a chance to make a career in North London? Hardly.
“I [think about it] here and there,” he said. “I feel like I’ve come along really well [in MLS]. Hopefully the opportunity is there in the future. I’m still young. It’s up to me to take advantage of the opportunities that I have.”
First comes Saturday’s final. After that, who knows?
“Frankly, I think that he deserves – and I don’t say this about a lot of players – an opportunity with the national team,” Kreis said. “… To me he’s showing himself to be an elite player in our league and an elite American player for sure.”