Diego Luna challenged to become "young leader" for Real Salt Lake

Diego Luna - RSL

Is 2024 the year of the Moon Boy?

The stage is set for Real Salt Lake midfielder Diego Luna to make another stride towards prominence – and the heightened atmosphere of Wednesday’s 2024 opener at Inter Miami CF is his chance to set the tone (8 pm ET | MLS Season Pass).

“I think this year is a big year for me,” the 20-year-old wunderkind said in last week's start-of-season availability. “Last year, I showed a glimpse of who I can actually be and the player I am, so I think there's still a lot to come.

“... There's a lot of things and a lot of goals this year. To make the Olympics, as a national team goal. To make call-ups for the Gold Cup, Copa América, stuff like that. And then to produce here for RSL and be that main guy we can rely on when things get tough.”

From the coach’s chair

The anticipation is earned. But it has been built brick-by-brick, only in parts over the last couple of seasons.

With his first full MLS season as a surefire starter ahead of him, the world is Luna’s oyster. You could realistically see him accomplishing those goals stated above – and more – in 2024.

RSL head coach Pablo Mastroeni is the one tasked with managing Luna’s development. Learning how to be a true two-way player stands as one of the reasons he’s emerged as one of the league’s leading breakout candidates in the run-up to the season.

“Going back to last year, he was really understanding that there's a job to do on both sides of the ball,” Mastroeni said of the newly-capped US international who starred at last year’s U-20 World Cup. “And how defending the right way and being dialed in and engaged defensively actually adds to the ability to attack, in particular, in transition.

“It took some time for him to kind of buy into that. And towards the end of the season, he wasn't only our most productive attacker, but he was also our best defender on the field.”

High praise indeed.

Where will Luna line up?

Luna’s versatility and list of traits make it tricky to predict where he’ll appear in the RSL starting lineup and beyond. He has his preferences, though.

“I think it's always good to play in different positions and be versatile,” said Luna. “It gives the coaches more options. It gives the player more options, but I think my best position and where I'm most usable is at the 10. I think playing attacking mid is definitely where I can be my best and shine the brightest.”

The recent addition of Matt Crooks from Middlesbrough looks to be the long-term plan for the No. 10 spot, but he joined RSL late in the preseason and it might be too soon to expect him to start right away.

In that event, Luna is certainly a candidate to line up where he believes he’ll “shine brightest” and be Lionel Messi’s opposite number at Chase Stadium. If not, look for Luna to occupy the left midfield/wing areas.

Either way, he’s one of the players Mastroeni is counting on to help lead RSL to a fourth straight Audi MLS Cup Playoffs appearance. Last year’s 7g/3a in 26 matches (playoffs included) was just the tip of the iceberg.

“I think Diego's role now becomes more of a young leader on this team and holding his teammates accountable to the standards that we want to play,” the RSL boss said.

“His attitude is infectious. And when he's playing from that space, he not only becomes a great player, but he brings all the other players along.”