Voices: Jon Arnold

Diego Luna: Why Real Salt Lake’s “unbelievable talent” is so special


Mark Lowry didn’t believe it.

Then the head coach of USL Championship side El Paso Locomotive, Lowry called Diego Luna into his office to check in. After all, it’s not easy to jump from the academy level to the professional game as a teenager, and he wanted to encourage Luna. He still remembers what the young player told him and how he and his coaching staff joked about it afterward.

“Coach, give me two more weeks and it’ll be game over,” Luna told him.

But two weeks later, during a preseason game, Lowry again looked at his coaching staff because of Luna. The realization was setting in: We’re going to have to find a way to get this guy on the field.

“It wasn’t an arrogance. It was a confidence in himself to back himself in any situation,” said Lowry, now head coach of MLS NEXT Pro side Real Monarchs.

“Like, ‘Yeah, it’s difficult right now. I’m figuring it out, but give me a couple of weeks and you’ll see it’s not a problem for me.’”

Driven to improve

That mindset has fueled Luna, who’s produced three goals and nine assists for Western Conference leaders Real Salt Lake entering Saturday’s high-stakes meeting with the LA Galaxy (9:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass).

Nicknamed ‘Moon Boy,’ Luna is also taking steps to gain clarity and peace away from the soccer field, as detailed in MLS’s latest Breakaway feature.

During the offseason, Luna felt he needed to create a larger social circle in Utah, where he’s lived since joining Real Salt Lake from El Paso in the summer of 2022. So, he went through the application process and was hired as a barista at a local coffee shop.

“When I came to Utah … I was kind of a loner,” Luna explained. “I thought about what’s needed in my life to become more of an all-around person, and I think my social skills were lacking.”

Taking time to learn another craft other than soccer and interacting with people in his city who were going for a latte or cortado allowed Luna to better connect with those around him. He further prioritized his mental health by working with a therapist, and developed affirmations he now goes through pregame.

RSL manager Pablo Mastroeni says those undertakings show Luna is a born learner, willing to put in months of work if he knows there’s a reward on the other side. That dedication surfaced with Luna willing develop his game in MLS, too.

“I think it's a question of who Diego is as a person, but also as a player,” Mastroeni said. “When he first got to the club, he was a very one-dimensional player. He really only saw the attacking side of the game. I told him for our team, and any team you play for moving forward, whether here or in Europe, you’re going to have defensive responsibilities.

“It was probably three or four months of going through hardship, but I can say that now, a year and a half later, he’s our best defender on the front line.”

The whole picture

Mastroeni said that comes from how Luna is engaged in all aspects of the game, going from being apathetic about tracking back to being eager to do so. He’s laser-focused when Mastroeni conducts a film session or team talk, with the coach often looking up and feeling Luna’s gaze fixed on him and giving non-verbal signals that he’s listening and understanding.

While RSL assistant general manager Tony Beltran didn’t know the club was signing an espresso expert, he wasn’t surprised to see the US youth international work on his interpersonal skills.

A former right back who played nearly 250 times for RSL, Beltran reflected on his own youth when he and many of his teammates carried “naive bravado” because of their athletic ability and on-field success. That sometimes meant a lack of awareness about treating mental health as something to work on every day.

That Luna, at age 20, looks to better understand his emotions and share them with others speaks volumes about the type of human Luna wants to become.

“It takes quite a bit of confidence to be that vulnerable, to open up and want to share your own experiences, especially when you’re in the public eye,” Beltran said. “I think that takes tremendous courage, and Diego handled that piece in the same grace, the same maturity he does with all his interactions.”


Judging the book of Luna by his cover, grace and maturity might not be what coffee customers expect from the barista with ‘HATE’ tattooed across his neck. But Lowry noted the body art is “how he expresses himself. He puts thought into everything, which makes him a great player because you can see he’s always thinking, looking for space, looking for movement, looking for the next pass.”

Luna used the same grace when he was a confident teenager earning respect on the training ground in El Paso. With a lineup that included several former internationals and long-time professionals, Luna often would play things safe during drills or small-sided games. Then, he’d show a flash of what Lowry said reminded him of MLS rival Lionel Messi.

“Diego would be respectful of them and sometimes hold back, but at times he’d get the little glimmer in his eye or something would get under his skin. He’d take the ball, go [speeding past defenders sound] and could score at will,” Lowry said. “He’d do things that would just make you go, ‘Wow!’ And it was beautiful to watch.”

Those moments have popped up during MLS matches, even as Luna looks to make them happen more consistently. He’s enjoyed a connection with MLS Golden Boot leader Cristian Arango and with fellow attacker Andrés Gómez this season. He’s also looking to put in the work to be more than a luxury player and display another dimension.

“It’s great to see him taking steps forward each game, being so industrious, being so difficult to defend in all parts of the field as he roams, as he finds space, as he breaks lines and uses his technical ability to really put defenders on their heels,” Beltran said. “It’s been really special to see him demand his own evolution as a footballer.”

Leveling up

Whether it’s his playing career, social life or mental health, Luna is in control. He’s again finding the delicate balance between confidence and arrogance Lowry noticed three years ago.

“The journey has really created one of the most coachable players I’ve been able to work with, which is really interesting because it wasn’t the same player that showed up” after signing with RSL, Lowry said.

Mastroeni compared it to a college student taking advantage of their resources, going to a professor’s office hours and putting in the time for independent study.

“The onus is on the student … and for me, Diego is an A+ student,” Mastroeni said. “It’s been an unbelievable journey in the two years that I’ve been able to work with him.

“I see nothing but an unbelievable talent that could play in Europe, that could represent the national team, that could represent the Olympic team. This guy is all in.”