That support didn’t stop Saturday night, as Neal logged his first career MLS start in a 0-0 draw at Sporting Kansas City. The visitors were outshot 30-8, but the 19-year-old defender certainly looked the part alongside Uruguay World Cup veteran Martín Cáceres.
Neal completed 58-of-60 passes and made five blocks, five recoveries and three clearances, among a variety of defensive interventions.
“I don't know if I can keep saying as many good things about the kid,” Vanney said postgame. “It’s going to start going to his head at some point.”
Neal made his MLS debut in Matchday 2's 3-1 loss at FC Dallas, subbing on for LA in the second half as their early-season center-back situation gets sorted out. Remarkably, he’s got just 115 league minutes to his name.
All this occurs after Neal earned his first two US men’s national team appearances in their January camp friendlies vs. Serbia and Colombia. At that point, he had played his first senior international soccer before competing in MLS for the club he signed with in January 2021.
Neal, who’s a strong favorite to represent the US at the 2023 FIFA U-20 World Cup this spring in Indonesia, showed several layers to his game against SKC.
“We've always been super high on his talent and his ability,” Vanney said. “Tonight he showed it a little bit different side, which is just the grittiness defensively and making some plays in the box by doing some of that side.
“One of the greatest qualities I think he has is his capacity on the ball and tonight you don't see a ton of that just because we weren't great on the ball. But he showed something different, which is again, that defensive side and his game reading and winning some duels and making some great defensive plays.”
Neal cherished the opportunity at Children’s Mercy Park after finding out at Saturday’s team lunch he’d get the starting nod. He even sent a text to his mom with the big news.
“She sent me a voice memo, which she never does,” Neal said. “She was yelling, she was crying. A lot of emotions in that voice memo. But I felt good out there. I wasn’t nervous, I was confident, especially after my debut last weekend in Dallas. I anticipated the start today and I felt good out there.”
For Neal, the key is stacking positive performances and helping his hometown club pick up their first win of 2023. They’ll play their home opener on March 18 against Vancouver Whitecaps FC (10:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass).
“It wasn’t the best that we could have played tonight, and we all know that,” Neal said. “I could sense that people were a little down and after last week’s loss, we just can’t have that mindset. [But] coming out of here with a point and a shutout, it’s huge. We have to be proud of ourselves for that.”