Gil could be the next big thing

Luis Gil spurned several large European clubs to sign with MLS and now plays for Real Salt Lake. Andy Mead/Icon SMI

CARSON, Calif. -- The future of American soccer just might be a pimply, unassuming kid from Garden Grove who before his 16th birthday had wowed some of the world's biggest clubs, then rebuffed their offers and signed with Major League Soccer.

Luis Gil is a technically gifted playmaker with uncommon vision who -- and the scouts are unanimous about this -- "gets it." That he could be the best No. 10 this country has produced is understood but unspoken, and there's a caveat to all this, of course: Nothing is guaranteed.

His development, especially over the next three or four years, is crucial, but the tools are at his disposal, and if you're looking for some kind of comparison, try Landon Donovan. Or Cesc Fabregas.

Like Donovan, Gil, who turned 16 in November, grew up in a working-class neighborhood, excited the scouts barely into his teens, then made a massive breakthrough after joining as a 14-year-old U.S. Soccer's under-17 residency in Bradenton, Fla.

And Fabregas? That's the link London's great Arsenal FC made when Gil went there on a nearly two-week trial a year ago. The Gunners wanted him, and so did Real Madrid, Sevilla, Manchester City and scads of clubs in Mexico.

Instead Gil signed in March with MLS, was taken by Kansas City in a special draft and then was traded to defending champion Real Salt Lake, one of two clubs he'd indicated he'd play for. His four-year contract is well into six figures -- nobody will specify how much it's worth, but his agent, Mike Gartlan, says: "It's very good. I think comparatively it's one of the better ones they've put out for a youth player."

But Gil's tale isn't about money. His family might be poor, as his father acknowledges, and both of his parents work long hours to provide for Luis and his older brother and sister, but his approach to the game and to his burgeoning career reflects a player who is wise beyond his years and who has a rare humility despite his obvious gifts.

"He's always been a kid who is talented, but the thing that makes him potentially special is his attitude," says Gartlan, who first saw Gil with Orange County's storied Pateadores youth soccer club, for which Gartlan is a director. "He's very humble, very unassuming. I think he's got a chance."

Gil impressed at last year's FIFA U-17 World Cup in Nigeria, where he was the Americans' youngest and best player, and he's a key part of the under-18 team that will form the under-20 side that hopes to compete at the 2011 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Colombia. After that, anything might be possible.

"He's a smart, technical, gifted player who always treats well the ball," said U.S. U-17 head coach Wilmer Cabrera, who was part of two Colombian World Cup sides. "He has fun with the ball, knows how to pass, how to control it, how to make good touches on the ball, and that is something that is natural for him. He can make everyone around him play well, because he's always going to give you a good pass. It's easy to play with him."

Gil plays "simple," one of the best things a soccer player can do.

"He doesn't complicate himself," Cabrera said. "He just makes simple things. I think he's proud of that. He knows his strengths and he knows his weaknesses, and not a lot of players, even at the highest levels, have identified that."

Says Gartlan: "He's not a bag of tricks. He's not a kid that you're going to see him flipping the ball, step-overs, and all those things. He's an efficient player. He's got really good vision. That's what makes him different from a lot of youth players: He figured out at a young age that he doesn't need to do something special every time he gets the ball. He can move a team by his passing and his intelligence."

Lessons from Dad

Gil's approach to the game comes from his father, Auriliano, who played semipro soccer in his native Mexico and might have gone further had his family had enough money for him to do so.

"My daddy don't help me," Auriliano Gil, who grew up in Guerrero state, near Acapulco, says in heavily accented English. "I want to play professional. My daddy, he say no, you need to work."

Auriliano, now 56, headed north in search of opportunity in 1978. First he went to Arizona, then to California, playing soccer all the way. Like his son, he was a playmaking midfielder, and there were plenty of teams willing to throw a few dollars his way: Phoenix Inferno, Mexico, and -- clubs named after the big Mexican teams -- Atlas, Pumas and Tecos.

"I make $20 a goal," he says. "Sometimes I make it, sometimes no."

Auriliano met an Orange County girl and married her. Luis was his and Darlene Morgan's third child, and, like his brother, Anthony, and sister, Linda, a ball was placed at his feet. Luis was just 3 when he was enrolled in an indoor league.

"He didn't want to play in the beginning," Morgan says. "We had the other two kids playing, so we told him he had to."

Gil says he didn't like soccer all that much, but then "I don't know how, but I scored a goal, and it got fun after that. Scoring's always fun. From there, I just kept scoring and scoring, and I enjoyed it more and more."

He watched games on television, mostly from Mexico, with his father, who taught him the intricacies of the game and showed him what was most important.

"I didn't have opportunity in Mexico," Auriliano Gil says, "so I give to my son. I got time to coach him, to teach him soccer. We were always at the park, because I wanted him to know soccer."

Luis learned individual success wasn't important, that's it's always about the team, and the lessons took hold.

"This is what I say: The team has a lot of players, not only one," Auriliano Gil says. "You need to play for your team. If other players get the ball, don't worry about it -- this I tell him. Don't worry about it if you not make a goal. If your team wins, it's good for you."

Luis' skills and his ability to read the game were striking, and he was 8 when he joined Pateadores, a Yorba Linda-based club that has alumni on the U.S. 30-man World Cup preliminary roster (midfielder Maurice Edu) and starring in Major League Soccer (New England goalkeeper Matt Reis and Philadelphia defender Danny Califf).

Gil grew at Pateadores, and at 12 he went to Buenos Aires to train with the under-15 group at River Plate, one of South America's great clubs. Two years later, halfway through his freshman year at Santiago High School in Garden Grove, he headed to Bradenton, Fla.

"At first, it was really hard [to let him go]," Morgan says, "but I knew it was something he really wanted, so I let him take the chance. He's a good kid. I didn't worry so much about him."

The 'Little Kid'

Gil was the youngest player at the U-17 residency, and he didn't fit in with the others, mostly high school juniors and seniors, when he first arrived. "I was the little kid," he says. "They didn't think anything of me."

Not until they'd played with him, at least. Gil's ability to find teammates, to create opportunities for them, to unlock defenses with a simple pass, was something they couldn't ignore. Soon Gil's teammates were like older brothers.

"I actually didn't think I would keep up with them, 'cause I was so young," Gil says. "But I learned a lot, and then I heard there was a World Cup for [players 17 and younger], so I thought, 'OK, this is big. I'm here for a reason.' That's when I really knew I had something going for me."

He was forced to grow up quickly. His parents weren't there to make sure he did his schoolwork, so he became more diligent about it. They couldn't take care of him, so he learned to take care of himself.

"In Bradenton, we don't have a special formula to give to the player to become mature," Cabrera says. "That has to come from home. Luis came from a home with a good structure, a good base, a solid education, respect, and knowing how to do the right things. It was easy to work with him."

The real education took place on the field.

"You can't go wrong playing every day, and in Bradenton you're going to get every-day competition," says Gartlan, a former professional goalkeeper. "He played every day; there's a good coaching staff down there; and Luis isn't one of those kids who has just lived, breathed, ate soccer. But I think [the time in Bradenton] turned his mind toward that, just being immersed in a soccer environment."

Gil's growing reputation was spreading quickly. MLS clubs knew who he was, and U.S. Soccer staff was keeping an eye on him. Danny Karbassiyoon, a Virginia-bred player who had signed for Arsenal at 18, retired at 22 because of knee problems and become a North American scout for the club, saw a lot of potential in Gil and recommended him to his bosses back in London.

"He asked me, 'Hey, do you want to try out for Arsenal?' " Gil says. "I'm thinking: Arsenal? Are you sure you don't mean someone else?" Karbassiyoon didn't. And Gil headed across the Atlantic.

"I was up for the challenge," he says. "The worst I could get out of it is a trip to England. Who doesn't want to go to England?"

Gil was thrown in with Arsenal's older youth teams, with outstanding players from around the world, some of them as old as 19. The pace of the game was quicker, and Gil was forced to think more quickly.

"He just fit into what they do," Gartlan said. "I think a club like Arsenal appreciates that player. The comparison [from Arsenal's staff] was Luis is a similar player to Cesc Fabregas. He's not exceptionally big, he's not super fast, but his effect on the field is just a very fluid motion."

Says Gil: "It was a beautiful setup. The players were really cool. I thought some of them would probably be a little rude, but no, they were really good. And the coaching staff, they actually get on you, because they know you can do better. ... I loved it. I really loved it."

Difficult choices

Arsenal wanted Gil, and talks commenced but there were complications. Gil's focus was on the upcoming U-17 World Cup, which would begin in October, and he didn't want to make any decisions before then.

In addition, he couldn't turn pro in England until he was 18, and he would not be allowed to play full-time at Arsenal until then. Other clubs started expressing interest, from Europe and especially Mexico, where he qualified for a passport. The pressure was immense.

"A lot was going through my mind," he said. "I didn't expect to be making these decisions now, at this age."

So he went off to Nigeria with his teammates and played marvelously as the U.S. reached the second round. In the Americans' opener, against Spain, he took the ball down the sidelined, nutmegged a defender -- put the ball between the defender's legs -- then played a beautiful ball for Fontana's Victor Chavez.

"He's so creative, and he connected with me," Chavez says, "but I couldn't connect with the goal."

Gil set up Nick Palodichuk with a corner kick in the round-of-16 loss to Italy.

"Luis sees things on the field that no one else sees, really," Palodichuk says. "He's the youngest player, probably, and he knows the game probably better than all the players out here."

Gil turned 16 shortly after returning home, and MLS made it clear he could stay in America and make decent money, too. Gil wasn't sure what to do, so he took his time making a decision.

"Oh my God, I was taking forever," he says. "[Arsenal and MLS] wanted to know right away. I was like, 'Come on, give me a couple more days, give me a week, give me more time. I'm only 16 -- leave me alone!' "

He talked it over with his parents, and "a lot of it favored Arsenal, to go there," he says. "It's top-level soccer, you know? Who wouldn't want to go there. Kids who are in my shoes, they would take that in an instant."

Auriliano Gil wanted his son closer to home and argued for MLS.

"I said, 'No, I don't want you to go over there,'" he says. "'Better to stay here than in England. I don't know what happens over there.'"

Luis was projected as a first-round draft choice in MLS, but he held off signing until February. Real Salt Lake offered a great opportunity to grow: The club has a young coaching staff led by former striker Jason Kreis, and everyone involved understands there is a duty to develop Gil into the player he can become.

"It's a collaboration," says RSL general manager Garth Lagerwey, a former MLS goalkeeper. "It's a project, and we want him to become a really good soccer player. It will benefit the club if we're able to make him that. Most important, he has to make himself the best player he can be, and we have to provide the tools to do that."

Gil quickly settled into his new surroundings, moving in with a host family -- Brian Noguera, who works in RSL's ticket office, and his wife, Natalie -- and he's looking into homeschooling options so he can complete his high school education and maybe take college classes, too.

The Nogueras have a 4-year-old son and a newborn daughter, and "after the second day Luis was here," Brian Noguera says, "my son told me Luis was his older brother. It's fun to have him around, especially for my boy."

Preaching patience

Finding playing time for Gil is more difficult. Kreis praises Gil's attitude and says he's "to the point where in training sessions he doesn't stand out as not playing fast enough, as not defending fast enough," but MLS dropped its reserve league last season, and there's little opportunity for first-team action with RSL's veteran roster.

Gil will accompany the U.S. U-18s, coached by former Chivas USA assistant coach Mike Matkovich, to Portugal this week for a tournament, and games against Portugal, Norway and Romania. A clause in his contract allows him to be loaned out to another club, with Arsenal a possibility.

"We'll evaluate things in June," Gartlan says, "and see how it's going at Salt Lake. … We've talked to Arsenal about [a loan], and we'd love for him to go back to Arsenal if they want him to come back and train. Because then they can really evaluate him over an extended period of time.

"Right now he's just trying to do well for Salt Lake, and we'll see what happens."

Everybody is preaching patience, and Gil says he knows his future is still a few years away.

"It's very difficult [to wait]," he admits. "When you don't make trips and, like, even for home games they don't put you on the [game] roster. And for away games you're just back [in Salt Lake City] and working on your own. ... It's a decision I took. I mean, I had other options, but it was the decision I took. And I'm willing to take on the responsibility."

There's no pressure on him to do anything big any time soon -- one of the lessons of Freddy Adu's teenage struggles is that there's a right way and a wrong way to develop players -- and if Gil is to become the player many believe he can become, that he wants to be, playing for big clubs and in World Cups, then he can't skip any steps in his development.

"Luis has got talent, but it doesn't always mean that that adds up to something at this early of an age," Matkovich says. "He's ahead of the curve, and obviously he's in a good situation, in MLS. I think it's going to take some time to see where he's really at, and how long it takes from a development standpoint, I don't know. But there's something there that's put him ahead of the other guys right now, and if he keeps developing at the rate he is, he'll move along at a good rate."

U.S. U-20 coach Thomas Rongen, who played in the NASL and has coached four MLS clubs, including Chivas USA, says "it's a little early to tell" how good Gil can be.

"He sees things just a little bit quicker and better than some other guys, and he's technically sound," Rongen says. "That's what sets him apart from other players. Now he needs to cultivate that and hone those skills. ... It's now just a matter of the next two or three years, which are critical years for any young player."

Says Gartlan: "With us, it's a matter of keeping everything in perspective. We've always sheltered him -- we didn't tell the national teams about him until he was ready. We've got him with a great host family. He's going to be able to get his [driver's] license. He's doing as much as he can the things that a 16-year-old does.

"Every kid says they want to be a pro. Every kid says they'll be patient. I think he's got the right approach. He understands."

That Gil does. He was thrilled when he traveled with RSL to Los Angeles for its game April 17 against the Galaxy and sat on the bench, calling it "a pretty good accomplishment, you know?"

Sometimes he can't help but sit back and "brainstorm" the path he has followed.

"I think to myself: How am I even here?" he says. "What did I really do to get here? It's crazy, you know?"

Scott French is the author of the Football Futbol Soccer blog for ESPNLosAngeles.com.