By THOMAS FLOYD
Luis Gil is well aware of the hype. As a 17-year-old whose uncanny skill and composure on the ball has drawn the attention of such European titans as Arsenal and Real Madrid, it would be hard not to be.
But he's not buying into it. Not yet.
While some pundits have pegged Gil as the U.S. national team's most enticing prospect in some time — a true No. 10 — the Real Salt Lake midfielder is quick to say he's not prepared, downplaying the idea of making his senior international debut in the near future. As he puts it, "I'm not trying to rush myself."
Yet for much of the 2011 season, Real Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis has put his trust in the unassuming 5-foot-8 teenager with vision, touch and technical poise that belie his age.
Gil hasn't disappointed. Starting 14 of the 25 matches in which he's appeared while scoring two goals, the Mexican-American from Garden Grove, Calif., has blossomed in his second MLS campaign for a Salt Lake squad that went 15-11-8 to secure the league's third-best record.
"He could be a player that we eventually build a national team around," said Salt Lake captain Kyle Beckerman, a U.S. national team regular. "I think he's that good. The future is bright, and as a U.S. Soccer fan, it's exciting to see a player like that come and be committed to the U.S."
Gil's star began to rise in 2009, when his standout play at the Under-17 World Cup in Nigeria led to recognition as U.S. Soccer's Young Male Athlete of the Year and heightened attention from foreign scouts. His playing style drew comparisons to the likes of Cesc Fabregas — high praise, indeed.
With an offer from Arsenal in hand, Gil decided to put his European ambitions on hold. He signed with MLS in February 2010 and was assigned to Kansas City via a weighted lottery before promptly being shipped to Salt Lake.
Playing time, however, was hard to come by his rookie year. Gil didn't log a single minute of league action for Salt Lake, making just two appearances in all competitions and spending three months on loan to second-tier AC St. Louis.
As tough as it was to watch from the sidelines, Gil now acknowledges it was for the best.
"I really didn't get that much pressure because RSL kept me on the low key," Gil recalled. "And I'm thankful for that. I didn't really have to worry about having to do too much my first year. It's frustrating not playing, but it kept me away from all that pressure and hype and it just let me develop easily and slowly.
"Looking back, I don't feel like I was ready back then. I was physically and mentally not ready. I'm still young, I'm still growing."
For a while, it seemed like 2011 was going to be more of the same for Gil. When Salt Lake playmaker Javier Morales suffered a broken ankle in May, though, the injury created a substantial void in central midfield.
In stepped Gil, who had just 24 minutes of MLS experience to his name when Morales went down. He received his first start June 11 at Philadelphia and proceeded to get the nod in 10 of Salt Lake's next 15 league fixtures.
"It obviously sucks to see your teammate go down like that, but that's what we have our bench for," Gil said. "It did open the door for me to get in and gave me the opportunity."
Gil bagged his first goal in a 3-0 win over New York on Aug. 6, an opportunistic, something-out-of-nothing strike from beyond the penalty area. He notched his second tally in a loss to Houston two weeks later.
Kreis has tested Gil's versatility since Morales returned in late September, deploying the creatively inclined player up top and on the flanks. As Beckerman observed, "He has put his head down and worked hard and tried to do everything that is asked of him — and it has really been a pleasure to see."
Gil could make his playoff debut at Rio Tinto Stadium on Saturday in the first leg of a marquee Western Conference semifinal against the Seattle Sounders. Considering the burden Gil has taken for a veteran Salt Lake club, it's easy to forget he's still a long-term project learning to truly grasp the obligations of a professional player.
"As you get older, you take more responsibility and realize it's going to be up to you to be a big part of wins and losses," Beckerman explained. "When you're young, you're sort of worrying about playing well enough so you can start the next game, instead of, when you get a bit older, worrying about just winning the game and doing everything you can. And that will come. I don't think that's a bad thing on Luis at all."
Once Salt Lake's season ends, whether it be hoisting the franchise's second MLS Cup or walking off the pitch in defeat, Gil will surely garner consideration for international call-ups. The fact that U.S. senior national team assistant coach Martin Vasquez is on staff with the Real Salt Lake Academy won't hurt his odds.
After leaving Salt Lake for stretches this season to represent the U.S. U-18 and U-20 national teams, Gil is looking to be an integral part of the U-23 side attempting to qualify for next summer's Olympics.
If the U.S. does earn a berth and Gil receives a spot on the roster, it'll be his second trip to London after a training stint with Arsenal's youth program in 2009. Such a journey, of course, would provide Gil with a stark reminder of what he gave up when he opted to turn down the Gunners and play domestically.
But seeing as Gil's career is now in full swing, with no signs of slowing down, the would-be high school senior has had no reason to second-guess his choice to stay stateside.
"I don't feel too bad about making that decision," Gil said. "I feel comfortable with where I'm at. I've been doing perfectly great here at RSL — I don't have any regrets."