With 10 goals and six assists in 36 appearances in the USL Championship, El Paso Locomotive FC Diego Luna has become the latest top young talent to emerge in the league in recent seasons. | Photo courtesy Ivan Pierre Aguirre / El Paso Locomotive FC
There’s a symbolism to Diego Luna’s name, one that’s unavoidable when thinking about his future.
“That’s kind of like a signature thing in my name and my career,” he said recently. “Starting with chants, starting with people calling me ‘Moon Boy’, stuff like that right? It’s something cool to have that can create things, whether that’s later on in the future, a brand, logos, stuff like that, it’s definitely symbolic. It’s cool to have that name.”
Currently for the 18-year-old El Paso Locomotive FC standout and United States U-20 international, it’s a time to chase your dreams.
Ever since his debut for Locomotive FC in the USL Championship last May, Luna’s talent and the resulting rise in prominence his performances have produced have made him a must-see player in the league.
At 5-foot-8, he’s a constant bundle of energy, shifting and driving at defenders with the ball at his feet, trying to pick out the decisive pass or shooting avenue that can deliver a roar from the crowd at Southwest University Park. In his first campaign for El Paso, Luna notched nine goals, five assists, 40 chances created and 48 completed dribbles, but wasn’t as much the numbers he delivered but the way he attacked the game that made him shine.
“Obviously, when you watch games, you don’t know the person at all, you’re just judging off footballing ability,” said current Locomotive FC Head Coach John Hutchinson on his impression of Luna prior to joining the club last offseason. “My appraisal of him early hasn’t changed. I described him as the best young player in the USL and probably the best player in the USL.”
Photo courtesy San Diego Loyal SC
What’s your motivation? What drives you?
It’s a question asked of players at all stages of their careers, especially youngsters with prodigious talents who seemed destined for greatness.
Sometimes, it even comes from their own family members.
“I get that question asked, especially by my oldest brother, and I think it’s kind of just in me,” said Luna. “It’s a thing of, I do it because I have fun and I love playing soccer. I enjoy playing soccer, and what’s better than doing something as a career that you love doing, you know what I mean? I think there’s just something in me that every time I get to play soccer, it’s the best feeling in the world.”
That could be considered the sort of attitude that pervades the players who make it to the very top of the game, as Luna saw up close a month ago.
Part of the U.S. U-20s squad that went on a 10-day trip to Argentina in March in preparation for the Concacaf Men’s U-20 Championship in Honduras in June, Luna and his fellow starters for an exhibition against their Argentine counterparts had huddled up moments before kickoff.
Then a teammate spotted a notable face on the sideline.
“One of the guys says, ‘Messi’s right there,’” Luna said. “And we’re all joking around, and then we all take a peek over our shoulders and he’s right there, sitting there at half-field, and we’re all like, ‘wow, this guy’s actually real.’
The images of Lionel Messi and fellow Argentine national team players Ángel Di María, Leo Paredes and Lucas Ocampos on the sideline understandably went viral. Coming the morning after Argentina’s 3-0 win against Venezuela in FIFA 2022 World Cup Qualifying, his presence represented something deeper to Luna about the game and the player considered the greatest of the 21st century, if not all-time.
“I thought about it, the night before he’s playing a game, right?” said Luna. “The next morning he’s coming out to watch the U-20s, which shows a lot about him and the character and the person he is. It’s awesome. Having him there was a really cool experience.”
It would be foolish to expect any 18-year-old to reach those heights, but those who’ve worked with Luna see the traits that could lead him on an exciting path. How good could Luna end up being? Hutchinson describes him as “an exceptional talent”. His former Head Coach Mark Lowry, now at Indy Eleven, goes further.
“I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: Diego Luna’s the best player I’ve ever worked with,” said Lowry. “He may read this, people may read this, I think Diego can be one of the top players in the world. I think he’s that good a footballer, and not just his skills, but his mentality. His humbleness, the decision every day to work so hard and demand more of himself every single day. He’s very focused on his objective to get better, and to win games and become a top player, so I have no doubt Diego can go to the very, very top.”
Of course, that’s easy to talk about and be excited by. The reality – as Hutchinson has seen in his playing and coaching career – is the path to becoming a star is one that has left many behind.
“I’ve been around players so talented that don’t make it because for whatever reason, where you say, ‘yeah, he’s got a massive future. Europe, no problems, no problems at all,’” said Hutchinson “It just depends on what happens in and around his life and what happens off the field and how far he can take his career from there.”
Luna’s rapid ascendance in visibility in the Championship has changed things for him this year. After being voted to the All-League Second Team in 2021 alongside being a finalist for Young Player of the Year, Luna and Hutchinson have both noticed a bigger emphasis from opponents on trying to limit what he can do to impact games.
Voted to the USL Championship's All-League Second Team and as a finalist for the Young Player of the Year, Diego Luna is among the top players currently in the league. | Photo courtesy Ivan Pierre Aguirre / El Paso Locomotive FC
“100 percent. I don’t think it’s changed for me personally. I’m just trying to keep doing my thing and every day it’s a new day to perform, a new game to perform, but it definitely has changed the way opponents and the league has seen me,” said Luna. “You can see teams have changed the way they come into games playing against me and whether that be the crowd, whether that be the players individually, smack talk, stuff like that, whether it be man-marking, stuff like that, it has definitely changed the way the league and teams see me when they play against me.”
That’s a challenge that neither Luna nor Hutchinson want to shy away from. In fact, from Hutchinson’s perspective, taking on the burden of being a player opponents target and rising above it is crucial to elevating toward the player people believe Luna can be.
“[If] I start to try taking him away from areas where he can help us because teams are man-marking him, it’s going to stop his improvement as a footballer,” said Hutchinson. “My big thing for Diego, we’ve spoken previously about the areas in which he can definitely improve his game, big areas where he can make big improvements quickly, and we’ve spoken about other things as well and he’s taken that on board. If I move him out of position and only try to protect him, I’m not helping his career grow.
“Part and parcel of being a pro footballer – and obviously me, being the coach – is to make him understand why this is happening, why are teams targeting him, where can he move to receive the ball in dangerous areas away from where they trying to pick him up.”
As high as Luna’s sights are set, the will to achieve combine with his love for the game could be what sets his ceiling as high as any player the Championship has seen before.
“He’s got high ambition,” said Hutchinson. “I love that, I love the ambition in players.
“His ceiling is where he takes it.”
When Luna’s on the field, breaking down opposing defenses, what’s going through his mind?
“The thing I’ve thought about, actually, is when I’m doing that, I have no idea what I’m doing,” said Luna. “When I used to play in academy and club and stuff, kids would ask me, ‘how did you do that move?’ or, ‘how did you do that?’ and I’m like, ‘what did I do?’ I didn’t know what I did. It’s just something that’s happening while I’m doing it, and when it’s over, it’s over. I don’t plan to do a move ahead of time, it’s just as I’m doing it, I’m doing it, and that’s it.”
That instinct, intuition and unpredictability is what earned Luna the chance to start for the U.S. U-20s against Argentina last month. How that gets fostered in the coming months, preparing him for the next move and stage of his career is now the primary focus for Hutchinson and the rest of El Paso’s staff.
It’s done with the knowledge that Luna is likely not long for this level, and the sooner he can make that move – in the same way as his Championship Young Player of the Year contemporaries last year Jonathan Gomez (Real Sociedad) and Jose Gallegos (SønderjyskE) headed to Europe this offseason – the better.
“Part of development is you need to be pushing yourself at higher levels and that’s what he needs right now,” said Hutchinson. “He needs to be pushed harder and faster, playing with guys who are going to challenge him every single day. Here in El Paso, we have some wonderful pros, we have some good footballers, but Diego’s probably in the top echelon of our player pool. We need him to go somewhere else where he’s in the midtable of the player pool and has to grow to get to the top end, to get to the next level.
“That’s what he needs now, it’s really important for his growth.”
Taking a starring role for El Paso Locomotive FC's success in 2021, Diego Luna has quickly become a fan-favorite at Southwest University Park. | Photo courtesy Ivan Pierre Aguirre / El Paso Locomotive FC
The potential of a move to Europe was central to Luna’s offseason trips as he visited clubs in both Belgium and Portugal with an eye on the future. He believes those opportunities were useful, not just to learn about how clubs with broader infrastructure operate, but to determine what he was looking for in a future destination when that time comes. Assessing what he liked, and what he didn’t, while getting the chance to see and participate in training sessions in a new environment opened potential doors.
As exciting as that prospect might be, the focus for Luna now is succeeding with El Paso and playing a key role for the United States U-20s as they pursue a place at the FIFA U-20 World Cup and 2024 Olympic Games this June in Honduras.
“Of course, that’s the goal, right? We want to go to Europe, we want to take the next step in our career, to get challenged, so that’s what I’m working towards,” said Luna. “I try not to think about [the future] too much and blow my head up with all this amazing stuff that could happen. I just take it day by day.
“Of course, I have short-term goals and long-term goals that I keep, to keep me on track, but there’s definitely exciting stuff that could happen. Every day is just a day to do it, and then we’ll see what happens after that.”
But as Luna shoots for the moon, he could well end up among the stars.