Late last November, Louisville City FC’s Jonathan Gomez, San Antonio FC’s Jose Gallegos and El Paso Locomotive FC’s Diego Luna were unveiled as the three finalists for the USL Championship’s Young Player of the Year award.
A little over six months later all three have been transferred to top-flight clubs, ready to continue their pathway in the professional ranks and to drive toward top-class careers either domestically or in Europe.
Luna’s transfer to Real Salt Lake of Major League Soccer on Thursday marked the culmination of what has been an outstanding year-plus for the 18-year-old at Locomotive FC. In 41 regular-season appearances, Luna recorded 13 goals and seven assists, created 56 chances and completed 80 dribbles, catching the attention of anyone who tuned in to watch El Paso and making him a cult hero in the Borderplex.
With the Concacaf U-20 Championship on the horizon – where Luna is expected to be part of the United States’ squad after regular call-ups since the group first convened last November – the time had come to make a deal for the move to top-flight competition.
“We're happy and excited but mostly excited for Diego,” said El Paso Locomotive FC General Manager Andrew Forrest on Thursday. “He's earned this opportunity and deserves this opportunity to go to the next level. These things take time. He has had a successful year, the time was right for us as a club, for him as a player.”
What Luna’s move – for a USL Championship-record transfer fee – should continue to impress is the eyes of the soccer world are trained on the young talent in the league. From Gomez’s call-ups and appearances for both the United States and Mexico senior national teams in the past six months and his transfer to La Liga’s Real Sociedad, to Gallegos’ transfer to Danish club SønderjyskE after consecutive Young Player of the Year nominations in the Championship, the marketplace is open for the young talent in the league.
“When you got players that are as talented as Gomez, as talented as Gallegos, more and more clubs are going to be visiting America to look at it,” USL Sporting Director Mark Cartwright told ESPN’s Cesar Hernandez earlier this year. “When I was in the Premier League with Stoke, any player that is 17, 18, 19, 20 years old and he's playing in a men's professional league, week in and week out, everybody is watching.”
It's not just young players that are making the most of the visibility the Championship offers either. This offseason saw former Championship Golden Boot winner Junior Flemmings transferred by Birmingham Legion FC to France’s Toulouse FC, after which the side earned promotion to Ligue 1 for the 2022-23 season as Ligue 2 title-winners last month. The Jamaican international, who passed 50 regular season goals in the Championship is now on course to make his top-flight debut this fall.
The young talent shining in the Championship is also earning opportunity at the international level. Alongside Luna in the United States U-20 Men’s National Team’s preliminary roster for this month’s competition in Honduras was not only Gomez, but three other current young standouts at independent USL Championship clubs. Orange County SC’s Kobi Henry and Korede Osundina and Louisville City FC’s Joshua Wynder are all vying to make the final squad, with the trio currently with the U.S. U-19s as they train and compete in Spain.
“I’m really excited for Josh to get this chance,” said LouCity Head Coach Danny Cruz on Wynder’s selection late last month. “I certainly feel like it’s earned. He’s going to go get some games against some quality opponents over in Europe. We’re certainly looking forward to seeing him make the most of the opportunity.”
The young trio of Henry, Osundina and Wynder may be the next to make a big move from the Championship, but there are going to be more that follow as more clubs put a premium on developing and offering First Team opportunities to young players. So far at independent USL Championship clubs this season, 55 players born in 2001 or later have made appearances, with players like New Mexico United’s 18-year-old Cristian Nava – last year’s Golden Ball winner at the USL Academy Playoffs – coming into their own in the professional ranks.
The same is true in USL League One, where 26 players from the 2001 age group have seen action this season including United States U-17 international Nicholas Holliday at North Carolina FC. After the success of former League One standouts so far in the Championship this season, including Aaron Molloy at Memphis 901 FC and Greg Hurst at Phoenix Rising FC, the pipeline for player career progression is now firmly in position.
As Luna makes his move, the latest bright young player to begin his career in the USL Championship, it serves as another landmark for the league as its domestic and international reputation continues to rise.
The only question now is, who’s next?