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Why El Paso Locomotive FC still holds a place in Diego Luna’s heart

By NICHOLAS MURRAY -, 01/18/24, 11:30AM EST


2021 Championship All-League selection could make USMNT debut on Saturday at San Antonio FC’s Toyota Field

Former El Paso Locomotive FC star Diego Luna returns to Texas this week after earning his first call-up to the United States Men's National Team for its game against Slovenia in San Antonio. | Photo courtesy Ivan Pierre Aguirre / El Paso Locomotive FC

In idle moments to himself, there are times when Diego Luna will look up his “old” highlights.

The images of his time with El Paso Locomotive FC still bring a smile to his face.

“It really brings good memories,” said Luna recently. “It really brings a good time where I get to remember where I came from, how I started, and the things that I that I did to produce where I’m at.”

Where Luna is now is the precipice of stardom.

A 2021 USL Championship All-League selection and Young Player of the Year finalist with Locomotive FC, the 20-year-old has taken the game that made him an emerging star – and garnered a high-profile transfer to Real Salt Lake midway through the 2022 campaign – and brought it to another level.

After a FIFA Men’s U-20 World Cup for the United States across May and June that saw him gain even greater attention among fans and media, he broke out for Real Salt Lake during the second half of the Major League Soccer season. Luna recorded five goals and three assists in 1,201 minutes during the regular season and added two postseason goals – and a memorable penalty shootout winner – before RSL fell to Houston Dynamo FC.

The numbers are one thing, but the way Luna produced them is what stood out. His stocky frame, festooned with tattoos, sees him shift through the gears with the ball at his feet, always looking for the killer pass or opportunity to finish. It’s won him increasing numbers of admirers, because the potential for magic always feels close when Luna is on the ball.

That Luna himself isn’t short on self-confidence only adds to the excitement he generates.

“I think the sky’s the limit” he said of his potential. “I’m very confident in myself and in my game. But it's about staying humble enough and at the right moments showcasing and being who you are. It’s definitely my mindset and my goal to be in all these camps and to be a player that comes out of the blue, that people don’t expect, to showcase my talent. I think this camp is a very good, good time for me to show people who Diego Luna is.”

After his transfer from El Paso Locomotive FC in 2022, Diego Luna broke out with seven goals and three assists for Real Salt Lake over the second half of the 2023 MLS campaign. | Photo courtesy Real Salt Lake

Those qualities first shone through in El Paso, where Luna recorded 11 goals and five assists in his first professional season while helping lead Locomotive FC to the best campaign in its history. The support and mentorship he received from club staff and teammates is still something he looks back at appreciatively, as well as the support he received from a fan-base that embraced him from the moment he stepped foot on the field.

Since his transfer, the player affectionately dubbed Moon Boy has returned to El Paso regularly. He was a guest at Locomotive FC’s watch parties for the 2022 FIFA Men’s World Cup and considers the city a home away from home.

“I couldn't have asked for a better start to my career,” said Luna. “From the staff, from the teammates that I had, and from the fans and the environment that it brought to me, how they took me in as one of their own and made me feel at home, it really did become a second home for me.

“I've lived all over, but I come back, and I feel welcomed. It’s somewhere where I feel like I belong.”

Diego Luna recorded 13 goals and seven assists in 42 appearances for El Paso Locomotive FC, where he was embraced by teammates and fans alike at the start of his career. | Photo courtesy Ivan Pierre Aguirre / El Paso Locomotive FC

Luna’s pathway is one that’s becoming a more common occurrence for talented young players aiming to make a name for themselves in the professional ranks. From fellow Barca Residency Academy graduate Korede Osundina – who turned pro with Orange County SC before his transfer to Feyenoord last year – to others like Jonathan Gomez and Joshua Wynder, both of whom were teammates at the FIFA U-20 World Cup last year, the USL Championship is providing a platform for young players to push forward their careers at a rapid rate.

Luna is sometimes reminded by his family how far he’s come in a short span. Now he’s going to be joined at Real Salt Lake this season by another player who took a similar path to his. RSL’s acquisition of 2023 Championship Young Player of the Year Fidel Barajas via transfer from the Charleston Battery was another notable move this offseason, and another illustration of the pathway that is emerging from the Championship to top-flight soccer.

“Everyone has their own path,” said Luna. “[We] kind of took a path that was a risk, but at the same time, it was something challenging where we took challenges one step at a time. Once we knew that it was time for something new, to challenge ourselves even more, we took that leap. I think that’s something that that should be recognized by players at such a young age and their mindsets.”

Diego Luna salutes the fans in El Paso during his time with Locomotive FC. As a 17-year-old, Luna was voted to the 2021 USL Championship All-League Team. | Photo courtesy Ivan Pierre Aguirre / El Paso Locomotive FC

Luna’s personal path has also added to his growth in the past year. The birth of his son last summer has added new perspective, and a sense of purpose that is serving as a greater driver for his individual success.

“I think there's been a switch inside of me with my new son that has led to more success, and I think performing better,” said Luna. “I don't know what you can say it is, or what has happened, but I think I’m a different player now, better with my son coming into this world. It’s a blessing and I’m going to continue to work hard because I’m not only playing for myself, playing for fun, this is playing for my job and playing for a career and my family.”

This Saturday, Luna could take another step forward in familiar surroundings. Selected in the squad for the United States Men’s National Team for the first time, he could make his senior national team debut against Slovenia at San Antonio FC’s Toyota Field, a venue he is more than familiar with.

It’s an important moment for Luna, who will be making a case not just for more call-ups in the future, but a place in the squad for this summer’s Men’s Olympic Soccer Tournament.

“We all have goals and that’s one on my list that’s coming up soon,” said Luna of being part of the Olympic squad. “Performing every chance that I get – whether that be with the U-23s, with the men’s national team, at my club – I think everything matters now. It’s all leading to those events, and those are the things we play for us. That’s something that’s exciting and definitely on my radar.”

Having found the net when he first visited San Antonio in 2021 – part of a 2-1 victory that helped Locomotive FC claim that season’s Copa Tejas – Luna is hoping his return to the Alamo City offers a storybook start to his USMNT career.

“That’s something that’s exciting,” he said. “To hopefully have that be another day like that – where I can potentially make my debut and potentially even score with the crest – I think that’s a dream.”

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