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Sandy • It wasn't about forgetting the previous seven months. Luis Gil had hoped to morph the taxing moments those tough days littered with frustration of lingering injury and inconsistency into a fresh start. The way Real Salt Lake's 20-year-old midfielder analyzes 2014 to this point is that his season is, in a way, just starting.
And the once-struggling young star has been a revelation in August.
The month has featured three consecutive wins entering Friday night's matchup with red-hot FC Dallas in Frisco, Texas, all of which Gil has played a large role in. He electrified Rio Tinto Stadium for 90 minutes in RSL's international friendly with Mexico's Club Tijuana on Aug. 12, an outing punctuated by a highlight-reel 88th-minute half-volley. Gil also donned the captain's armband in the Bahamas of all places when he led the U.S. U-23 squad to a 5-1 win in Nassau, an outing in which he drilled a long, curling free kick.
It's hard to believe just a few weeks earlier Gil struggled to consistently place himself in the starting XI picture. What clicked for the RSL midfielder was an evening of plentiful defending. As RSL went down to 10 men early in the second half at Colorado on Aug. 2, Gil and his teammates were forced to dig their heels into the turf and preserve three points.
Instead of slipping by defenders and setting up teammates, Gil was tasked with helping nail down a crucial road win. The offensive side of the ball has always been easy, a natural gift for the feel of how things should transpire going forward. It was on the other side that Gil needed rediscovering.
"I feel like it's just one of those things where you've got to show it during trainings," he said. "At the same time, when you do get your chances on the field, you have to show it well. There was a couple times where I did go into games … I showed it here and there, but it wasn't like, 'OK, he's ready.'"
A hamstring injury picked up on April 5 at Sporting Kansas City really threw a monkey-wrench into Gil's grandiose plans for 2014.
Instead of a quick recovery, it lingered for several weeks. He's played in 18 of 24 league matches to date, starting 13.
"It's difficult not to be out there for so long," he said. "Just grinding, getting back into it, that was difficult too, but that's part of the game … you have times when the game is going to do that to you, but it's how you get back to it."
It was only a matter of time before Gil found his form, fitness and commitment to the defensive side of the game. But it took some time, and that left first-year RSL coach Jeff Cassar in the precarious position of not rushing a young talent back.
"He's never fallen out of favor," Cassar said. "I love all these players, and I think they can all contribute. That's the best thing about having a deep team is that when someone's not playing at the level they need to be or should be, that somebody can step in and do the job, and when you stick with them, you keep believing in them and they'll come around."
There's no doubting Gil has. Friday night in Frisco is another opportunity, and he'll likely start in a position that has usually featured an All-Star-caliber incumbent. With Javier Morales still nursing a hip injury suffered in RSL's 3-0 win over D.C. United on Aug. 9, Gil's shift from outside of the diamond midfield formation to the point demonstrates his ability to play centrally and gives him the freedom to create. In the 2-1 win over Seattle last Saturday, Gil assisted on Luke Mulholland's game-winner in the second half.
"On our team, those two positions are two completely different positions," Gil said. "Being out wide, you're doing most of the running, you're doing most of the defensive work and you're asked to be a box-to-box player."
Former RSL midfielder and assistant coach Andy Williams would like to see Gil more consistent in any position he's assigned to, whether it be centrally or on the outside.
"He's still young and he's still growing and learning the more games he plays," Williams said. "He'll learn to be that diamond midfielder or that attacking midfielder. I think he's progressing well. Hopefully he can continue to provide quality minutes when Javi's playing or playing with Javi."
Real Salt Lake at FC Dallas
O At Toyota Stadium, Frisco, Texas
Kickoff • Friday, 7 p.m.
TV • NBCSN.
Radio • 700 AM
Records • RSL 11-4-9; FC Dallas 11-7-6
Last meeting • RSL 0, FC Dallas 0 (May 24 at Rio Tinto Stadium)