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He has been the next big thing for quite a while now, Luis Gil.

Star playmaker on his youth national teams, coveted target of teams around the world. Described in an ESPN article two years ago — at the age of 16 — as possibly the future of American soccer. And now, after showing flashes of brilliance in his first significant playing time as a professional last season, the preternatural talent might just be poised for a breakout season with Real Salt Lake.

"Hopefully," he said. "Obviously, it's up to me doing it in training and showing coach that I can."

Most certainly, that is the key.

Coach Jason Kreis is the one who will determine if and when Gil gets his opportunities as RSL tries to bounce back from a disappointing and injury-ravaged 15-11-8 season, and he always has hated fueling unrealistic expectations. So Kreis cautions that while Gil is capable, it's not fair to expect such a young player to suddenly break into a lineup full of grown-man veterans.

But general manager Garth Lagerwey acknowledges that "with his talent, there is no reason" Gil "can't be an impact player in our league."

And as the team prepares to return to Arizona for its second stretch of preseason training next week —¬†it will play four games against rival Major League Soccer teams over the next two weeks — it's clear opportunities will present themselves.

Veteran Andy Williams has retired.

Collen Warner was lost in the expansion draft to stock the new Montreal Impact.

And though Javier Morales and Will Johnson are among the top midfielders still with the team, each is straining to recover from injuries. Kreis said Morales took "three steps back" last week in his recovery from ankle surgery, and Johnson is expected to travel to Germany for surgery on a sports hernia and miss several weeks.

Enter Gil.

Ideally, he would play the attacking midfield position that Morales usually mans. But he can play elsewhere, too, and it's not hard to imagine a variety of personnel combinations that get Gil on the field, based on who else is injured or resting. He even played forward during desperate times last year, and it doesn't seem unreasonable to think he's going to exceed the 1,288 minutes he played last season, in 25 games and 14 starts.

"The only way to get experience is obviously in games," Gil said. "It's different from practices. Having taken advantage of those opportunities of playing games and doing well, it helps, and I just have to keep moving forward with it."

Gil wound up at RSL through a trade from Kansas City after joining Major League Soccer nearly two years ago, rather than playing internationally.

He'd had youth trials with famous clubs such as Arsenal in England and River Plate in Argentina, attracted interest from other giants such as Real Madrid and Manchester City, and at age 14 joined the U.S. under-17 residency program in Florida once directed by former RSL coach John Ellinger.

But becoming a top pro doesn't happen overnight.

Kreis said that while Gil was "fantastic" in his best games last season, he also "wasn't very good" in his worst ones. So consistency is what the coach is preaching. "The best pros are the ones that can string together a ton of games when they're very good," he said.

Gil knows that.

He acknowledged passing up too many shots out of deference to his older teammates last season, and knows he must improve his defense. But he spent the MLS offseason playing with the U.S. under-20 national team and on a Generation Adidas exhibition tour in Europe, and believes he has returned to RSL with an improved confidence.

"Now, I know what I have to do," he said.

Teammate and captain Kyle Beckerman said it already shows.

"What he did last year should give him a ton of confidence for this year," he said. "It seems like he already is playing with a bit more confidence in the preseason so far, and I look forward to seeing it continue to grow."

Luis Gil file

• Joined RSL two years ago in a trade from Kansas City, which won a special lottery for his services after he signed with Major League Soccer.

• Scored two goals in 25 games last season, when he started 14 games and played a career-high 1,288 minutes as RSL finished 15-11-8.

• Still only 18 years old, he has been considered a star-in-waiting since he was a boy playing for the youth powerhouse Pateadores in California. —

RSL preseason schedule

Desert Diamond Cup

At Tucson, Ariz.

Feb. 22 • RSL vs. New York Red Bulls, 8 p.m.

Feb. 25 • RSL vs. Los Angeles Galaxy, 6 p.m.

Feb. 29 • RSL vs. New England Revolution, 6 p.m.

March 3 •¬†Championship/consolation game, 6 or 8 p.m.