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RSL rally around Diego Luna after PK heartbreak: “Wouldn’t be here without you” | MLSSoccer.com

RSL rally around Diego Luna after PK heartbreak: “Wouldn’t be here without you” | MLSSoccer.com

From hero to heartbreak. Diego Luna went through it all in the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs with Real Salt Lake – culminating with a season-ending, penalty-kick shootout loss to Houston Dynamo FC Saturday night in Match 3 of their Round One Best-of-3 series.

RSL had taken Houston to the limit at Shell Energy Stadium, precisely because of Luna. The rising US youth international scored his second postseason goal, a 65th-minute header that canceled out Corey Baird’s 28th-minute opener for a 1-1 draw that forced PKs – only to miss his shot from the spot.

It was a momentum-shifting moment that helped the Dynamo win 4-3 and advance to a Western Conference Semifinal showdown with Sporting Kansas City.

For RSL head coach Pablo Mastroeni, the cruel finale to Luna’s playoff story should in no way define what the rising 20-year-old playmaker did for the club during the tail end of the season.

“These moments are difficult for young players, but I think that if there’s one player on this team who can learn from this momentum and keep moving forward, it’s Diego,” Mastroeni said. “Over the past seven, eight games he’s played with courage, ability and, most important, he’s scored a lot of goals for our team. Without Diego the last six weeks, I don’t think we’re in this position.”

“Sky’s the limit”

The numbers back that assertion up.

Luna was electric in the final stretch, scoring four goals over the club’s last five games and emerging as one of the breakout stars of the playoffs. His postseason highlights included an impressive strike from distance that pulled one back for Salt Lake in their 2-1 Match 1 loss, the clinching shot from the spot in Match 2’s 5-4 PK shootout win (after a 1-1 draw) and Saturday’s snap header that allowed RSL to fight until the very end.

“I just let him know that we wouldn’t be here without you in the first place and it’s only going to make you stronger,” defender Justen Glad said of his post-game interaction with Luna. “… It’s a tough moment for a young player, but the sky’s the limit for him. I have no doubt that’s just gonna be a one-off and then he’ll come back better and be mentally stronger for it and just build off this year and come back next year, hopefully buzzing.”

Visibly emotional after the final whistle, Luna acknowledged his deep disappointment over how his star-making 2023 campaign (5g/3a, ranked No. 10 in this year’s 22 Under 22 presented by BODYARMOR) came to an end.

“A lot of veteran guys who came up and talked to me and helped me through it, but it’s not gonna go away like that,” he said. “It’s a disappointment, very emotional, sad. And I think that’s how it is and you take time to move on from it and then you go again.”

Short-term, that may include reporting for duty with the US U-23s during the November international window after an impressive FIFA U-20 World Cup outing over the summer.

“I think the biggest thing for me has been my own mental state and figuring out what is helping me and what is not,” said Luna, his future so promising ahead of 2024 and beyond.

“… I think that’s the biggest takeaway: That I’ve finally realized what needs to happen for me to score goals, to be in the right place and to perform well.”

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