SANDY, Utah | The little kid in Luis Gil emerges when he starts talking basketball, insisting he's got game and a nasty crossover that can “break some ankles.”
On the soccer field, the Real Salt Lake midfielder is all grown up, even if he's just 18.
“He's ready,” RSL coach Jason Kreis said of the 5-foot-8, 150-pound Gil. “When he gets called upon, he's ready to contribute and contribute in a major way.”
That's what Real Salt Lake will need Saturday in an early-season showdown with the league's only unbeaten, untied team.
Sporting KC (5-0-0) became only the third team in Major League Soccer history to start a season with five wins. The Los Angeles Galaxy did it in 1998 and 1996, but in the “shootout” era when there were no ties, although the 1996 team didn't need a shootout until its ninth game.
The Eastern Conference leader has allowed just one goal so far, and so dominated last week against the Galaxy that goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen didn't even have to make a save.
Real Salt Lake (5-1-0) sits atop the Western Conference with 15 points, and is seeking its third straight road win and best start in franchise history.
“A lot of people are tabbing this as maybe a future MLS Cup matchup. It's way too early to suggest anything like that,” RSL defender Tony Beltran said of the showdown five weeks into an eight-month season. “But it's a good chance to measure ourselves against a top team, in a very tough place. … It would be a big statement for us as a club and set the tone for the rest of the year.”
Gil thought he'd be in Portland, Ore., this week after being invited to participate in the U.S. men's Under-20 national team training camp.
But with star midfielder Javier Morales still questionable because of a hamstring injury, Kreis cancelled Gil's trip, knowing how valuable the California kid can be.
“He's an incredibly fast player that up until now hasn't always shown it,” Kreis said. “That comes with him taking a little bit more responsibility every single day and every game.”
Gil, a third-year pro after being drafted and traded by Kansas City in 2010, delivered the insurance goal in a 2-0 win over New York last month and set up another last week that sealed the victory against Colorado.
Kreis figures he needs everything in his arsenal – even the teen who had an opportunity to sign with London's storied Arsenal FC several years ago – to secure a result in Kansas City.
RSL is just 1-4-2 in Kansas City, having lost 2-0 there last year. Saturday also marks the start of a three-game road stretch, with visits to San Jose and Dallas up next for Real Salt Lake.
Kreis said his team continues to get better on the road, as evidenced by wins this year in Los Angeles and Portland.
“Three years ago we were Jekyll and Hyde,” he said. “We were extremely good at home then were horrible (on the road). We've been bridging that gap ever since.”
On Saturday, Kreis will face a club that bears a striking resemblance to his own.
Sporting KC, like Real Salt Lake, is a small-market team built with a solid core of players, having recently relocated to a new stadium.
“I think we look at them and see ourselves a lot, just the way they push numbers forward, how aggressive they play at home, how much pride they take in defending,” said defender Nat Borchers. “They've got some special players as well. It's going to be tough.”
Kreis called Sporting KC “disruptive” with its different formations and style.
“They put a lot of players in your half of the field who don't allow you to play or try not to allow you to play, which can be difficult for us because we like to knock the ball around, like to have possessions in long stretches,” Kreis said. “And against a team like Kansas City, that may not be possible.”
C.J. Sapong, the reigning MLS Rookie of the Year at age 23, and Kei Kamara, who scored the winner last weekend against L.A., lead Sporting KC.
There are plenty of others to watch on a team Kreis said is perhaps the deepest in the league. Gil, tabbed by some as this year's MLS breakout player of the year, said the key against Sporting KC is playing smart. Gil can do that, even if he's better known for an amazing first touch and that speed.
“The thing that impresses me is he's got such a developed soccer brain at such a young age,” Beltran said. “He's just a very smart soccer player. He deserves all the success he's getting. He, in my eyes, is one of the future stars for our national team.”
That will have to wait for now, though it's still the ultimate goal for a player who has been on everyone's radar for years – even if he only recently became old enough to vote.
“One of the very first things I heard as a young professional is that there's not young players and old players; there's good players and bad players,” Kreis said.
Gil isn't about to argue with his coach.
“On the field, I really don't think age is a factor,” he said. “It's who wants it and who doesn't.”