‘Where did you find this guy?’: Carles Gil’s quiet playmaking has been instrumental for the Revolution

"He puts the ball wherever he wants it."

Carles Gil after scoring a game tying goal in Portland in September.

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There were many reasons why Carles Gil’s debut season in Major League Soccer could have been a disappointment, but the 26-year-old Spaniard has been such a success story that he was recently given the league’s Newcomer of the Year award.

Whether it was the Revolution experiencing a tumultuous early-season crisis that caused a complete turnover in leadership, or acclimating to soccer on a new continent, or even just communicating most of the time in a language he was learning on the fly, Gil has had no shortage of challenges.

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Yet he’s passed every test, whether on the field or off of it. New England, after starting the year 2-8-2, is headed for the club’s first playoff game since 2015 on Saturday against Atlanta United at 1 p.m.

Gil, a playmaking midfielder, has been quite literally in the center of it since agreeing to a transfer to New England in January, though he doesn’t crave the spotlight.

“I’m a little bit shy about those things, but I’m certainly excited,” Gil said on Wednesday about his MLS Newcomer award.

His sheepish smile during the award presentation that the team shared video of was indicative of his unease at attention.

“He’s definitely not a rah-rah player,” Revolution head coach Bruce Arena said of Gil’s leadership style. “He’ll talk to players at the right times, but he’s not one of those demanding, commanding type of guys. The way he plays, it says an awful lot.”

And Gil’s playing style is in many ways a perfect reflection of his youth.

Growing up in the Spanish port city of Valencia, Gil joined the Valencia CF academy when he was just five years old. He learned in the same system that produced other notable midfielders like Manchester City’s David Silva and Real Madrid’s Isco.

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The common traits are apparent. Though he isn’t big (Gil is 5-foot-7), his imprint on the game is vast. Gil started every Revolution league game in 2019, playing all but eight minutes in total over the course of the season. And like so many of his Spanish compatriots, Gil is an exquisite passer of the ball.

He’s been instrumental in New England’s build-up play. He ranks fifth in the league in 2019 with 2,109 total passes completed, and first in passes completed in the final third (730). His most prominent stats are his 10 goals and 14 assists, one of just four players in the league to achieve double-digit totals in both categories.

At its most basic, Gil is simply great on the ball.

“He’s got that vision, that quality touch,” said teammate and fellow newcomer Gustavo Bou. “Like we say in Argentina, that left leg is like a glove – he puts the ball wherever he wants it.”

Added to that, Gil has a knack for recovering the ball for New England. That such an attacking talent as Gil works on defense is “rare,” as Arena noted. But over the course of the season, no one was more prolific in recovering possession in the final third than the Spaniard, who did it 50 times.

Like Bou, who joined the team in July and has been another force in helping turn the season around, Gil was a club-record signing when he joined New England. Though the commitment from ownership to spend more money on players was refreshing for fans, it could’ve backfired had Gil not acclimated so quickly. Coming from a series of teams in Europe, Gil credits the Revolution’s inclusive team atmosphere for helping him settle in.

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“I definitely didn’t know what to expect,” Gil said of what he imagined prior to joining the Revolution. “Moving to a new country, a new league — I didn’t know MLS very well — different culture, it was certainly different than what I was accustomed to playing in Europe. But to be honest with you, I believe it was the way the locker room welcomed me in has a lot to do with how I was able to adapt quickly and perform over the season.”

Even before the season, it quickly became apparent that Gil was the right fit for a New England team desperate for the kind of quality passing that he could regularly offer.

“I remember hearing a couple of stories coming out of preseason training where I guess a couple of the guys kind of looked at someone from the scouting staff and was like, ‘Where did you find this guy?'” remembered Revolution president Brian Bilello. “When you’re hearing about other players on your team reacting to a new signing like that, it gives a good indication that you might have a special player here.”

Arguably Gil’s most important quality for the Revolution in 2019 has been his consistency. Even through the difficult stretch in the early part of the season (which resulted in then-coach Brad Friedel and general manager Michael Burns being fired), Gil continued to play well. In Arena’s first game in charge — an away win against the Galaxy in June — he caught the new coach’s eye.

“It was pretty obvious that he was an outstanding player,” Arena recalled of his first game. “The thing about Carles is he’s consistently good every game. Players have a tendency to be a little bit up and down, and Carlos has played at an extremely high level each and every game.”

New England faces a difficult playoff test in Atlanta against the defending MLS Cup champions. Playing on the road in front of a crowd that will likely approach 70,000, Gil’s calming presence in the midfield will be critical if the Revolution have any chance at pulling an upset.

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