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Steve Griffin, Deseret News
Real Salt Lake midfielder Everton Luiz (25) pokes Vancouver Whitecaps midfielder David Norman Jr (24) in the eye during the Real Salt Lake versus Vancouver Whitecaps soccer match at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Saturday, March 9, 2019.

SANDY — The sample size is small, but two games into the 2019 MLS season and new Real Salt Lake defensive midfielder Everton Luiz is even better than advertised.

His partnership alongside Kyle Beckerman in the midfield has been outstanding, a big reason the club has only given up one goal in two games.

When RSL acquired Luiz on a loan from Italian club S.P.A.L. in January, at the time coach Mike Petke called the Brazilian a destroyer defensively who also plays simply with the ball. The combination of those two qualities is what Real Salt Lake has lacked alongside Kyle Beckerman in recent years.

" We did our research on everything before we signed him, and we knew the qualities that he would bring and he’s shown them now the last two games. "
RSL head coach Mike Petke on midfielder Everton Luiz

Sunday Stephen was signed in 2016 to be that guy, and in three years with the club he proved he could be a destroyer defensively, but rarely enhanced the attack and was inconsistent both ways.

From 2014 to 2017 fan favorite Luke Mulholland was in the starting lineup for two-thirds of the matches, often sitting deep alongside Beckerman. RSL made the playoffs in two of those four years, but last year Mulholland missed virtually the entire season recovering from back surgery.

Last season RSL signed Damir Kreilach to be the guy to sit next to Beckerman, but the partnership never materialized from a defensive standpoint as teams played through RSL’s midfield far too easily. Kreilach eventually moved higher up the field and found his niche, with Stephen winning back his job.

Real Salt Lake opted not to bring back Stephen this offseason, knowing it needed a major upgrade at that position to truly compete at the top of the Western Conference in 2019.

In Luiz, they appear to have hit a home run.

“We did our research on everything before we signed him, and we knew the qualities that he would bring and he’s shown them now the last two games. His partnership with Kyle has been great since the preseason,” said RSL coach Mike Petke after his team’s 1-0 win over Vancouver on Saturday.

“They read very well off of each other, they’re both very like-minded in understanding the position. He did an excellent job tonight in recognizing when to step out in key moments to put pressure on higher up the field, but then Kyle dropped in there and we focused a lot of this week on that because of Vancouver’s midfield three. They’re so interchangeable, they’re always on the move and we focused on that this week and I thought that Everton and Kyle did a fantastic job against them.”

Luiz has lived up to his destroyer mentality as well, picking up yellow cards in each of the first two games. The 30-year-old has played in Brazil, Mexico, Switzerland, Serbia and Italy in his professional career, and it seems logical to expect an adjustment period as he adapts to MLS officiating. Otherwise, he can expect a yellow-card accumulation suspension every sixth game.

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That tough defensive mentality, along with a similar mentality from Beckerman, is something defender Nedum Onuoha appreciates playing behind.

“Those two are center midfielders you probably don’t want to play against, they will literally be on your heels for the whole game. That really helps us out at the back because the people who will deliver the quality for the opposition are constantly under pressure, which does make a huge difference,” said Onuoha.

Beckerman said that Luiz has proven himself to be a great “team guy” since the preseason and he’s fit in very well despite being the only Portuguese speaker on the team.