Nashville SC officially signs Randall Leal

As reported yesterday, as official today: Nashville SC will add Costa Rica international Randall Leal to the inaugural MLS squad come January.

From club release:

NASHVILLE (Sep. 06, 2019) – Nashville Soccer Club announced today it has signed Costa Rican international Randall Leal to a Major League Soccer contract, pending receipt of his International Transfer Certificate (ITC) and P-1 Visa. The 22-year-old attacking midfielder will remain with his current club, Deportivo Saprissa, until Jan. 2020. Nashville SC will decide whether Leal will be signed as a Designated Player or using Targeted Allocation Money ahead of the 2020 MLS Roster Compliance date.

“Randall is an exciting young attacking midfielder with bags of potential,” said Nashville SC General Manager Mike Jacobs. “He has the ability to influence matches in a variety of ways and has demonstrated that caliber on both the domestic and international stage.”

“I am very excited and honored to join Nashville SC, and I cannot wait to get there and start working hard for the club,” said Leal. “I want to make a difference on and off the field as I continue to hopefully grow both as a player and as a person, and Nashville offers the level of ambition and eagerness to do things right that will allow me to accomplish both goals.”

Currently playing as a left winger for Saprissa, the versatile midfielder has found success in both flanks of the field as well as in playing centrally. In 38 appearances in all competitions for the club since joining in Aug. 2018, Leal has contributed with six goals and six assists. His most recent one, a rocket to the top right corner on the 80th minute, gave Saprissa a 2-1 victory over archrival LD Alajuelense on Aug. 11.

An energetic and tenacious playmaker, Leal made his professional debut with Costa Rica’s First Division side Belén F.C. in Oct. 2013 at age 16, scoring his first goal just a few months later in Jan. 2014. He participated in a total of four goals in 23 matches (1 goal, 2 assists), before moving on to Belgium in 2015 where he played in 19 matches for KV Mechelen.

At the international level, Leal has become one of the elite young players in CONCACAF. Since making his national team debut with Costa Rica on Sep. 7, 2018, almost a year ago to date, the quick and crafty dribbler has accumulated 11 caps as he helped Costa Rica reach the Quarterfinals of the 2019 CONCACAF Gold Cup. Leal and Costa Rica will be back in action tonight when they meet Uruguay in a friendly match at 9 p.m. CST at the National Stadium of Costa Rica.

Come Jan. 2020, Leal will join recently announced Designated Player Hany Mukhtar, as well as Panamanian leader Aníbal Godoy, Ghanaian international David Accam, U.S. Men’s Youth international Derrick Jones, English forward Cameron Lancaster and Mexican youth international forward Daniel Ríos.

Transaction: Nashville SC signs Randall Leal from Deportivo Saprissa. Leal, who will occupy an international roster spot, will remain with Saprissa until Jan. 2020. Nashville SC will decide whether Leal will be signed as a Designated Player or using Targeted Allocation Money ahead of the 2020 MLS Roster Compliance date.

Leal is currently in his second season with Saprissa in Costa Rica’s Primera División after moving from Belgium after three years with a star-crossed club (relegated to second division, earn promotion to first division, but barred from moving up because of match-fixing scandals, you know, that kind of star-crossed). Saprissa has played eight regular-season and four Concacaf League (the new qualification mechanism for Champions League for non-US/Mexico/Canada teams) games so far this season.

Out of 1,080 possible minutes, Leal has played 854 of them. He was something of a super-sub in his first year with the club – still getting plenty of minutes, but not starter-level minutes – so that’s an encouraging step forward. He has two goals and one yellow card thus far in the Apertura (Costa Rica’s league is structured like Mexico’s: they have two seasons per year, with the fall season called “Apertura” (opening) and spring season named “Clausura” (closing), and the pair combining to be one full season in the traditional sense of how we think of it).

Saprissa qualified for last year’s Concacaf Champions League, where they faced Mexican power Tigres UANL in the Round of 16. In the opening leg of the home-and-home, he subbed into the game in the 67th minute with his team leading 1-0. He replaced a striker, but given the game state, that likely meant a shift to a 4-5-1, not that he was playing up top. He finished 3/3 passing with no shots taken.

In the second leg, Saprissa got blown out by Tigres. With El Morado trailing 4-1, he subbed into the game in the 60th minute. He didn’t exactly effect sea change there, but did finish with a solid 14/7 passing mark (and given his team was pushing to try to make a comeback, it’s unlikely those were safe and conservative passes.

Leal also has 12 Costa Rica national team caps. He wasn’t brought to the 2018 World Cup, but has played in basically every other match for Los Ticos since 2018, including a goal against Panama in the Hex from long, long range.

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As you’ll see in a moment, he’s got a case of the Rex Grossmans. “F it, I’m going deep” works if you can hit the shots, tho.

In this year’s Gold Cup, he appeared in three of Costa Rica’s four games (going as an unused substitute in the group stage game against Bermuda). He played 22 total minutes – the final 12 of the Nicaragua game and every minute of the Haiti and Mexico contests – completing 61.5% of his passes, registering five total shots (two on-target), and picking up a yellow card.

In the Mexico game, he actually played centrally (alongside FC Cincinnati’s Allan Cruz) in a 4-4-2 – a bit more defensive a position than you might expect given his skillset, though that speaks to some versatility. He also, uh, missed a penalty in the shootout against Mexico, and Costa Rica lost said shootout 5-4, so that’s not super-fun.

There’s no highlight reel available, so enjoy some GIFs from various single-play videos out there:

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The assist.

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As noted above, this is a dude who loves to strike from long range. He can get goals out of them, whether they’re ultimately bangers or ones that sneak around the keeper and hit the net on the bounce.

He has a bit of close-range technical skill on the ball (though that’s not his primary skillset), and a desire to earn his team the goal by any means necessary: the backheel for Saprissa there is impressive, and he steals the ball away from a teammate to bucket the goal in the next one. (For what it’s worth, I can’t explain that clip: per the official scoresheet, he didn’t enter the game against Bermuda in the Gold Cup, which is the only time Costa Rice has played Bermuda in the past 10 years. The Ticos also won 2-1, with the second goal scored in the 54th minute, so… yeah. I dunno).

At just 5-6, he’s a little guy, so you’re not going to be looking for much of an aerial threat, but a little guy who stretches the field by making the opponent respect the long shot, can bang free kicks home from basically anywhere on the field, and can create a little bit of offense is a good add for an MLS team.

It’s worth noting that he checks a few boxes that have revealed themselves to be important to the Nashville SC technical staff (in addition to talent, of course) in building this initial MLS roster:

  • Young. Only David Accam (29 by the time he joins in January), Godoy (30 next season), and Cameron Lancaster (27 by the beginning of next season) are over 25. Those three are guys who benefit the team now, for sure. The rest of them are balanced between winning now and developing for the future.
  • Upwardly mobile. Hany Mukhtar was very open that he sees Nashville as a stepping stone, with hopes of making it back to Europe (and in a larger league than Denmark) after impressing in MLS. Leal is a guy who a lot of people thought would be in Spain or Italy by the time he was 24. Maybe he still will be.
  • National team experience. Every MLS signing so far is either a full national teamer (Accam with Ghana, Aníbal Godoy with Panama, now Leal with Costa Rica), or has youth national team experience (Jones with both Ghana and the United States, Mukhtar with Germany, Ríos with Mexico), except Lancaster. That provides international local fans with a familiar face to cheer for, marketing opportunities, and in some cases, increased re-sell value without driving up NSC’s acquisition price.

Certainly Nashville sees these guys as not just players to win games in Major League Soccer, but also to profit from selling-on in the future (particularly if the next Collective Bargaining Agreement reduces MLS’s cut from international sales of player rights). It’s good technical construction of the roster, and good business for the future.

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