Perhaps the highest-upside play Nashville SC has signed so far is Costa Rican winger Randall Leal. I caught up with San Jose-base Alejandro Zúñiga of Tico Times (and a fellow alumnus of the best and most greatest educational institution in the world, the University of Michigan) for a boots-on-the-ground take on Leal’s game.
For Club and Country: What’s the big picture of the Costa Rican league? Is it dominated by a few big teams, or is a little more parity involved?
Alejandro Zúñiga: The Costa Rican soccer league is heavily dominated by three teams: Saprissa, Alajuelense, and Herediano. Not surprisingly, Alajuelense and Herediano competed for the 2019 Apertura title this week [ed: Herediano won the playoff 2-0 on aggregate, necessitating a Grand Final that they lead 1-0 after the first leg, with the second tomorrow afternoon] — and Saprissa was one of the two other teams in the semifinals. These clubs should all sound familiar if you’ve followed MLS (or U.S. soccer) in recent years. The 2019 CONCACAF Champions League featured a matchup between Herediano and Atlanta United FC, while the U.S. men’s national team probably still has nightmares of their losses at Saprissa’s stadium.
FCAC: Similarly, what’s the success rate of players who have headed to leagues abroad? Are Keylor Navas/Bryan Ruiz levels of success or more meager expectations the norm when a player transfers out?
AZ: As you’d expect, the answer varies. Costa Rican players have recently had success abroad. This is of course highlighted by Keylor Navas at Real Madrid and PSG, but there are also more local examples — think Kendall Waston and Allan Cruz in MLS, or Joel Campbell in Liga MX. At the same time, there have been disappointments. Francisco Calvo was named a captain at Minnesota United before he was benched and then traded, and Rónald Matarrita has seen his career plagued by injuries in New York. Ultimately, the jump from Liga FPD in Costa Rica to MLS isn’t an insurmountable one, and I would expect Randall Leal to transition nicely.
FCAC: How integral to Saprissa’s success this season was Leal? What are the expectations for his career with La Sele?
AZ: Randall Leal is part of the rising generation of Costa Rican players tasked with replacing the stars who willed La Sele to the 2014 World Cup quarterfinals (no pressure!). He’s already an established name, having featured with the youth teams prior to making his debut with the senior national team in 2018. Leal began his career in Costa Rican club soccer before a three-year stint in Belgium. With Saprissa this year, he scored four goals and was generally considered among the league’s top players, drawing interest from MLS, Liga MX and elsewhere.
FCAC: What sort of player is Leal considered to be? Are there well-known areas of improvement he needs to make strides in?
AZ: Leal is a right-footed midfielder, though he has flexibility to play as a winger or striker. He’s generally considered an intelligent player with good ball skills and speed. He’s not afraid to try long-range efforts and was rewarded with one of the year’s best goals — an upper-90 finish against rivals Alajuelense in August [ed: see header image]. The biggest criticism he’s received — for both club and country — is a penchant for individual play. Leal has admitted as much, saying he’s been working to learn better in-game awareness from Saprissa’s manager, Walter Centeno, and the many veterans on the national team.
FCAC: What sort of reputation does he have off the field? Is he a beloved guy among fans of his club and national teams, a big personality, etc.?
AZ: Leal’s reputation has suffered a bit in recent months. He had key penalty kicks saved for both club and country — the latter in a Gold Cup defeat to rival Mexico. That said, Leal is still beloved and respected by Costa Rican fans. He speaks candidly of growing up in poverty — as a child, he sometimes couldn’t afford transportation to and from practice — and of wanting to support his family. At just 22 years old, he’s very much a source of optimism for the future of Costa Rican soccer. Leal is known for leaving it all out on the pitch — you won’t see him give any less than 100% effort in Nashville.
Many, many thanks to Alejandro for his expertise on Leal from Costa Rica. Follow him on Twitter at @ByAZuniga.