Randall Leal photo by Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country
Randall Leal arrived in Nashville with the pedigree of a full Costa Rica international, and eventually added a DP tag, as well. How did his first MLS season go?
Other editions: No minutes and gone • No minutes and back • Jimmy Medranda • Brayan Beckeles • Handwalla Bwana • Jack Maher • David Accam • Alan Winn • Matt LaGrassa • Eric Miller • Derrick Jones • Jhonder Cádiz • Taylor Washington • Abu Danladi • Jalil Anibaba • Dominique Badji • Daniel Ríos • Tah Brian Anunga • Alex Muyl • Hany Mukhtar • Aníbal Godoy • Alistair Johnston • Randall Leal • Dax McCarty • Dan Lovitz • Walker Zimmerman • Dave Romney • Joe Willis
Expectations for Leal were extremely high. Having played in Belgium and at one of Costa Rica’s biggest clubs – and arriving with 16 international appearances under his belt – he was one of the highest-profile players that played for the Boys in Gold in the inaugural MLS season.
A free-kickin’, long-bombin’ winger, he was projected as one of the primary beneficiaries of Hany Mukhtar’s distribution, with the ability to provide some of his own to the rest of the team. While he wasn’t an all-field offensive dynamo (nor particularly known for dogged defense), his talent in striking the ball meant he was going to have to do some of the lifting if Nashville SC was to put a solid offense onto the field.
Second only to Mukhtar (entering the season, at least), Leal was Nashville’s best shot at an exciting offensive force who would get league-wide recognition. The defense was going to be solid enough. Could Leal be good enough to make it happen on the other end.
24 appearances • 1980 minutes
4 goals, 46 shots (2.25 xG), 19 on-target
4 assists, 24 key passes (3.12 xA)
580/774 passing (74.9% • 77.0% expected)
9.1% of touches on-field
+0.13 Goals added per 96 minutes versus replacement winger
|Randall Leal 2020|||||||||
|Dribbling G+||Fouling G+||Interrupting G+||Passing G+||Receiving G+||Shooting G+|
Ultimately, Leal wasn’t quite as good at the thing we knew about him coming in (scoring). But he was a lot better in some of the ways that we weren’t expecting excellence. An offense-first winger who was one of the best players at the position defensively around the league? A guy whose primary skillset involves winning one-v-one battles on the wing and cutting in to shoot (or crossing for an assist) who performed well despite being needed as a forward or central attacker? You’ll take both of those any day of the week.
That said, one reason you want those things in a player like Leal is because they’re complements to the thing that you are expecting out of him, and there wasn’t as much offense as expected. With four goals and four assists, he outperformed his expected production (which is good – and as a long-shot specialist, you could posit that he may be more likely to consistently outperform xG, at least), so if he were to have the same type of year in 2021, the traditional stats may fall off a bit. He needed to be a bit more productive. Of course, he was one of NSC’s most productive players nonetheless, so it’s hard to hold too much against him.
His dribbling was actively poor, as was his receiving (I’ve gone into his shooting Goals Added number a bit already). The former felt like a matter of adjusting to MLS: it’s a physical league in a very different way than Costa Rica’s, and the minute-to-minute strength (versus “guys flying in from the side to break your dang leg”) is something he wasn’t used to. The latter may be a stylistic matter when it comes to team or player characteristics, though.
Like plenty of his teammates, Leal had occasional availability issues. He only missed two games entirely – a September win over Atlanta United and the following loss against Columbus Crew – but tapered down into (and again back up out of) that injury minutes-wise. He was on a “pitch count,” so to speak, at a couple other points in the year. All told though, in the year of a global pandemic (and as one of the guys who self-identified as one who tested positive for it in Orlando), he was plenty available.
Based on my evaluation above, you’re likely to guess that I’m very high on the potential year-over-year improvement in his game and production. A lot of what didn’t go well for him last year (global pandemic, adjusting to physicality of the league) won’t happen two years in a row. Some of the other things, like developing chemistry and having a broader supporting cast up front, at least have the appearance of being on the upswing this time around.
Largely, a breakout year from Leal seems to depend almost entirely on Leal seizing the opportunity in front of him – and benefitting from the good luck of health and circumstance – rather than anything else. The stars are aligned for him to succeed. With a full year under his belt in Nashville, and hopefully much more consistent overlap with Hany Mukhtar and Jhonder Cádiz (to say nothing of Daniel Ríos or even Dom Badji, both of whom fought injuries last year) on the pitch, he could be poised to have a big year.
Maintaining everything that he did well last year while getting back to the skills that he’s shown in his previous career stops would see him have a really nice year. Maybe a doubling in expected goals and expected assists while his overachievement in each tails off just a bit would see him as maybe a five goal, seven assist guy on the year, and as a similarly-crucial cog on a more productive offense.