All Hail Ledesma!

FC Cincinnati’s breakout goal-scorer has become the talk of the league, and even Spain.

La Masia, FC Barcelona’s youth academy, is a renowned setting in soccer circles, having served as a cultivation ground for some of the famed club’s brightest stars over the decades, most of whom eventually became known by a single name to fans: Puyol, Xavi, Piqué, Cesc, Iniesta, Messi. Before Pep Guardiola racked up trophies coaching Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and Manchester City, he plied his trade as a young player at La Masia.

Add FC Cincinnati midfielder Emmanuel Ledesma to that distinguished list. Alright, I’m bluffing. But a Ledesma fan was recently spotted at La Masia by a traveling FC Cincinnati supporter, a fun happening that serves as an indication for just how good things are going for FCC and Ledesma, a front-runner for United Soccer League MVP.

Ledesma has scored 16 goals this year, many of which have been delivered in picturesque style. Take FC Cincinnati’s USL regular season title-clinching victory over Richmond last week. After the hosts leveled the game 1-1 in the 32nd minute, Ledesma scored twice in a span of five minutes just before halftime. First, he scored off a corner kick—or what’s called an “olimpico” in soccer circles—a feat of technique that rarely occurs in professional matches. Just a few minutes later, he completed his brace with a thundering strike across the 18-yard box. (That one was reminiscent of his golazo from damn near the sideline earlier in the season.)

The sweet-shooting lefty isn’t just a goal scorer, by any means. He’s racked up a USL record 15 assists, too, meaning the playmaker has been involved in 31 of FC Cincinnati’s 69 goals. According to The Enquirer, Ledesma is the first player in the USL’s eight-year history to notch 15 goals and 15 assists in a season.

FC Cincinnati is the latest stop on what’s been a career-long soccer odyssey for the 30-year-old Argentinian. Ledesma began his senior career 10 years ago with Genoa, an Italian club. Over the next handful of years, he made appearances with various teams across Argentina, England, and Italy. His most notable stretch was with English club Middlesbrough from 2012 to 2015, where he collected 56 appearances. He spent the 2016 campaign playing in Greece before moving stateside.

A year ago, Ledesma was named to the North American Soccer League’s Best XI while suiting up for the New York Cosmos, logging 10 goals, six assists, and a league-best 73 chances created in just 21 appearances. (Two of Ledesma’s current teammates, Nazmi Albadawi and Richie Ryan, also made the Best XI.)

Ledesma joined FC Cincinnati in January to the delight of local fans, and quite obviously he’s been an instant success, ranking up with—and maybe ahead of—Sean Okoli for the top signing in club history. (Okoli, a striker, scored a league-best 16 goals in 2016 and was named USL MVP.) Ledesma is one of the handful of FCC players who can feel pretty secure about a roster spot when the club makes the jump to Major League Soccer in 2019.

Ledesma earned a well-deserved rest last weekend during FC Cincinnati’s 3-0 victory over Indy Eleven, a result that pushed the Orange and Blue’s unbeaten stretch to 21 games (17-0-4) and its winning streak to a league record 10 matches. With the playoffs just two weeks away, his influence will go a long way to determining if FC Cincinnati can snap the city’s streak of playoff non-advancement. If he plays a key role in that possible breakthrough achievement, Ledesma’s profile will only continue to rise.

Grant Freking is the associate editor for Signs of the Times magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @GrantFreking.

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