From Defensa y Justicia to Cincinnati via Walsall, Rotherham & Brentford: The reinvention of Emmanuel Ledesma

Hugo Greenhalgh

It’s taken a while for Emmanuel Ledesma to find some stability in his career – but at 31, the Argentine journeyman is enjoying top division football once again. With experience playing in five countries across three different continents, Ledesma’s path has been anything but ordinary.

Ledesma now plays for FC Cincinnati, a side who are competing in MLS for the first time this season. Life in the top flight has been a learning curve so far, with Cincinnati struggling to find goals and results. However, Ledesma is back in the side and starting to pick up some form. 

A few weeks ago, Ledesma put in a match-winning performance and provided two assists as Cincinnati beat Houston Dynamo 3-2. The weekend before, he scored his first MLS goal, slotting home past Vancouver Whitecaps goalkeeper Vito Mannone. It was not so long ago that both players were playing in the North East of England; Ledesma for Middlesbrough and Mannone for Sunderland. 

It is those years in England, where Ledesma occasionally dazzled but quickly gained a reputation as a journeyman, for which he is best remembered. Tipped for great things in his native Argentina, where he had come through the youth ranks at Defensa y Justicia in Buenos Aires, Ledesma took the plunge as a teenager, moving to Europe where he signed for Genoa.

There he was sent on loan to QPR and it was not long before the young Argentine was attracting praise. A hat trick against Carlisle in the League Cup early on in his spell at Loftus Road brought comparisons to Lionel Messi and even spawned a memorial t-shirt. 

“Because he’s Argentinian, there are going to be comparisons with Lionel Messi, Diego Maradona, Riquelme and people like that,” his teammate Peter Ramage told the Ealing Gazette after the Carlisle game. “But rightly so, because he can be like that if he wants to be. Hopefully he’ll go on and be a superstar. He’s got the potential to be one.”

Ledesma was part of an outlandish troop of players brought in by QPR’s new ownership group, which pooled the financial resources of Flavio Briatore, Bernie Ecclestone and Lakshmi Mittal. It was a period of cultural crossover for the club as the likes of Ledesma, future Valencia captain and Spanish international Dani Parejo and Fiorentina’s Samuel Di Carmine joined on loan, while Italian veteran Damiano Tommasi signed on a free transfer. All found themselves in west London being managed by Iain Dowie. 

Not one for understatement, Dowie praised Ledesma’s immediate impact on the team. “He’s already a cult hero”, he said following QPR’s 2-1 win over Barnsley.

Yet ultimately Ledesma would enjoy little more than cult status at Loftus Road and his loan spell fizzled out by February when he joined Serie B side Salernitana for the rest of the season. A stint at Novara followed and he would end up never making a first team appearance for Genoa. 

However, this would not be Ledesma’s last appearance on English shores. After a trial at Brighton failed to earn him a permanent contract, he was picked up by Walsall in 2011. Chipping in with one goal to help the Saddlers survive relegation, Ledesma returned to his boyhood club Defensa y Justicia, before coming back to England in March 2012 to re-sign with Walsall. 

His four goals in ten appearances caught the eye of larger suitors and Middlesbrough swooped to bring the man from Quilmes up North. Playing under Tony Mowbray, Ledesma enjoyed his most regular patch of football to date and his new manager was keen to utilise his attacking talent. 

“He is a goal-threat, has great awareness and fantastic ability, particularly in finishing, which we have already seen in training”, Mowbray said of his signing. “I am sure he will be someone the fans can really warm to because he plays with his heart as well…He has a lovely left foot, something people have noticed already”. 

While Ledesma’s time at Boro was by no means a disaster, that ‘lovely left foot’ did not find the net often enough. Despite a good run in the team after Aitor Karanka replaced Mowbray in November 2013, his form was inconsistent. 

His last goal for Boro, an acrobatic volley in the final game of the 2013/14 season against an already relegated Yeovil Town neatly summarised Ledesma’s career to date: occasionally spectacular but ultimately rather meaningless. 

Unsuccessful loans to Rotherham and Brighton followed and he eventually signed for Brentford in August 2016 on a non-contract basis. However, this did not prove to be a fruitful reunion with his former Walsall manager Dean Smith and he left after making just two appearances. 

He turned to Europe again and signed for Panetolikos in Greece. Playing time there also proved to be limited and he was released before Christmas. Ledesma needed to catch a break. Finally, he did and it would come in the form of America’s most iconic club: the New York Cosmos. 

Signing for the Cosmos in the NASL, then the second tier of US soccer, Ledesma was given a chance to rediscover himself and to play under Gio Savarese, a highly respected coach and a Venezuelan who had a knack for finding and nurturing South American talent. Established as an independent division from MLS, the NASL had attracted investment from a number of ambitious owners and had been home to the rebooted Cosmos since 2013. In that time the likes of Raul and Marcos Senna had turned out for them, with Championship titles secured in 2013, 2015 and 2016. 

Ledesma hit the ground running for his new club. His first goal came 69 minutes into his debut away at San Francisco Deltas, an inch perfect Cantona-esque chip over the goalkeeper. Two assists against Puerto Rico in his first home appearance for the Cosmos were enough to convince his new manager he was deserving of a contract extension. 

Savarese was quick to praise Ledesma’s temperament. “He is an amazing person and a friend, someone who will always be there for the players,” he said. That connection was also felt among the Cosmos fanbase, many of whom are drawn from New York’s diverse Latin communities and like Ledesma, still speak – and chant – in Spanish as a first language. That Ledesma was also a Boca Juniors fan was particularly evocative for the Argentinian continent of the Cosmos support, who had brought a number of elements of barra brava culture to the terraces of New York. 

One midsummer night stands out from Ledesma’s season with the Cosmos. At their home ground MCU Park, which they shared with baseball club Brooklyn Cyclones down in Coney Island, the Cosmos were behind 2-1 against Puerto Rico. Returning from a spell on the sidelines, Ledesma was subbed on and had an immediate impact, spanking an overhit corner into the back of the net. Cosmos would go on to win 4-2. 

Steve Hamlin is a New York-based photographer and got to witness a number of great Ledesma moments that season. “Littered with swagger and Ronaldo celebrations, 2017 ‘Manu’ Ledesma was immortal, delivering a level of energy, success, and drive that a fan only dreams shows up at his club”, he recalls fondly. “For a fanbase forlorn with off-pitch issues, hungry for the Galactico success of the 1970s and the first few years of it’s reboot, Ledesma was the perfect fit.”

That ability to make fans dream won over many Cosmos hearts that year. A fourteen-minute hat-trick in the last league game of the season helped propel them to the NASL playoff final, which sadly they would lose 2-0 to San Francisco. 

Cosmos themselves were embroiled in their own battle with the US Soccer Federation over their league status and lost a number of key players after that final. However, Ledesma had gotten a taste for life in the US and signed for FC Cincinnati, a side in the parallel second division the USL. 

There he continued where he had left off and proved to be one of the league’s star performers, so much so that he picked up the USL MVP award in 2018. Finishing the season with 16 goals and 16 assists, Ledesma was finally hitting the early promise he’d shown in his youth. 

The Cincinnati move has proved to be a particularly savvy one as the club were chosen as an expansion team for MLS the following season, essentially “promoting” them to the top division. Danny Samet is co-host of the Neighborhood Play podcast and has enjoyed seeing their USL star mature into a more complete player. 

“It’s been pretty surreal watching Ledesma grow into a legit MLS player”, he says. “Our most common listener question at the beginning of the season was ‘is Manu going to play this week,” so it’s been very cool to see him run with the opportunity.”

Cincy’s first MLS season has been something of a baptism by fire and it was perhaps telling that Ledesma’s first goal would come as a meagre consolation in a 7-1 drubbing. However, the club have did record two wins on the bounce in July and better times may be ahead. 

Tyler Snipes, the other half of Neighborhood Play, feels that Ledesma will be key to Cincinnati’s plans as both player and club look to settle into the higher division. “His versatility across multiple positions and signature wild card style leaves opponents a little uncertain of what he’s going to do next”, he says. “Now that we’re seeing him get some numbers and settle in to the higher tier, there’s no doubt in my mind that he’s a player on the rise with a lot to offer at the MLS level.”

MLS is starting to establish itself as a viable option for South American players who want financial stability early on in their careers but who also view the league as a springboard to European football. Paraguay’s Miguel Almiron is the biggest success story to represent this trend so far, coming directly from the Argentine first division to Atlanta United, where he earned a move to Newcastle. Ledesma has gone against the grain and done it in reverse. For him the jump to Europe probably came too early and instead MLS football is a more suitable environment to wind down his career. 

Of course, the Messi comparison of his earlier years has proved to be wide of the mark. Messi has remained a one club man, winning a slew of trophies at Barcelona and dismantling the record books in the process; Ledesma meanwhile has drifted across international borders, rarely staying put under the same roof. 

And yet as Messi cut a frustrated figure, sent off in the Copa America third place playoff as another international title evaded his grasp, Ledesma was enjoying the hugs and smiles of his Cincinnati teammates as his side recorded a rare MLS win. Finally with some stability in front of him, you’d have to say that Ledesma looked the happier man on this particular occasion. 

Finding solace in football can be notoriously tricky but Ledesma, at long last, appears to be coming close. 

Hugo Greenhalgh is a freelance writer based in South London. He is interested in all aspects of world football and has written for publications including The Guardian, When Saturday Comes and FourFourTwo. He is also the press officer for Dulwich Hamlet FC. 

https://hugogreenhalgh.contently.com/

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