Nashville SC announced on Friday the signing of Randall Leal, a 22-year-old attacking midfielder for Saprissa and the Costa Rican national team. Our Davey Shepherd sat down with Nashville SC general manager Mike Jacobs to talk about the signing and how he fits in with the club's plans for Major League Soccer. The below is an abbreviated version of our conversation - you can listen to our entire discussion on our podcast episode coming out tonight.
Davey Shepherd: What can you tell us about Randall Leal, not just as a player but as a person?
Mike Jacobs: It’s interesting, the idea of following players from abroad here in the US, because even when you think of guys who come into our league from other countries, players like Diego Valeri in Portland or Sebastian Giovinco in Toronto, those are pretty prominent players in their home countries. Maybe because of a lack of exposure here in the states, people didn’t know much about them. I think similar to Hany [Mukhtar]’s signing, the idea of someone like Randall’s pedigree and the exposure he’s had in his country, both domestically and with his national team (Costa Rica), he’s a pretty exciting prospect, not only in Costa Rica but in CONCACAF in general.
Shepherd : How did Leal get on Nashville SC’s radar?
Jacobs: I’d love to tell you that Randall is an under the radar hidden gem, but he’s a pretty prominent name in CONCACAF. For our staff as we started prepping for the Gold Cup, the idea was to try and look at some young prospects that we think might be available. Chance Myers, our chief scout, did a really good job early on as we shortlisted certain positions to identify a player like Randall, who was not only available, but might be attainable for us to acquire. He’s someone who we’ve tracked pretty closely in his games with Saprissa. I had the chance to watch him play live in the Gold Cup against Haiti in New Jersey, and I think pretty quickly for us we had a chance watching him playing in Saprissa against guys who have played MLS and in the Gold Cup, playing with guys who were currently playing in the league and against guys currently in the league, to see him stand out with and against players like that. Pretty quickly we were able to see that he was somebody who would have a positive effect on our group in Major League Soccer.
Shepherd: How do you see his flexibility as a player, and how do you see him fitting in with the attacking core already signed for MLS?
Jacobs: Well first, I would hate to pigeon hole or diminish Randall’s value by saying he’s only a left winger. I describe him as an attacking midfielder, because he’s versatile and flexible enough to play on either flank or as a 10 or even a center forward as well. Randall’s a very flexible and versatile attacking midfielder who can help the team in a number of roles. Having a player like Randall along with Hany [Mukhtar], you can get a glimpse of our expectations of how we want to play, having two dynamic attacking players in our midfield. I would say that in comparison to David Accam, David’s an out and out winger. He’s arguably the fastest player in MLS. His game is based on picking up the ball and running past guys, or getting past guys off the ball by picking up good spots behind. I think Randall has great pace also and has the ability to do some of those things, but I don’t know anyone else in the league who’s as fast as David – it would be unfair to compare them. I think their games balance each other out really well.
Shepherd: We’ve now seen Hany and Randall stay with their current clubs before joining Nashville in January. What’s the thought process for those guys staying in those leagues?
Jacobs: A lot of that shortlisting, headed by Chance Myers and our director of strategy and analytics Oliver Miller-Farrell, they look at the attributes we’re looking for as a staff through talking with Gary Smith, myself, assistant GM Ally McKay. We look at certain attributes we want to have as a team, and then we go out and try to identify players we think fit those profiles. We look at leagues that we think translate well to our league. We look at countries where we think players can assimilate and settle in to our country. That helped us in regards to both Hany and Randall... For us, watching these guys play in Germany or Portugal or Denmark in Hany’s case, or in Randall’s case, a player who has gone abroad in Belgium and now plays in Saprissa in Costa Rica, we felt both these guys displayed characteristics and qualities as players and as people that would fit in well in MLS and in Nashville. Hany is German by nationality and primarily German speaking. Randall is Costa Rican by nationality and Spanish speaking. The ability to have players who are bilingual, or in some cases speak more than two languages, it going to aid the cohesion of our team on and off the field.
Shepherd: Can you talk at all about Leal’s status in terms of a Young DP/TAM player, or is that something you’ll decide on later?
Jacobs: The reality is that Major League Soccer is about as complicated a league to be able to acquire players and fit them into a roster as anywhere in the world... The fact that David Accam had been a DP and was bought down to TAM when he was in Philadelphia not only made him an asset for us on the field, but created some flexibility with him - he can fit into a variety of different spots. As we try to find a way to get the best players possible for our team, having roster flexibility is very important. To be a Young DP, it’s not just how much money you want to spend, you have to be at a certain cache or status, at a certain level of experience, for the league to designate you in one of those roles. Randall has to be paid at a certain level, but the fact that he has the flexibility to be considered a Young DP or a TAM player is really, really important for us. Those decisions won’t be made until Roster Compliance day which is much closer to the start of the season. I think fans of Nashville Soccer Club should feel really good about the fact that not only have we added two players in David and Randall that have the ability to be considered designated players, they should also be happy that we have the roster and cap flexibility to move those guys to DP or Young DP or TAM spots to add the type of players you would want on your team.
Shepherd: It’s notable that this is another MLS signing who’s not a defender. Can you talk about your strategy for building an MLS roster under a coach who’s garnered the moniker of being a “defensive coach”?
Jacobs: When you look at how expansion teams traditionally hemorrhage goals in MLS, if Gary’s going to carry the moniker of a defensive coach, I’m really thankful that our coach is going to focus on not conceding goals. I’m really happy about that. When you look at the team Gary has worked with in USL this season and in Colorado in MLS, those teams were never short on goals. When you see how we went from an expansion team in USL to one of the top scorers in USL in year two, I’d like to think the system and model of play he’s implemented will create and promote creating and finishing scoring chances... I think fans who appreciate and are excited about watching a team that is involved in attacking soccer have to be happy about signings like Mukhtar and Leal in our group. We talk a lot about “Nashville SC DNA”, it’s equally about guys like Hany and now Randall, as great as they are at creating scoring chances, they’re also guys who work really hard and play really hard on both sides of the ball. For us, we’ve tried to demonstrate whenever we talk about NSC DNA is that the best way to represent this city is to compete to win at all times. The best way to do that is to be an exciting team, to let fans watch a team that fights hard to compete and fights hard to create and finish chances. When you see another piece like Randall being added, you see another piece being added that fits that DNA we talk about.
Thanks to Mike Jacobs for talking with us. Make sure to listen to our full conversation on our latest podcast, available tonight (September 9) on our website or your favorite podcast app.