Making Manu

In 11 years, Emmanuel Ledesma has played for 15 professional clubs in five countries across three continents. But not until now has he finally found his home.

“I found my spot in the world,” Ledesma said. “I said to my wife, ‘This is my place.’ I feel so good here. I love this city because it’s a family city and my family loves this city.”

If Manu is anything, he’s passionate. His emotion pours out in his words, his actions and the way the Argentinean winger plays the game. Everything is tinged with a bit of romanticism, but perhaps nothing is more passionate than his love for Cincinnati and the city’s embrace of him.

Playing for a club that embodies itself in hard work, providing opportunities and watching players flourish, no player this season personifies that identity more.

In a year that’s hardly gone to plan for anyone, Ledesma’s campaign hasn’t been perfect. But, it’s one that’s consistently improved.

From not seeing the field early in the year to mid-season injuries, the Argentinean has recovered to become FCC’s hottest player this summer.

Even with his penalty miss last weekend against New York City FC, in the last nine matches, Ledesma has four goals and three assists in MLS play. Including 2019 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup action, he has four assists.

“I work every single day really hard,” he said. “I show every day to this coach and the past coach that I am ready. Now, they understand me. When they gave me that first opportunity to play, I gave my all and showed them that I was ready and I am ready. I don’t want to miss my opportunity.”

Manu entered the 2019 MLS season following the best year of any Orange and Blue player ever.

His 16 USL goals tied the franchise record, and his 16 assists set the league’s new single-season record. So, it wasn’t a surprise when he was named the USL MVP and earned a spot on FC Cincinnati’s inaugural first-tier roster.

“It’s amazing because it’s something I’ve been working forward to since a long time ago,” Ledesma said days before Cincinnati’s season-opener in Seattle. “To finally have the papers to sign and be part of MLS, it’s incredible. It made me feel so good and so happy because I’m proud for me. I’ve been in the high levels and I’ve been down. Now I have a chance to be in the high levels again after working really, really hard to be part of this team and this league.”

So far, he’s taken that chance, but it wasn’t handed to him.

Manu’s role fluctuated as a rotational player under former head coach Alan Koch. As Koch deployed different tactics and formations, Ledesma was typically a player affected by the changes.

After not playing the first two games, he played the final five minutes of the home opener and started at the New England Revolution on March 24 when teammates were away on international duty. Then he got injured, however, and didn’t play again until April 27.

Manu’s role grew under interim Head Coach Yoann Damet, though.

Part out of necessity, part out of a new playing philosophy, the Argentinean became a regular starter for FC Cincinnati. Naturally, his play looked more and more comfortable, and success followed.

That’s led to the present. Ledesma has started the past two games under new Head Coach Ron Jans. In Jans’ first game at the helm – the 2-2 draw at Columbus Crew SC on Aug. 10 – the winger scored midway through the first half to double Cincinnati’s lead.

Earlier this summer, General Manager Gerard Nijkamp said FCC needed to add depth on the wings. On the summer transfer deadline day, two players – Joe Gyau and Derrick Etienne Jr. ­– were added, and yet Ledesma, to this point, has kept his role.

Maybe this isn’t a surprise. After all, just look at his quality last season. But after a slow start to 2019, Ledesma is happy and plays in a style that represents that.

On the ball, he’s confident and isn’t afraid of taking an extra touch to pinpoint a cross. While the other wingers might be faster, perhaps there’s no one else on the team with the same accuracy for where he can place the ball. Naturally, that explains why he frequently takes the club’s free kicks and penalties.

FC Cincinnati fans spent 2018 watching Manu excel. This season, they’ve seen him grow and adjust to a new league – and a return to playing in a first division for the first time since 2016 with Panetolikos in Greece. Before that, it was 2011 in Argentina with Defensia y Justicia.

“Football is an amazing sport because you can be at a level that’s really, really low, but if you’re working very hard and you be positive, you can be so high,” Ledesma said.

The reigning USL MVP’s career hasn’t always seen him shine.

Just a few years ago, he bounced between clubs in England trying to stick and make an impression. Once he did, there was always another move elsewhere.

In truth, that’s basically how his whole professional career has gone.

“I left my house when I was a 16-year-old,” he said. “I had to go by myself to Italy to go follow my dreams and work hard. I’ve been in some tough moments and I’ve had to work very, very hard to get out of those moments. It means a lot to me, but I don’t think the fans know that.”

Just prior to the 2017 season, Ledesma signed with the New York Cosmos in the NASL. The move was his first to an American club, and not one just to play in New York City, but one that could relaunch his playing career on a new continent.

“When I signed my contract with the Cosmos coach and sporting director, I said to them, ‘I want to go up, up, up,’” he said.

Up meant MLS.

After the NASL folded following that season, Ledesma and a handful of other NASL All-Stars opted for a chance to play at FC Cincinnati, a club that was stockpiling talent to win a USL championship – and the frontrunner to join MLS.

His arrival in Cincinnati didn’t happen by chance. But once he got here, he proved the quality that his still offers, despite being 31 years old.

“At that moment I signed with the Cosmos, I worked really hard every single day until now to be in MLS,” he said. “Now, I’m here.”

Ledesma is in the league he dreamed of playing in with his family happier than at any point in his career.

No wonder he finally feels at home.

“Benjamin, my older son, he found a lot of friends,” he said. “My wife, too. My [younger] one is starting to go to school and get happiness with all the different students. Also, I’ve made a lot of friends here and I feel so good here. I don’t want to move.

“I want to stay here the rest of my life,” he added. “I want to move here and just go to Argentina on vacation.”