When Richie Ledezma finished off his recent standout performance for Jong PSV against Jong AZ, which included two goals and an assist, he figured to hear plenty of congratulatory messages.
One of the first came in person, in his locker room, from an enthusiastic former coach who couldn’t wait to let Ledezma know how happy he was.
“Dale cabron” said Ruud Van Nistelrooy, the Dutch legend and PSV U-19 coach who was Ledezma’s first coach at the Dutch powerhouse, as he enthusiastically congratulated his former player. Van Nistelrooy has long been a believer in Ledezma’s quality, and also knew full well what the young American had endured in the past year to get to that point.
A year ago, Ledezma was a young American prospect still unsure where his professional career would begin. A skilled attacking midfielder capable of playing as a number 10 or number 8, Ledezma was torn between signing with Real Salt Lake as the team’s latest academy product, or pursuing his dream of succeeding in Europe. Ledezma eventually chose Europe and PSV, but a cruel twist of fate threatened to ruin the plans.
Shortly after reaching a handshake agreement with PSV to sign with the club in the winter, Ledezma returned to Phoenix eager to start working on his game so he would be ready for the move.
“I got back from the Netherlands, from my trial, and I went to the park,” Ledezma told SBI. “They said I need to work on my left foot so obviously I’m going to work on my left foot, so I went to the park with my dad and I was just working on my left foot. I planted my foot to shoot with my left, and I planted my right foot and it just kind of twisted. I was still good, still running, and after a while I thought something doesn’t feel right.
“Then after 20 minutes I couldn’t feel my right foot, like something was wrong,” Ledezma said. “So I went straight to the emergency room and they told me I had a fracture on my foot.”
At that point in his career Ledezma hadn’t endured any sort of long-term injury, so the uncertainty of a broken foot left him worried that the future he had lined up at PSV would fall apart.
“I was really scared because it was 100 percent that I was going to sign, but before I got injured,” Ledezma said. “But (PSV) were really nice about it, and they said ‘We still want you”, but I was scared that I wouldn’t be the same I guess. I’d never got injured that bad, even though it wasn’t that bad, but that long.”
Ledezma wound up spending seven months on the sidelines, a period of time that included the Concacaf Under-20 Championships, a tournament he had been expected to star in for the United States. U.S. coach Tab Ramos had long been touting Ledezma as one of the best players on his team, but the broken foot left Ledezma out, leaving him to watch the tournament via online stream.
Ledezma had plenty of reason to celebrate when the U.S. U-20s won the Concacaf title, and qualified for the World Cup. It gave him a new target to shoot for.
“When we qualified for the World Cup I was happy, but then I thought ‘Oh shoot, I’ve got to step up because now there’s players in my position who could take my spot easily’,” Ledezma said.
The emergence of central midfielders Brandon Servania and Frankie Amaya, along with the star performances by Alex Mendez, suddenly left Ledezma a bit of a forgotten piece to the U.S. Under-20 puzzle, but it also served to motivate him as he pushed to make it back in time for the Under-20 World Cup.
There was still the matter of recovering from the foot injury. Ledezma spent three more months sidelined, unable to even kick a ball. He credits Van Nistelrooy with helping keep him focused and engaged through the emotionally-taxing process.
“He would motivate me, push me, and he would tell me ‘be patient. your time will come’,” Ledezma said.
Ledezma eventually recovered enough to play for PSV’s Under-19 team, with Van Nistelrooy making him a starter and instilling confidence in the young playmaker, who admits now to having been surprised by how the former Manchester United star embraced his game.
“I just didn’t think he’d accept me to the team that fast. He trusted me,” Ledezma said. “He was like ‘You can play football. You have that Mexican flair.’ That got me motivated to show him that I do.”
Ledezma rewarded that faith by scoring the first time Van Nistelrooy started him, which also happened to come right before Ramos announced his roster for the Under-20 World Cup. It was no guarantee Ledezma would make that team, but Ramos selected him, even though it was clear he wasn’t close to 100 percent yet.
“It was an amazing feeling, even just getting on the 20-man roster,” Ledezma said. “I really worked hard because I really wanted to go to the World Cup. That was my main goal last season, to go to the U-20 World Cup.
“Even though I didn’t play that many minutes, I thought I played well,” Ledezma said. “It was a really good feeling, My family went to go watch. It was good to see they were out there supporting me and I was making them proud.”
Ledezma began the tournament on the bench, playing sparingly in the group stage, but Ramos turned to Ledezma in the biggest match of the World Cup, the Round of 16 clash against tournament favorite France.
“At first when he said I was starting, I was nervous obviously because it’s a big stage,” Ledeza said. “It felt amazing. I was turning on people, doing what I used to do. It felt good being out there on the field. It was maybe my fourth or third game back, so it felt really good.
“At halftime I was dead. I even told Tab, and he said ‘Can you give me 15 more minutes’ and I said ‘of course’.”
Ledezma shined on the big stage, playing well against the high-powered France team, delivering an assist on the U.S. team’s first goal in an eventual 3-2 upset victory, and showing why he had been such a highly-regarded prospect before the foot injury.
Richard Ledesma and Sebastian Soto combined for the USA’s opening goal in their Round of 16 game against U-20 World Cup favorites France.
It’s currently 1-1 at halftime. Don’t miss the second half LIVE on FS2! pic.twitter.com/rykdFBpjfY
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 4, 2019
Ledezma’s Under-20 World Cup performance was a high point for him, but his focus quickly turned to returning to PSV and his next goal, making his first-team debut. He has already made the move from the U-19 team to becoming part of PSV’s second team, the Dutch second division side Jong PSV.
Much like his first start for PSV’s U-19s, Ledezma marked his first start with Jong PSV by scoring, only this time he netted two goals along with delivering an assist on September 13th, just a week after his 19th birthday.
The highlight of the month wasn’t that standout performance though, it was when Ledezma was moved to the PSV first team for a friendly against FC Cologne.
“My first touch of the game, I lost (the ball). I was really nervous,” Ledezma told SBI. “It was shocking playing against first team players, but after a while I started getting rhythm and get counters in. (PSV manager Mark van Bommel) actually put me at my position so he trusted me.
“My goal is obviously to make my debut in the Eredivisie so that was a good experience for me.”
Ledezma will also be hoping to have his play attract the attention of U.S. Under-23 national team coach Jason Kreis. Ledezma wasn’t part of the U-23 team’s most recent camp, a fact that he admits he wasn’t happy about, but one he admits to having motivated him heading into his recent strong run with Jong PSV.
“I was a little disappointed, but it happens. You’re not always going to get what you want,” said Ledezma. “I tried to put myself out there on Friday, so now I’m trying to put myself out there the next game, and keep going. this month is a really big month.”
Ledezma recently made headlines when he revealed to SBI that the Mexican Federation had reached out to him about potentially representing Mexico. He has not ruled out the possibility of playing for Mexico, but admits to still being eager to earn his next U.S. call-up, potentially in October with the U-23 team.
After the lengthy injury ordeal he endured to start the year, Ledezma is finally back to full fitness, as evidenced by the consecutive 90-minute performances he turned in with Jong PSV last week, including a full match against Jong Ajax and fellow Americans Alex Mendez and Joshua Pynadath.
Ledezma is back to his best, only now he is more mature and more determined after what he has already had to endure. His recent performances suggest he is ready to realize the potential that has had coaches from Ruud Van Nistelrooy to Tab Ramos raving about him all this time.