EINDHOVEN, Netherlands -- Young midfielder Richy Ledezma had just completed his first full contact session in nearly a year. It was with the Under-19s; the 21-year-old was smiling, his teeth chattering in the cold and rain on the balcony of PSV Eindhoven's training centre as he talked it through.
One of the youngsters had given him a kick, the bandage visible about 10 centimetres below the 11-month-old scar on his right knee. It needed patching up, but the throbbing from his shin was as much affirmation as it was pain.
"This has been a good day," Ledezma says. His leg had held together. "It's probably the best day of my life, right now."
The story behind that scar left Ledezma at his lowest. A year ago, he was just breaking through into the PSV first team and was on course for more U.S. national team appearances after a promising debut, against Panama, in November 2020. Then, his world came crashing down on Dec. 11, 2020. Ledezma only refers to the injury as "it." Over the 12 months that followed, he navigated the mental and physical challenges of a serious injury, but he came out of it with a greater appreciation of who he is.
On Monday, Ledezma returned to the pitch. This is the story of his comeback.
'And then "it" happened'
We're talking in early November at De Herdgang, PSV's training complex on the outskirts of Eindhoven, deep in the heart of the Langoed de Wielewaal forest. The first-team had just finished its preparations ahead of a trip to AS Monaco in the Europa League. (That game would finish 0-0.) Ledezma, 21, is remembering how 11 months previous, he was part of that group preparing for a first Europa League start.
It was set to be one of the biggest matches of his life; he'd already been capped for the USMNT in their friendly against Panama in November 2020, but European competitions were what you'd dream about when playing FIFA, or the type you quickly compartmentalize as you don't want to get carried away.
"To me it was a normal game. ... Obviously, I was excited, but you have to approach it like anything else," Ledezma tells ESPN. "If you don't, yeah, stuff can happen. And I just had to play, you know, the way I've been playing. So that's what I was doing. And then 'it' happened."
The game Ledezma's thinking about was a home tie with AC Omonia on Dec. 10, 2020. PSV started as heavy favourites against the team from Cyprus; Ledezma was playing on the right side of midfield, partnering Mohamed Ihattaren in their 4-2-2-2 formation. While players like Donyell Malen (now at Borussia Dortmund) and Denzel Dumfries (Inter Milan) were clearly ready to move to bigger clubs, Ledezma was just finding his feet in the first team. The match marked just his second start for the senior team, and his sixth appearance.
PSV ended up winning 4-0, but Ledezma didn't get to enjoy it; in the 16th minute, he went toe to toe with winger Loizos Loizou on the touchline. "I kind of slid, and he landed on top of my knee," Ledezma says.
With the stadiums empty due to the coronavirus pandemic, Ledezma's mom, Carolina, and father, Jorge, were watching back home in Phoenix, Arizona.
"I was hoping it was nothing, trying to stay positive: My husband said Richy was really hurt, but we were hoping it wasn't serious," Carolina says. The family knew all about serious knee injuries given that their eldest child, Richy's sister Irene, had torn both of her ACLs. (Irene plays soccer at Arizona Christian University and is due to graduate in the spring.) "We got a phone call right away [from Irene] saying, 'That's his ACL.' She knows the feeling, and the way she saw him in pain, she automatically knew."
Ledezma's version of events are based on what others have told him. "Have you watched it back?" I ask. "No, I don't like to," Ledezma says. "I knew right away it wasn't right. It wasn't good. Just the way I felt after the game. Yeah ... just a moment, honestly. ... I was on the ground. I couldn't get up, I knew right away something big had happened to me."
He was stretchered off, feeling "mentally destroyed." He called his parents. "As a parent you want to be there for them in moments like that one," Carolina says. "Just being so far away didn't give us the ability to be there for him. It would have been nice for us to be there for him, both emotionally and physically."
A couple of days later, Richy received the news: He'd ruptured the ACL in his right knee and would be out for nearly a year. "I called my mom straightaway," he says. Carolina remembers that phone call and hearing her son break down on the phone.
"He was just starting to feel like he was accomplishing his dreams and boom, they came crashing down."
How Ledezma made it to PSV
Richy and Carolina joke about how when he refers to "home," it means Eindhoven, usually split between his apartment and the training ground. "It's nice," he says. "I mean, what else do you want? Trees around you, the pitch is nice. Everything is beautiful. Facilities are nice."
Ledezma is part of a golden generation of American players breaking through around Europe. They're all roughly the same age, dotted across the continent. Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams are the marquee names, but players like Sergino Dest (at Jong Ajax, now Barcelona), Chris Richards (Bayern Munich) and Timothy Weah (Paris Saint-Germain, now Lille) are also making a mark. Ledezma is part of the next wave just getting started on that path.
Ledezma's journey began in Phoenix as the second oldest of four children, along with Irene and his two younger sisters, Jackie and Leslie. After coming through the ranks at Valparaiso United, he impressed for their United Soccer League Championship (USL) affiliate, Real Monarchs, and was named West Conference U-18/19 Player of the Year in 2018. RSL and Granada both approached Ledezma, but PSV in the Dutch Eredivisie appealed most to his family and his agent, ex-striker and Jamaica international Damani Ralph. They felt he'd be well-suited to the Dutch academy system, and a good fit for PSV's culture and style of play.
After a successful trial in the summer of 2018, he signed for the Eredivisie side in December that year. PSV scouts were taken by his "eagerness to learn and his determination to make the most of his chances." Ruud van Nistelrooy, the PSV youth-team manager, was also impressed. "He's making a difference in midfield with very quick-thinking passes, movement, can score a goal, play people in, he's creating chances for the whole team -- so a very promising talent," he said in 2018.
Ledezma had spent the previous two years away from home in Utah, but shifting from the U.S. to the Netherlands was a different challenge. "I mean, it wasn't an easy process," Ledezma said. "I had to have my mom [helping me for the] first couple of months, and my dad [Jorge] would switch on and off, you know. After a while, I just got comfortable."
His slight frame and polite demeanour off the pitch contrasts with him being one of the louder players on the field; he's proud to give as good as he gets. He's also versatile: PSV have used him down the right, as both a winger and right-centre midfielder, but he's projected to settle more in the middle like his idol Andres Iniesta. He played for PSV's U-19s, and then Jong PSV (the reserve side, who play in the second tier of Dutch football). He was called up by the U.S. for the 2019 Under-20 World Cup, and by March 2020, PSV had extended his deal through to June 2022.
"They told me I had potential to go to the first team, then I just had to work hard and you know, get to where I'm at now," Ledezma said. "And it wasn't easy. I did extra weight training, and then there would be extra sessions on the treadmill. It was hard, but I learnt it was all mental.
"They kept pushing me and pushing me, and I kept performing and performing. Until they gave me my debut for the first time."
Ledezma made his first-team debut off the bench against ADO den Haag on Nov. 1, playing 16 minutes and notching an assist in a 4-0 win. Appearances off the bench against PAOK in the Europa League followed, his first start in the Eredivisie in their debut against Sparta Rotterdam, and then that fateful night against AC Omonia.
The first few months were the hardest
Ledezma underwent surgery on Jan. 18, 2021. He came back to the U.S. for the operation, wanting to be closer to home. Dr. Bert Mandelbaum, a world-renowned surgeon who has also worked on other players from the USMNT, performed the procedure. It took just under two hours; the recovery time would be close to a year.
At the start of the recovery process, Ledezma stayed away from football. "I obviously couldn't play, and then every time I'd see my teammates playing, it would make me upset. At first I would watch, as they're my teammates, but it was heartbreaking. I didn't even dream about football."
His family distracted him. They'd be there sometimes as he "let it all out." He kept himself away from the game, spending time with his girlfriend, Paola.
"She helped me a lot -- especially when I was home, because obviously I was with her and with my family. She's my biggest supporter. She's taken care of me many times when I was in bed, didn't want to get up and do something, she would make me get up and go to dinner, whatever the case was, do little activity, go for a walk, the smallest thing, and that's what matters. And that's how, you know, a person really cares for you."
Ledezma remained in the U.S. until June, navigating the turbulence of the recovery process and working out what triggered his mental dips, as well as what helped him escape them. He rationed his social media. It was uplifting to feel the love from supporters and fellow pros who wrote supportive messages, but the youngster was also wary of reading too many posts asking where he was and whether he'd make it back to the pitch.
"I've been trying to stay away from it, and it's helped me a lot with my mental health," he said. One dip came on June 19, when he tweeted: "At my lowest. But I'll be back."
"It was just a moment ... like when you're just, you know, getting all the emotions out," Ledezma says, looking back. "It was just one of those days, you know, I had to let people know and I wanted to feel like people having my back in the way."
His move back to Eindhoven in late June marked the next stage in his recovery, and the sight of his teammates and the training ground marked a new chapter. "That was when my mentality changed ... me wanting to train every day. Working on my physicality, running every day and yeah, just to be back better than ever."
When it happened, the likes of Malen and Dumfries rallied around him, relaying their experiences of what it was like battling back from their own serious injuries. By the time he was back in Eindhoven, they'd just finished up with the Netherlands at Euro 2020 and were preparing for their respective summer transfers. They kept in touch over WhatsApp, checking how his recovery was going, but it was ex-Chelsea midfielder Marco van Ginkel who met with Ledezma early after his return to Holland.
"Marco had three [operations after his ACL injury]. And he says that you're doing well, and, like, to keep pushing them as you're gonna motivate other people."
That day we spoke in early November was a major milestone for Ledezma. It would be his first "contact" training session. He'd have another the following day, back among the first-team squad. Looking back on the recovery process, there were other mini milestones: putting weight on the leg in February, the brace coming off in March and being able to run again in a low-gravity bubble.
"When I could start taking my first steps, it was amazing feeling, just felt like I could do everything again, even though I really couldn't. That's how it felt in the moment ... [but] it was just a good feeling." By June, he was running properly again. The next hurdle to overcome would be his first time back running the pitch. He smiles as he remembers that first touch of the ball in July. "That was a different feeling!" He didn't take a tentative first touch with his left foot, but instead "went straight to my right."
The next step was his return to the first team for non-contact training, which finally came in October. "There were a lot of claps all round. I got the buzz back, and the hard work I'd put into it. The coach [Roger Schmidt] mentioned it to me, the players mentioned it to me. So it had been a good couple of weeks training."
By mid-November he was back with the senior team and by that point, PSV staff were finalizing plans for his first proper competitive match back. They circled Jong PSV's home match against De Graafschap on Dec. 6, nearly a year to the day since "it" happened.
'Just go out and enjoy it'
Having met Ledezma in Eindhoven in November, we spoke again as he inched closer to that comeback match. He was in a reflective mood, but also overflowing with excitement.
The worst injury Ledezma had experienced prior to the ACL injury was a torn metatarsal back in 2018, which kept him sidelined for four months. Back then, he turned to PlayStation and Netflix for comfort. Though he did plough through Netflix in 2021 and spent time on Twitch playing Call of Duty and FIFA, this time around he also focused on growing himself as an individual. He worked on his upper body but also realised the importance of nurturing his mind.
"I suppose I've just learned a lot about myself, my eating [habits] and even with my football, sometimes doing stuff away from soccer, like, stuff like that, small things about myself. It was good. I'm not glad it happened, but there are ways to look at it positively.
"What have been the main lessons? I guess ... just being mentally there, you know, wanting to get up at 7 in the morning to go to the gym. It pays off. It shows people that you want to get back on the pitch, you know, because you need that training on your knee and your legs and your upper body to have that on the pitch. And for me, that was a big life lesson and it's helped me so much. And I've got so much feedback, really positive feedback back, so I could wake up early to do gym."
His mum has also seen a huge change. "He's done a lot of maturing, and that has a lot to do with being out on his own. It forces you to mature," Carolina says. He's also used the time to think about his international future, with both the USMNT and Mexico on his radar. The Panama match was a non-competitive match, non-binding when it comes to his eventual choice. "I can't really comment, but I'm really happy with the USMNT, so we'll see what happens," Ledezma says. He has also made a key addition to his family: Scarlett, a micro goldendoodle, will join his household in January.
Ahead of that Dec. 6 game, Ledezma went about his usual matchday routine. We spoke the week prior, and he said the thought of playing again give him "chills" of excitement -- he didn't care if it was "20 minutes or 45 minutes." First-team manager Schmidt had given him a pep talk: "He said just go out and enjoy it. Roger said don't think about anything else, it's been a long time for you, so just enjoy every, single moment again."
Ledezma had let his parents know in advance that was going to be the likely date, but with his sister Jackie due to give birth any day, Carolina stayed in Phoenix. "I have to be here for her, and also would love to be there for Richy -- he keeps on calling me, saying 'Monday! Monday!' He's so excited."
The Eerste Divisie match was an 8 p.m. local kick off. A couple of hours before it begun, Ledezma arrived at De Herdgang and flicked through his old prematch playlist of J Balvin and Ozuna. Over in Phoenix, Carolina and the family tried to watch the match, but instead relied on Paola's live updates from the windy stadium. Richy was on the bench, but during the break, he was out there on the pitch, skipping over the soaked surface and taking some shots from the edge of the box.
Then, at the start of the second half, he came back on, completing the circle of a yearlong recovery. The ball came to him immediately; he controlled it with his right, skipped past two players with his left and careered off into the middle of the field. PSV would go on to lose 3-2 to a late De Graafschap winner, but Ledezma looked outstanding. He picked apart their defence with some incisive passing and curled one effort just past the far post -- his shout of regret at how close it was echoing around the stands.
The final whistle went, and he was left to wonder quite how Jong PSV hadn't won the match. But he'd come through unscathed. He smiled up at Paola in the stands, headed for the warmth of the changing rooms, taking a moment to draw breath. He called his mom.