Boston-area native Patrick Leal has joined a growing movement of American teens leaving the comforts of home to play soccer in Europe.
Leal, who is 15 years old and spent one year with the New England Revolution youth academy, officially joined Portuguese powerhouse Sporting CP on Tuesday.
Lisa Ganley, Leal’s mother, moved to Lisbon, while her husband, Dom, remained home in Newton, Mass. Leal’s twin brother, Matthew, is also in Portugal. He joined Sacavenense, a lower division team also affiliated with Sporting CP.
The Leal boys have replaced high school classes with a private tutor and left friends and family behind, making the transatlantic move for one reason: they believe they can represent their country at the highest levels of world soccer.
“This is something I wanted to do and my parents have supported me,” Patrick Leal said Wednesday during a phone interview from Lisbon. “A lot of players are leaving the U.S. and going over because I think they see that there’s an opportunity.
“And, of course, there’s Christian Pulisic. He was [young], like me, when he left to go play in Germany and he’s had a lot of success.”
Young American players have been making the move to Europe since the 1990s, but most have been of college age. John O’Brien, a former U.S. national team midfielder, is a pioneer for prospects like Leal. He left California at 17 in 1994 to sign with Ajax.
Pulisic is the new gold standard. The Hershey, Penn., native moved to Germany in 2015, when he was 16, and rose through Borussia Dortmund’s youth academy. He’s now starting for the first team as a midfielder, setting up and scoring goals in Bundesliga and Champions League matches. Now 20, Pulisic is largely considered to be the United States’ best active player.
Leal, who is also a midfielder, has a long way to go to reach Pulisic’s level, but is on a similar path.
Sporting CP coaches have already allowed Leal to train with 16-year-olds, which is unusual for European academies. Typically, prospects don’t jump to the next age group to avoid over-compensating with physicality rather than training by mostly leaning on tactics.
“I’m on a one-year contract, but the coaches have told me that they see a lot of potential,” Leal said. “They’ve allowed me to start training with s, so that’s been really great.
“Overall, it’s been really exciting. Just coming into the club, knowing that Figo and Cristiano Ronaldo walked through the Sporting CP doors, like I did, is amazing.”
Leal scored seven goals in 25 appearances for the New England Revolution’s under-14 team during the 2016-17 season. He opted not to return after one year so he could move to Portugal (he spent one year with Belenenses before signing with Sporting).
The Revolution declined to comment on their former youth player’s departure.
“There’s no bad blood,” Ganley said. “We left on good terms. We just chose not to return.”
Leal credits the Revolution’s academy for helping his development.
“I thought the coaching staff was very supportive and that their trainings really prepared me for soccer in Europe at the academy level,” he said.
The U.S. men’s national team is seeing a new generation of players replace some of the veterans, such as Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, and Michael Bradley, from the last 10 years. Leal, who is also eligible to play for Portugal thanks to his EU passport, should be well nearing his peak by 2026, when the U.S. is slated to co-host the FIFA World Cup.
Leal recognizes that his career is just starting, but has clearly targeted playing at an elite level. The path he’s on isn’t too different from that of current USMNT players, such as Pulisic and Weston McKennie, who left the FC Dallas academy, also after one year, to sign with Schalke 04 in Germany.
McKennie, a midfielder who’s now 20, scored his first competitive goal on European soil in a 1-0 Champions League victory against Lokomotiv Moscow on Wednesday. Later this month, he’ll join the national team for friendlies against Colombia and Peru.
So when you look at the situation from that lens, the Leals’ decision to uproot their lives and move to Portugal isn’t so crazy.
“Some people think we are,” Ganley said laughing. “But this is the decision we’ve made for our sons. The weather here is also still really warm.”