Leonel Miranda’s love for his family is audible in his words and visible on his body, where the names of his sisters and parents are tattooed alongside motivational phrases in small, ornate lettering.
Everyone needs a support network when they move far from home and the 21-year-old winger relies on his family from Argentina and his girlfriend, Melina, who is with him in Houston.
Amid some challenging moments, Melina’s guidance, his determination to improve and his belief in destiny have helped him acclimatize to MLS and the fruits of that growing comfort level are easy to see on the field.
Owen Coyle’s side produced one of their best performances of the season last Saturday, beating the Los Angeles Galaxy 3-0 at BBVA Compass Stadium. Making his fourth MLS start and completing 90 minutes for the first time, Miranda was one of the spark plugs that electrified the attack. He capped off the night with a composed finish on a late breakaway.
It was a game that showed why the small, speedy wide man — who joined in January on a season-long loan from the Buenos Aires giants, Independiente — is so highly rated.
Miranda has had to be patient and work in the shadows for much of the season, honing his game on the training field and sitting on the substitutes’ bench. He started two of the first four matches of the campaign but made a solitary eight-minute substitute appearance, against Toronto FC, in the ten MLS fixtures between April 11 and June 5.
“Those two months were becoming an eternity. It’s very easy to become very self-critical and overthink things as to what you’re doing wrong, what you could be doing better,” he said at Houston Sports Park through a translator.
“In my situation I have my girlfriend who lives with me and I consult with her all the time, I say what I could be doing better, where is it I’m failing, knowing that with her advice — and coming in and being ready to play and train to the best of my abilities and to also give a little bit more every day, to try and improve each and every day — that I was going to be fine. Luckily Owen saw that and put me on the field and I’ve been able to repay that trust.”
He said that Melina is “my companion, she’s my confidante. It’s extremely important to have her with me. She’s learned a lot about football so whenever I talk to her and ask her opinion she’s able to give an answer as to where I could be improving or what I’m doing wrong, so for me it’s extremely important to have her with me and to be able to share with her and have someone that I can confide in. She knows my good days, my bad days.”
Miranda also called on his innate optimism to help him through. “Things happen when and how they’re supposed to, not a minute sooner, and I’ve always been a firm believer of that,” he said. “With me I’ve always been of the thought that if I continue to do what I’m supposed to do, if I take care of myself, follow instructions, good things are going to happen. Eventually things are going to be OK. So the transition took as long as it should have taken and not a minute more.”
One of those good things happened on the evening of June 17, when Miranda started against the Austin Aztex in the U.S. Open Cup and scored his first Dynamo goal in the 24th minute, running clear to slot the ball calmly past the goalkeeper. He credits that game, that goal, with being a catalyst.
“The Open Cup game was definitely a page-turner for me. It was one of those where I was sitting on the bench for a while, I wasn’t getting anything done, and then I got the opportunity to play and score and I was able to turn things around, it gave me a lot of confidence and it’s something that allowed me to build from there,” he said.
Miranda started the next game, away to the Portland Timbers, and has made appearances in each of the past four MLS matches, seizing his chances amid absences caused by the Gold Cup, Copa America and injuries. He said that Coyle, the head coach, has been supportive throughout.
“It’s very comforting to know that Owen has my back, that he likes me. I know the football is very different [in MLS], there was a transitional period there at the beginning but it’s good to know he has had plans for me since the get-go,” he said.
Coyle believes that while inexperienced players need to be challenged and urged to constantly improve, patience is also key as they adjust in their job and their home life. “I think he’s always done well when it’s been asked of him but I do accept that it’s been limited in terms of starting every week,” he said.
“When you bring in young talented players from different countries, it’s a culture change. There’s a transition from how different leagues play and everything else, and the one thing I’ve said consistently is that sometimes it takes a while for that to come to fruition.
“He’s got loads of stuff to improve on, he knows that, but in the last three or four weeks he’s showed consistently that he can bring it on a weekly basis when asked upon and that’s the thing for the Leonel Mirandas, the Mauro Manotas', the young ones that come in, that they continue to prove their development and they’re able to bring consistency … I always equate it with a ladder — they’ve just got to continue taking steps up the rungs of the ladder to eventually reach the very top.”
Coyle is stressing the importance of consistency to the team generally as August arrives and the Dynamo look to produce a series of wins to propel them into the Western Conference playoff places in the final third of the regular season.
As the Dynamo look to climb the standings with three points on the road to Sporting Kansas City on Saturday, (7:30 p.m. CT, ROOT SPORTS), there seems no doubt that Miranda is on the rise.
Tom Dart is a contributing writer to HoustonDynamo.com and HoustonDashSoccer.com. Former editor and reporter for The Times of London and reporter for SI.com, Dart currently freelances for The Guardian.