CINCINNATI -- Emmanuel Ledesma says he has been playing soccer the same way since he was a young boy: "With a smile and working hard."
The first-year FC Cincinnati right wing brings a passion to the pitch that's almost as noticeable as his skill.
Both attributes have made Ledesma one of the most highly regarded newcomers to the team early this season, and he will be a key player to watch as FCC hosts the unbeaten Pittsburgh Riverhounds on Saturday.
Ledesma, a former English Championship League player with Middlesbrough, has started all four games on the right flank and has one assist while helping Cincinnati to a 2-1-1 start.
"I just try to enjoy it," Ledesma said of his style. "I smile every single game and try to get three points. I try to create chances for my teammates, create chances for me and defend together and work together as a team, but the most important part is to enjoy.
"It's just my style. When I was 6 or 7 years old, I played the same way. I've always enjoying being with the ball, and now my job is still with the ball and playing soccer. This is my style -- enjoy with a smile and working hard."
Ledesma's passion and skill gained him the attention of FC Cincinnati coach Alan Koch long ago during Ledesma's time playing in some of the best leagues in the world. His career has included stops in the Italian Seria A League and Greek Super League, in addition to playing with Middlesbrough from 2012 to 2015.
The two were in touch last year while Ledesma was playing with the North American Soccer League's New York Cosmos, where he scored 10 goals and had six assists, but even before the uncertainty of the league's future set in during the offseason, Ledesma was looking at the possibility of a move to Cincinnati.
"Manu," as his teammates know him, signed with FCC in January, more than a month before the NASL officially canceled its 2018 season. The league up until that time had been planning to play in the fall, but most players already were getting snatched up by United Soccer League teams like FC Cincinnati.
Koch was thrilled to add Ledesma to the roster he was rebuilding after keeping just nine players from last year -- including Josu Currais and Garrett Halfhill, who just this week announced they would be leaving the team to pursue other options.
"He's a flair player, he's a passionate player," Koch said of Ledesma. "You can tell he lives for the game. It's in his blood. He shows up with emotion and passion and shows up to work hard every single day, which is exciting to have a guy like that in your group. He can do special things with the ball. He's very skilled, and he sees certain things that don't come naturally to other people."
That natural ability to see plays developing on the pitch and execute them is why Justin Hoyte said he enjoys being partnered up with Ledesma. They've spent time playing together on the right side this season and previously while both at Middlesbrough.
Hoyte played for the Boro from 2008 to 2013; his final two seasons overlapped with Ledesma's stint there.
"He's just a fantastic player," Hoyte said. "You can see his quality on the field, his passing ability, his footwork on the ball, his tight control. Really, for me, I just have to get him the ball to make good runs, and I know nine times out of 10 the ball is going to get to me. So to me, my job is getting the ball to him as quick as I can and then just making good runs and decisions off it and just talking to him defensively. We're working more and more defensively together, so we're a side unit defensively, but attacking-wise, we have a really good understanding. For me, I just give him the ball and he does most of the work, and I just work off that."
Hoyte said he was "delighted" when he heard Ledesma was joining the team. Their chemistry playing together has been obvious from the start, but both said they are still trying to get it back to where it was five years ago.
The two have a good relationship off the pitch as well, sitting next to each other in the locker room and spending time with one another's families.
"We haven't played for a long time together, so there is still room for a lot of improvement, but I'm sure as the season progresses the both of us will get better together," Hoyte said. "And if we progress together as two players and work well as a team, I'm sure that will help the squad moving forward."
It helped Ledesma coming onto a new team where he already had a connection to the defender most often playing behind him, though he seems to fit in well wherever he goes. Ledesma calls himself the jokester of the team because he's "happy every single moment."
Koch liked the idea of bringing Ledesma back into a partnership with Hoyte on the field, but Ledesma also could play in other spots. Hoyte can, too -- he mostly played on the left side last year and was back on the left to start Sunday's game at Bethlehem Steel FC, which ended in a 1-1 draw.
Ledesma has the skill set to also play more centrally. Playing on the right side, he tends to cut inside anyway to take advantage of his favored left foot.
His focus right now is improving his finishing. He has had at least one good scoring opportunity the last two games and wished he could have celebrated his first goal by now.
"Every single day in training I am working hard to get better," he said. "The most important part is to relax your mind and be focused all the time, and then enjoy being with the ball and without the ball, working hard."
Ledesma said he feels at home in Cincinnati and wants to do well for the fans, particularly those who support his heritage by waving Argentinian flags at games. He left his homeland around age 16 to begin his soccer career overseas but still takes pride in his country.
Feeling the support of the crowd makes his smile even bigger.
"I feel really good here," he said. "I see a lot of Argentina flags in the stands, and I love that. I love the support of the fans, and I want to see more flags in the stands. It makes me happy and I can play with more confidence and play better and better.
"When I see the Argentina flag, I think of the people who come support the team and me, and it makes me happy. If I see that flag, I want to run a little bit more and work a little more for the people because they want the best for me, and I want the best for them when I jump onto the pitch and into the match."