Leo joined the FC Barcelona Residential Academy team in Casa Grande AZ in August 2020.

He also participated in the US Club National ID program.

Player Spotlight

Leonel Palma has played with ESI for 4 years. His experience with the Institute was a recipe for soccer success that included all the ingredients of the right coach, a supportive team, raw talent and his personal will and desire to put in the work to make it to the next level. Leo’s opportunity to reach his goals and objectives were realized in August 2020 when he was recruited and accepted onto FC Barcelona’s Residency Academy in Casa Grande, Arizona. 

The path to success is never easy and for Leo there were bumps along the way – starting with getting to ESI training sessions. There were logistics that had to be worked out and sometimes just to get to practice was complicated.

“I’m not gonna lie about this but I couldn’t make it to most training sessions the second year and somewhat third year at ESI,” Leo admitted. “Both my parents worked very hard for me and made sacrifices for me to get to training sessions.”

Leo Palma plays futsal for ESI

In addition, there were situations where he was turned down by clubs he tried out for. These rejections weren’t easy and while he excitingly watched other players move on toward their goals and enjoyed celebrating the success of his teammates, he did wonder when his “time” would come. 

“When I got No’s I actually was hurt because I was realizing so many kids were going to the next level and I was wanting to do the same thing, but I just didn’t meet that club’s standards,” Leo said.“I was like, ‘When is my time going to come?’ Stéphane told me to not worry about it, keep being focused and trust the plan God has for you. I took his advice and I’m here at Barca Academy looking forward to achieving more of my goals!”

But just talking about being focused was one thing, Leo found that working on staying positive, while working hard was the combination to his recent achievement.

“My third year at ESI is when my mindset started to change. As I started growing at ESI I realized that I had what it takes to get to the next level,” Leo said. “I knew that I had to train hard always, get to training sessions, and trust the plan God had for me.”

It was this way of thinking and the aptitude for hard work that did result in this latest journey and opportunity for Leo. He is currently on Barca Academy’s U17 MLS’ Elite Academy, kicking off the 2020-2021 season playing center back. Leo has already made a showing at the Academy, starting as the captain in the team’s September 19 game and win against Phoenix Rising’s U17 team. 

“I had a plan that I was going to do something big and well now I’m here at Barca Academy thanks to ESI,” Leo said.

The transition from the Institute to Barca Academy has been smooth – minus a few sizzing desert days. “The weather is a little bipolar,” Leo noted. “It is not like back home.” While it heats up, he does enjoy the cool comradery of his Barca teammates, and the school and soccer life balance. Adjusting to new coaches has also been interesting, and he carries the voice of Stéphane in his head.

“It felt weird at first not going to lie. I spent 4 years at ESI and I basically grew up with Stéphane,” Leo admitted. “I sometimes hear Stéphane’s voice in my head like ‘play like yourself and don’t create scenarios in your head’ and ‘where are you going to play when you receive the ball.’”

The Barca Residency Academy is a full-time residential U.S. Soccer Development Academy program. The Academy is in partnership with the top international professional team, FC Barcelona. Players associated with Barca Academy compete in the MLS’ Elite Youth Development Platform and train year-round at facilities in Casa Grande AZ. Along with the immersion in FC Barcelona’s methodology and training, Leo continues his high school education with Academy classes via the on-campus affiliation with Arizona State University (ASU) online.

Getting to Barca Residency Academy wouldn’t have been possible without Stéphane guiding him through the process, Leo said. Stéphane was the first person Leo called when he was invited to tryout and the first person he called when he made the Barca Academy.

“Stéphane boosted my confidence with telling me that I would do a great job that weekend and that great things will come,” Leo said. “After the Sunday session (at Barca) I was told I made the Academy with a full scholarship. I rushed to the locker room, got on the phone and called Stéphane, because it’s not only a big thing for me but for Stéphane as well.”

Leo credits his ESI coach with always being present when needed, teaching him to be a better player, and also to be a better person off the field.

“I thank God for what he’s done for me so far,” Leo said. “Stéphane taught me that God has a plan for me. You have to stay focused, stay composed and have the right mindset. Stéphane will always be one of the best coaches for me.”

During his time with ESI, Leo was able to improve every aspect of his game. Leo says that ESI helped him improve his touch, positioning, and communication – all of which he uses on a daily basis in training sessions at Barca Academy. These collective skills have helped make Leo a better leader and teammate.

“ESI taught me how to open up, looking before I receive the ball, juggling, and improved communication as well. Also shaking all the coaches’ hands,” Leo explained. “At ESI I did this for 4 years and learned it is respectful to always greet the people who take time to help you try and get to the next level.”

While enjoying the new journey he, of course, thinks of ESI and the memories that made his time there special. Leo felt ESI’s greatest accomplishments included winning futsal nationals, winning at the Copa Tournament and taking home first place in the Nebraska league. However, perhaps the thing he misses most are the daily interactions.

“I miss greeting Stéphane and I miss my teammates. My favorite memory was the brotherhood; going to practice every day, building a stronger bond, traveling together,” Leo said. “I also like how we all grew up watching each other improve. ESI will always be my family.” 

Exposure and growth are in Leo’s future at the Barca Academy’s Residency Program with this experience helping springboard him to his dreams. He hopes to play overseas or in the MLS. Achieving these goals will take dedication, and for Leo, his dedication to soccer, and his hunger to succeed have allowed him to take his game to the next level. And he hasn’t forgotten what it felt like before this latest path unfolded and encourages his ESI teammates to continue to chip away at training until their own unique achievement presents itself.

“ESI is the place where you want to be,” he encourages. “All the training sessions will pay off at a certain time. Everyone’s time is going to come. If I could tell my younger self one thing – it would be to tell myself to stay focused and never give up. Trust the training sessions Stéphane has and trust the plan God has for you.”

Read more about Leo, and his mom, in our newsletter.