Eric Leonard is an American professional soccer player, currently playing for Forward Madison FC of USL League 1. Growing up in Illinois, Leonard went on to attend Butler University. Leonard also made appearances in the PDL for the OKC Energy. He then went to Australia where he signed with Nerang SC in the Gold Coast Premier League. After a season in Australia, Leonard signed with Forward Madison FC and became a vital part of their playoff team. Leonard has recently resigned with FMFC and looks to bring home a championship to Wisconsin's capital.
The Eric Leonard Interview
1. Growing up in Illinois, what was your youth career like?
It was very competitive. Growing up in the Midwest allows you to play against some of the top of the top players from a young age. I played for the Chicago Sockers Academy so I was constantly traveling across the country for games. The Sockers really helped shape my career from a young age and put me on a path that would give more opportunities further down the line in soccer.
2. After high school, you went to Butler University. How were you recruited by Butlers soccer program?
Butler started to peak interest in me during my freshman year of high school when I attended their recruitment camp early fall. Being on an academy team helped showcase my play on a weekly basis to college coaches, but it also gave me the opportunity to interact with top programs as a result of the travel. I felt Butler was the right choice early on, but I made the commitment beginning of my sophomore year. Between the excellent academics and very competitive soccer team, Butler ended up being a perfect fit for me.
3. At Butler you had a great career, even earning the team captain your senior year. What does that honor mean to you?
For me it’s not about titles, but being given the opportunity to captain any team is truly an honor. It resonates with some of my core beliefs of the importance that leadership can have on a team. Personally, I believe the way someone leads through their actions and play can be the difference to that final puzzle piece for a strong team.
4. In 2017, you also played for the OKC Energy as well as Butler. How was your experience in the PDL?
PDL is one of the best leagues in the US to really challenge your play and take it to the next level. At OKC I was able to train with some of the top players in the country on a daily basis, which is what really improved my game. I encourage all players if they have a chance to play PDL in the summer to take any opportunity as it was a monumental step in my career growth.
5. After college, you skipped seas and played in Australia for Nerang SC in the Gold Coast Premier League. How did this opportunity come about?
Yeah so this was definitely one of the roadblocks in my career that I had to push past. It was early January, I had just finished trialing with MLS teams and was hoping to get picked up in the draft. For 3 hours on January 9, 2018 I watched as 40 players names were drafted as mine was not. At that point I really only had one option. Let the dream go or accept the moment and find the next step. So I called an old coach and friend of mine named Brett Hall who happened to have a contact with a team over in Australia. One week later I found myself boarding a flight to the Gold Coast to follow my dream.
6. While at Nerang, you won the Gold Coast Premier League Player’s Player of the Year. Describe what your tenure in Australia taught you as both a player and person.
Australia was a very big turning point in my career as well. At Nerang, I had the opportunity to be in a very technical program that was quite challenging for me. Daily, I was pushed to my limits in terms of ball handling, dribbling, technique, and speed with the ball, something that my game lacked. Over those next 7 months, my technical ability improved two fold as my confidence in the ball grew as well. I learned to value the importance of spending time everyday working on my craft..specifically my weaknesses.
7. How was your transition from America to Australia?
It was definitely quite hard at first. The 14 hour time difference made it almost impossible for me to get to bed at a reasonable time during my first couple weeks there. I was also very jet lagged the first few days. I don’t think it helped that the day I landed they drove me straight to the practice facility where they were scrimmaging. The coach told me to rest for a couple of days then to work my way into training. Unfortunately I don’t do well with missing things involved with soccer so I pulled my cleats out and hopped straight into the scrimmage that night.
8. What’s your most memorable memory from your days in Australia?
Most memorable days from Australia besides the soccer was definitely being able to visit all the beautiful beaches and enjoy the warm weather. I also loved snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef, a big highlight in my life.
9. After your time with Nerang, you signed your first professional contract with Forward Madison FC. What were you feeling after signing that contract?
The process of signing a contract can be very very stressful. When I was fortunate enough to sign with Forward Madison, it was definitely a burden lifted off my shoulders. It felt good because all the years of work put in finally paid off and I was getting the chance to play close to home.
10. FMFC is known for having some of the most energetic crowds in the US. Describe the atmosphere of a FMFC game.
It’s quite breathtaking. Walking out of the tunnel onto a field in a sold out stadium with die hard, chanting fans is something that I will never take for granted. Most teams talk about the importance of community and a teams fan base, but I didn’t really appreciate that until I came to Madison. No matter the weather, we have a community that will be at every game supporting us on their feet, screaming and banging drums every single game.
11. What’s the biggest difference you’ve noticed in your step up from semi pro to professional?
The speed of play is quicker. When you step on the field, you are expected to master your position at to consistently perform at your best day in and day out.
12. Who’s the best player you’ve ever played against?
I’d have to go with Salomon Kalou. As a defender, we pride ourselves in defending the best of the best, and Kalou fits that role. His touch, awareness of the field, understanding of the game, and the ability to be dangerous at any moment in a game make him the most dangerous attacker that I’ve had to defend.
13. How was your first professional season with Forward Madison?
For me, it was very memorable. I was able to earn a starting spot early on in the year and get minutes, which is very important as a rookie. As one of the younger guys on the team, I was able to learn some important lessons from the veterans during my first year. Things like how to take care of my body, improving flexibility, and following an elite nutrition program are things that they helped me take to the next level. I also had the opportunity to learn from two great coaches, Daryl Shore and Neil Hlavaty. They always demanded my best, which is one of the main reasons this year was so positive in terms of my growth and development.
14. What’s one thing most people don’t know about you?
I’m actually getting my Masters in Applied Mathematics on top of playing. I also enjoy playing the piano in my free time.
15. Who’s your biggest role model?
Definitely my dad. He’s someone who has instilled the goal setting trait throughout my life. My everyday motivation and need to be my best self stems from his constant support and guidance along with my mom and sister as well. I wouldn’t be where I am without all of their sacrifices along my journey.
16. If you could sit down and eat lunch with any three people in the world, who would they be?
Carles Puyol, David Goggins, and Jocko Willink.
17. Any last words for the readers?
My journey as a pro has not been a straight line. There’s been so many bumps and curves on the road that eventually led me to where I am now. Doubt and disbelief were thrown my way from countless people who didn’t think I’d make it. That’s the best part of all this. The best advice I can give to someone who wants to achieve something in their life is put your head down and grind. And then don’t stop until you get there. When you get to a point where you come to terms that your dreams won’t come true, that is when you have to push it that one step further. Because that extra step puts you in the 1% category and you’ll find yourself checking off goals left and right.
Founder, The Sports Court.
Big thank you to Eric for the amazing and inspiring interview! Best of luck next season!