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Leo Afonso is ascending the ranks of club soccer — and he is not done yet

The forward has skyrocketed through Inter Miami CF’s system to earn his place in the first team

<p>Afonso scored his first professional goal April 6 against the Colorado Rapids, just days after signing a professional contract with Inter Miami CF.&nbsp;</p>

Afonso scored his first professional goal April 6 against the Colorado Rapids, just days after signing a professional contract with Inter Miami CF. 

Leo Afonso played his final game for Virginia men’s soccer in November. He left Charlottesville in December after being drafted by Inter Miami CF in the second round of the MLS SuperDraft. He was logging minutes for the first team by March, and by April, he had signed his first professional contract, made his first professional start and scored his first professional goal. Now, Afonso is sharing the field with a handful of world superstars less than half a year on from his time with the Cavaliers.

The 22-year-old forward’s last few months have been hard to comprehend. After departing Virginia — where he will graduate from this coming summer — Afonso trained with Inter Miami CF’s first team in the preseason but was then moved to the second team in February before the 2024 campaign began. That is normal for a second round draft pick — everything that has happened since is not. 

Afonso scored a pair of goals for Inter Miami II in his MLS NEXT Pro debut March 17. That display — along with the first team’s growing injury crisis that was nearing a dozen players — earned Afonso a special call just three days later.

“Everything happened so quick,” Afonso said in an interview with The Cavalier Daily. “It was a Wednesday. They told me, ‘You’re playing with the first team this week on Saturday. You’re traveling with them to New York.’”

Sure enough, Afonso signed a short-term loan with the first team and made his professional debut March 23 in a substitute appearance against the New York Red Bulls. The forward’s 31-minute cameo didn’t lead to a goal, but his performance that Saturday — and another two goals for Inter Miami II the next day — granted him a second short-term loan for the first team’s home game against New York City FC the following week. 

Afonso came off the bench again in that game, playing 13 minutes in his home debut March 30. Two days later, he received a call that trumped even the one from a few days prior.

“They called me into the office and were like, ‘Hey, we want to sign you [to the] first team… we need you to play Wednesday against Monterrey,’” Afonso said.

Afonso signed the contract that Monday, April 1, making a 30-minute substitute appearance in his first CONCACAF Champions League match against Monterrey. Already smashing expectations, his story only continued to blossom when Inter Miami took on the Colorado Rapids in an MLS match April 6. Coach Tata Martino gave Afonso his first professional start in front of a home crowd, and the São Paulo, Brazil native repaid his faith with a go-ahead goal in the 60th minute of the match. 

“I couldn’t have written it any better,” Afonso said. “As soon as I saw the ball coming to me, I was like, ‘I’m scoring this.’ The whole stadium… was sold out… it was just a crazy feeling. I didn’t even know what to do.”

The goal was canceled out by an 88th-minute equalizer from Colorado that stole a win from Inter Miami CF, but it capped off a dreamlike 17-day stretch for Afonso that will never be canceled out. 

“No time for anything to settle in,” Afonso said. “In a matter of two weeks, my entire life changed.”

While that moment is the crowning jewel on his career so far, Virginia’s former talisman is soaking up every day he has as a professional. Training daily with a star-studded squad that includes soccer legends Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba, Afonso is not afraid to learn.

“They are the best players in their position in the history of soccer,” Afonso said. “I’m always looking at every single thing they do and I’m like, ‘Okay, I’m going to do it like that too’ … they know what they’re going to do before they get the ball. Knowing that that’s what you need … that standard … helps you grow as a player.”

Afonso has never played with a more experienced or more accomplished group than those four players, but he attributes much of his improvement as a player to the time he spent with Coach George Gelnovatch and the Cavaliers. 

“The coaches helped me every single day to change my mentality,” Afonso said. “I just wanted to score goals. George [Gelnovatch], every single day, was like, ‘Leo, you need to pass the ball more … you need to pass one touch, two touch.’ After a couple of years … that turned me into a better player. I became way more dynamic and ended up getting more chances by moving the ball quick off my feet.”

That team-first frame of mind that Gelnovatch instilled in Afonso shows up plenty in his life these days. Of course, it is most evident when he is running harder than the other 21 players on the pitch and playing passes around his opponents, but it also exposes itself when Afonso talks about the future. When asked about his goals for the rest of the 2024 season — the only year that Afonso is guaranteed on his contract — his response was one that Gelnovatch would be proud of.

“I hope to continue to help the team every time I get on the field … scoring, assisting or making a block or a tackle,” Afonso said. “Taking every chance I get, every opportunity that I have to make the most of it.”

Afonso has 27 more chances to do that before 2024 ends and uncertainty begins. If he relishes every moment, sprints for every 50-50 ball and climbs up to the mountainous attacking standards he has set for himself — Afonso wants to score four more goals before season’s end — a lot will become certain about the rest of his professional career. Based on the player Virginia fans became accustomed to during his four-year stint with the program, it won’t be a surprise to see Afonso check all of those boxes on the way to many more new peaks down the line.

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