The day in Couva, Trinidad and Tobago, would go down in USMNT infamy.
On October 10, 2017, The Soca Warriors of Trinidad and Tobago would hold off the United States in the final match of 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying to win 2-1 in one of the biggest upsets in international soccer history.
With a look back at that match any American soccer fan can see future 901 FC Sporting Director Tim Howard in goal for USMNT, but Memphians might recognize the man patrolling the central midfield, wearing No. 23 for the side in red.
Leston Paul played all 90 minutes in that contest, and not long after the landmark victory for Trinidad and Tobago, he had agreed to move to Memphis to become one of the first Beale Street Boys.
“I was in Trinidad and was playing with Central FC. The owner of the team at the time knew the (then-Memphis) GM Andrew Bell. Andrew reached out to him and told him there was a new team forming in Memphis,” Paul said. “He reached out and they came to Trinidad, the GM and the Head Coach. We met and sat down, they came to watch a game. It was a new project and they hoped to build something for the future and I was up for it.”
Since joining the startup soccer club for its inaugural season in 2019, Paul has seen a lot in the Bluff City. He was there for the 9-18-7 record in the first year. He was there for the Eastern Conference Semifinals in 2022. He was there when they knocked off an MLS team for the first time in club history in this year’s Open Cup.
Paul is the only player that has been with 901 FC since the beginning, and reflects on his time proudly after reaching his 100th cap with the club earlier this month.
“I came in and in the first year it was a bit rocky as a new franchise. We had a base where we were trending upwards compared to the first year. Every year we were building and getting better and went a step further,” he said. “It’s something that I want to be a part of just seeing that the team is growing every year and it’s a blessing to be a part of that.”
Becoming the Skipper
Paul quickly developed a leadership role with the club and was asked to become the permanent team captain ahead of the 2021 season. He knew the title came with more than just wearing the armband every match or leading the team out of the tunnel.
“Straight away I was like I would never turn this down,” he said. “It’s just making sure that the guys are comfortable and everyone is bought into what we’re doing. You have a team of 20-something players and everyone would come in with different ideas and different playing styles with different goals.
“Me being the captain is more than just on the field. I feel like I’ve done a great job of taking care of off the field stuff and making sure that everyone gives 100% when it’s game time.”
Those captain duties were limited entirely to off the field for most of 2023.
Paul has played over 7,000 minutes since 2019 only missing time for international duty, but this season has been different as the veteran missed extended time due to injury for the first time in his career in the first half of the season.
“It’s been tough because this is the first time in my 10-year professional career that I’ve been sidelined for this amount of time,” he said. “Dealing with injury, personally, has been tough with not being able to be here every day to drive the guys because I had to focus on my rehab and individual stuff.”
‘Every Game is a Final’
When Paul had to spend time away from the training ground, he’d get reports and feedback on how every session went, connecting with his teammates even if they couldn’t hear his voice everyday. Finally, Paul’s long-awaited season debut came on July 2 and he’s since moved back into the starting lineup to wear the captain’s armband nightly.
With six matches remaining in the regular season, Memphis is fighting for a top four position in the USL Championship to grab a home field advantage in the first round of the postseason. The veteran maintains that the club’s focus remains on the next practice and the next match, then let the chips fall where they may.
“We want to win as many games as possible and see what happens at the end of the season. Hopefully, we get a home field playoff game. It’s one game at a time and you don’t want to look forward too much and just look at taking care of Hartford,” he said. “Every game is a final in our minds. We go in with that mindset to win.”