Akinola talks about his Orlando Breakthrough, downplays hype
July 24, 2020
THE GROUP STAGE of the MLS is Back tournament is now history and some of the top stories were expected. Los Angeles FC is still elite despite missing Carlos Vela, Jordan Morris is perhaps the best American in the league, and Lucas Zelarayan is a game changer. None of these are surprising. But fortunately, the tournament also offered a bit of the unexpected.
Ayo Akinola, 20, was one of the best players in the group stages and few expected the Michigan native to have five goals for Toronto FC in the three Group C games which Toronto finished first with seven points.
Coming into this tournament, Akinola knew eyes were going to be on him and that his team was depending on him to produce.
“As a young player, you know you don't really get too many opportunities,” Akinola told ASN from Orlando. “You have to work for them and earn them. Just to get the opportunity from these three games, I knew I had to capitalize on them. Any chance I would get, I've always known I had to seize the moment. If I didn't score, could I at least work hard and contribute?”
3 goals for Akinola, and this was his best. His physical strength to not get pushed off the ball is a major asset for him. pic.twitter.com/sOnrezWtAs— Brian Sciaretta (@BrianSciaretta) July 17, 2020
Without a doubt, Akinola has delivered so far but the forward was also willing to explain why. During the shutdown due to COVID-19, Akinola took significant steps to increase his fitness – which would be tested in Florida.
On Sunday, Toronto will take on New York City FC in the round of 16. Akinola expects it to be more challenging as everyone will be a lot sharper – including the defenders he will be going against.
“During the pandemic, I definitely worked on my fitness a lot,” Akinola explained. “I would go on six or seven kilometer runs every day and interval running too. That was a big step in my game that translated here.”
“The first few games, everyone is going to be rusty - no matter how much you train,” he added. “Training and playing games are two completely different things. I think in the round of 16, quarterfinals, semis - everyone should be sort of back into their rhythm.”
As the tournament has progressed, Akinola has been a focal point in a variety of different stories. First with regards to youth development, Akinola points to progress that an increasing number of teams (beyond Dallas and Philadelphia) are not just playing young players but also having success while doing so.
Second, there is also the topic of dual nationality and which national team these players will represent. Akinola was born in the United States to Nigerian immigrants but raised in Canada. He could play for all three nations but has played for the United States so far in major tournaments at the U.S. U-17 and U-20 levels. Recently, however, he said he is undecided about which team he will represent in the future.
Orlando City and Canadian national team forward Tesho Akindele touched upon both topics in relation to Akinola.
“The Canadian guys with TFC are probably in his ear every day telling him to come to the good side,” Akindele said jokingly to Yahoo Sports. “It’s difficult for him because he’s behind Jozy Altidore, who is one of the greatest strikers ever in this league. So, he had to wait for his opportunity and when he got it, he was ready. I think that’s a great lesson to a lot of young players.”
Akinola confirms what Akindele says in that patience is required playing behind established players but Akinola also insists that key players like Altidore and Michael Bradley aren’t simply competitors but they are also valuable to his growth as a player.
“Those two have been huge to my development,” Akinola said of Bradley and Altidore. “They're great mentors, they're leaders. If those two say anything, it's almost like you have to listen. What they've told me is to be patient, your time will come. They tell me to keep working on my weaknesses and do what I have to do to get onto the field. It's more extra motivation and the support they've given me has been brilliant.”
Toronto manager Greg Vanney has helped elevate his club into one of the league’s best teams and while he coaches in Canada, he represented the United States 37 times at the senior level where he was a teammate of current U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter.
Vanney has known Akinola since 2014 when the youngster joined Toronto’s academy and Vanney became the first team head coach. Akinola describes Vanney as a manager who will give him constructive criticism and tell him “what he needs to hear, not what he wants to hear. He's been a great mentor for me. He's a key foundation for my performances here.”
Recently, Vanney was asked about Akinola and his international future.
“One of these two national team at the full men's national team level will need to show the kid interest,” Vanney told SportsNet. “Neither has at this point. I am sure they are interested now because he has emerged in great style here.”
“There was a time, to be honest, about a year ago, where he and I sat down and I said if Canada comes to you, you should strongly consider it even though you have gone through the U.S. youth structure," he continued. "[Canada] didn't come calling then. But I hope now with what he has shown that he will have that option. If he comes for advice, I'll try to ask him the right questions so he chooses the right direction. I can't really say what that direction will be.”
While normally talk of international involvement would be premature after just a few games of a mid-summer tournament but there are other factors at play. For one, the U.S. team is thin at the forward position. Second, the U.S. U-23 team is also active and CONCACAF Olympic qualifying still needs to take place.
As a result, there are more opportunities internationally for Akinola and he has been speaking with not just U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter but also U.S. U-23 head coach Jason Kreis.
“It was good,” Akinola said. “When I spoke to Gregg and Jason, they were just complementing my game and what I did well in the first two to three games. More of the conversation wasn't about the national team, it was more about this tournament. He just saw the game and he was telling me what I did well and what I needed to work on. I got that feedback and now I am trying to apply it.”
The Olympic team is something that interests Akinola, should it be presented to him and playing for the U.S. at that level would not permanently cap-tie himself to the program. But he also knows that after this tournament, he could have options sooner than later whether it be friendlies for full teams or with U-23 Olympic teams. He just doesn’t know which nation it will be for.
“I'd love to play in the Olympics, 100%,” Akinola explained. “That's been a dream of mine since I was a kid. In the end of the day, I don't make the decision as to who is on the roster. It's the coaches. Whatever I've put out on the field hopefully gives the coaches reason to pick me. If not, I will keep on working…I feel like I still have time to make a decision because I am so young. With the national team, there are no upcoming games and no tournaments… Hopefully after this tournament, I can start thinking about something else.”
Should his success continue after Orlando, there is also something else he might have to deal with – hype. Young players these days tend to receive a lot of hype if they get off to strong starts in their careers. That has already started with Akinola in Orlando but he is happy to block it out and just focus on helping Toronto win the title and continuing with his growth.
“I don't like to pay too much attention to it because I feel if I get too caught up in the hype, then complacency starts to kick in,” Akinola said. “For me, I am just not that type of guy. I let the game speak for itself and I let the people talk. I don't want to let complacency set in. If complacency sets in, bad things are going to happen.”