Keita sees growth and opportunity with an improved Columbus team
July 20, 2020
AS THE GROUP STAGE wraps up, the story has been the that it has been a tournament for young players to excel. Ayo Akinola and Brenden Aaronson have been the most talked about players. But the list is also deep. Red Bulls fullback Kyle Duncan has been very strong as has Frankie Amaya for Cincinnati. While no longer eligible for youth soccer, fresh-faced Chris Mueller has been one of the best players in Orlando.
Arguably the most impressive team in Orlando so far has been the Columbus Crew which has easily handled it’s first two opponents in FC Cincinnati and the New York Red Bulls by a combined 6-0 scoreline.
The addition of Lucas Zelarayan has been instrumental along with the finishing of Gyasi Zardes and the possession-based play of Darlington Nagbe. But the club also hopes to get involved in youth movement moving forward and the strong play of Aboubacar Keita in the opening 4-0 win over Cincinnati particularly stood out.
It was a tough situation for Keita, 20, who had to replace Vito Wormgoor after the 17th minute due to injury but Keita impressed as an early sub.
Keita did not play in the 2-0 win over the Red Bulls but head coach Caleb Porter is showing an approach in this tournament where he will rotate his squad heavily between games so Keita is an option for the group stage finale against Atlanta on Tuesday night.
“As a young player, you are just sitting on the bench and they tell you to be ready for anything,” Keita said. “Mentally you just have to be ready.”
Keita answered pretty much everything that came his way. He had a very high 92 touches over 73 minutes and completed 96.6% of his passes (86/89) and was 3/5 in accurate long balls. But this is continuing the trend he showed from his first professional season in 2019.
In the 2019 season, Keita began playing regularly following his return to the club after playing for the U.S. team at the U-20 World Cup. He ended up making 10 appearances with eight starts. In the games he started, the Crew posted a record of three wins, four draws, and a loss. Now in 2020, he has played in a 1-1 draw with Seattle and the 4-0 win over Cincinnati.
“He’s, I think, a little higher in the depth chart than we thought obviously at this stage,” coach Caleb Porter said towards the end of the 2019 season. "He’s been showing well.. but just scratching the surface of the player that he needs to be.”
Keita was born in New York City but moved to Guinea with his family when he was just a few months old. While soccer thrives in Africa, it wasn’t until he returned to the United States at the age of 11 when he began to take soccer seriously.
“Back [in Africa], playing soccer was something I did for fun,” Keita explained. “I wasn't in an academy over there or anything like that. I didn't really get into a real soccer environment until I was back here. When I was 13-14 is when I was put into a top environment.”
In 2016, Keita joined the Columbus Crew’s academy and impressed to the point where he was asked to train with the club’s first team. His performances there saw him awarded a scholarship to play at the University of Virginia.
His time at UVA was short-lived. After just one season where was a member of the ACC All-Freshman team, Keita opted to turn professional and sign a homegrown contract with Columbus to start the 2019 season.
“College soccer helped me with a maturity level,” Keita recalled of his time at UVA. “Young players coming out of an academy and going straight into a professional level, if you don't have that maturity, you will struggle.”
But then the turning point for Keita came shortly after signing his homegrown contract with Columbus when he was named to the U.S. U-20 World Cup roster. It came during a tricky time as he picked up an injury two months before the tournament and combined with the long layoff from the college season, Keita was rusty. Coming into that tournament, the only professional experience he had was three appearances while on loan with the Richmond Kickers in USL League One.
Due to an injury to captain Mark McKenzie, Keita was a starter for the U-20 team where he was up and down. Fortunately, it offered him a blueprint as to where to improve his game as he was only just then starting his professional career with Columbus.
“After the U-20s, when I came back, I was able to watch some of the games and reflect on some of things I needed to work on,” Keita said. “I didn't take an off-season. All I was doing was working and working. Coming into this year I was a lot more comfortable working on the things I needed to work on. The World Cup was big stepping stone for me - seeing those players and where they were at and what I needed to do to be at the same level as them or higher.”
“I have to be more comfortable with the ball and in building out of the back,” he added. “I had to be more vocal.”
Now 13 months later since his return from the U-20 World Cup, Keita is improved but so is Columbus. It is competitive to earn playing time but Keita is getting on the field on a regular basis for a Columbus team that could be competitive in the East now that Atlanta and the New York Red Bulls have come down from where they were two or three years ago.
“Last year was an exciting year coming into the league and not having any experience,” Keita said. “Last year was a learning year. Coming into this year, I am more comfortable with certain things and the guys don't treat me as someone in his second year. This year, I am trying to build off last year with confidence and keep improving.”
“Right now, we feel confident with any team in the league and we feel that we have what is needed to compete for the league.”