Photo courtesy U.S. Soccer
BRADENTON, Fla. – When Toronto FC takes the field on Saturday night in its first MLS Cup Final, one of the players who could help the club to success in the future will be watching from about 1,500 miles south of BMO Field.
A member of the U.S. U17 Residency Program at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., 16-year-old Ayo Akinola is definitely eager to see his senior teammates raise the cup for the first time.
“We’ve really worked hard for this,” he said on Friday night following the U17 side’s 3-0 victory against the IMG Academy U17/18 team as part of a 2016 Super Y League North American Finals Showcase. “I’m going to watch the game tomorrow, so I really hope my team does win, but there’s a lot of progression in what we’re doing, and I hope it continues.”
Akinola’s progression in 2016 has made him one to watch within the U.S. Youth National Team program and within the USL. Born in Detroit before his family moved to Brampton, Ont. prior to his first birthday, Akinola capped a fine year last week with four goals as the U.S. went a perfect 3-0-0 in the 2016 Nike Friendlies.
Photo courtesy Martin Bazyl / Toronto FC II
The victories against Portugal, Turkey and Brazil were gratifying, as struggles in the same event the previous year which saw the side fall to both Brazil and England provided motivation for this year’s side to raise its game.
“This allowed me to step up my game over the course of this year,” Akinola said. “It really showed me in what we presented.”
Akinola’s game has certainly shown its own progression this year. He scored his first goal for the U17s against Brazil in March, and then went on to make 10 appearances for Toronto FC II in the USL in the second half of the season. His first two professional goals came in a 4-2 win against the Harrisburg City Islanders on July 10 as he logged 416 minutes of action in his first season in the league.
Despite his age, though, the experiences Akinola has gained playing for both the U.S. U15s and U17 Coach John Hackworth’s side left him ready and focused to take on the challenge of competing for TFC II. Appearances in away contests against Louisville and Cincinnati weren’t as overawing as they might have been, and Akinola embraced the chance to get out on the road with his older teammates.
“Going on the road every weekend and enjoying time with the boys older than me, it was a lot of fun,” he said. “[The level of competition wasn’t] that big of a surprise due to what we play here in residency, playing against USL teams, colleges, so it wasn’t that big of a shock to me. I was used to it.”
The hope is now that the U17s performance at the Nike Friendlies will provide a platform for the side to build toward first the CONCACAF U17 Championship in Panama next April, and then the FIFA U17 World Cup next October in India. Akinola was one of five players that started in the 3-0 win against Brazil to have USL experience this year, with fellow striker Andrew Carleton another after his loan stint with the Charleston Battery from Atlanta United FC.
Photo courtesy U.S. Soccer
All three of Akinola, Carleton and Josh Sargent – a product of the St. Louis Scott Gallagher Academy that also owns the USL’s Saint Louis FC – had four goals in the recent tournament, with Akinola greatly enjoying the chance to play alongside two top young talents.
“Oh my goodness, it’s a blessing to play with them, to be honest,” he said. “I really love to play with those boys. It’s actually a privilege and it was a blessing to play with those two guys up top.”
With the work that he’s put in over the past year, for both club and country, Akinola’s aim is to take everything he’s experienced and put it toward potentially earning his first professional contract in Toronto, helping the U17s to success in the upcoming year, and maybe most importantly repaying the faith his family has shown in him.
“It’s been a lot of grinding,” Akinola said. “Honestly, I couldn’t thank my parents [enough]. My parents are the reason I play this game, so I hope it continues more and more to grow.”