KISSIMMEE, Florida — For Orlando City forward Tesho Akindele, Óscar Pareja’s first season with the Lions feels like a return to his roots.
This season reunites the striker with the coach who took a chance on him, drafting Akindele out of college and developing him for the first five years of his career.
Akindele enjoyed a successful career as a four-time All-American at the Colorado School of Mines, where he set a school record with 76 career goals. But playing for a Division II school, he hadn’t earned any hype ahead of the 2014 MLS draft.
In the weeks leading up to the draft, Akindele checked mock drafts and couldn’t find his name on any of them. He didn’t expect much. So when the Los Angeles Galaxy called the forward and said they planned to take him in the second round, he felt satisfied, comforted to know he would find a team through the draft. When Akindele had settled into his college house with his friends and parents, he wasn’t expecting to hear his name called in the first round — and certainly not No. 6 overall.
As his phone flooded with congratulatory texts from friends and family, Akindele received a call from Pareja, the first conversation that started a seven-year partnership.
“I had no idea what was going to happen,” Akindele said. “I’m lucky Óscar took a chance on me. There were even some people around that thought maybe they shouldn’t pick me because I was such an unknown, but he believed in me. I always thank him for that.”
Although the striker had stayed under the radar in the weeks leading up to the draft, Pareja saw potential. The striker was athletic and calculated, a clean finisher in front of the net.
More important, however, the coach saw a work ethic he felt he could mold throughout his career.
“Tesho is a neat story,” Pareja said. “Not many were aware of him. We had the opportunity to draft him and it was a little bit odd for everyone, but Tesho has shown everyone his capacity, his talent, and I’ve seen him grow up in the league.”
That strong work ethic is one of the traits Akindele said a player must bring to succeed on Pareja’s team.
The coach has backed up Akindele’s assessment during Orlando preseason training, putting his team through grueling workouts three times a day during camp in Mexico.
“If you’re not working hard as a player, he’s like, ‘I don’t want you,’” Akindele said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re the best player on the team or the worst player. And if you’re not working hard, you can’t be on this team.”
Although Pareja demands this level of devotion from his players, Akindele said the coach matches that devotion as a coach. He’s the first one in the office and the last out at night, transitioning immediately from a match against one opponent to scouting another’s film on the bus back from the game.
Akindele recalled when he played for Dallas, Pareja never stopped working. After a day that started with a 7 a.m. meeting, Pareja would sometimes call players at 10 p.m., asking if they could come back into the training facility. When they arrived, the coach would still be in his cleats, too focused to take them off after a 15-hour day of work.
Pareja’s leadership is quiet, Akindele said, but it sets a tone for the rest of the team.
“It’s one of those lead-by-example things because you have no excuse not to be working hard if the boss is working hard,” Akindele said. “He can demand that his players work hard because he’s like, ‘I am putting in these hours; I have the receipts to show you I’m here all the time. I’m working as hard as anyone.’ So it just is it kind of a top-down mentality from there.”
For Akindele, coming to Orlando allowed him to step into a new stage in his career. Last year was a big one for Akindele. He moved to a new team for the first time in his professional career. He bought a house and became a father.
It was also the year he finally felt he became a veteran player. The result was the best season of his career — 10 goals and two assists during 28 total appearances.
Akindele experienced all of that with his son, Hayes. His first soccer game was Akindele’s debut in purple when the striker scored his first goal in Exploria Stadium.
Sometimes before a run or a drill, Akindele said he’ll wonder what his son would think if he was on the field watching. He knows Hayes — who turned 1 earlier this month — is still too young to understand soccer. But it adds perspective for Akindele as he enters the seventh season of his career.
“It gives you a sense of everything,” Akindele said. “The game is not life or death. I think before, I would put too much pressure on myself and I would be nervous of making a mistake. Having the mentality that there’s so much more going on in life has allowed me to calm down and be a better player because of it.”
A lot has changed for Akindele since he was first drafted. But in many ways, the striker feels Pareja has stayed the same since they last worked together. The coach is a little more calculated, a little more experienced. But everything Akindele saw that made Pareja successful in Dallas — his intensity, his attention to detail, his ability to inspire a team — has remained a constant in his first month with the Lions.
That return makes Akindele feel confident about his second season in Orlando.
“To be honest, he’s one of the top coaches that I’ve ever worked with,” Akindele said. “I think Orlando fans are going to get a good chance to see that. It’s going to be a really big year for us.”