Tesho Akindele isn’t one to celebrate.
He’s had numerous opportunities so far this season, netting a team-high nine goals for the Lions. But typically, Akindele’s first reaction is to divert attention, pointing at the teammate who assisted him.
So when he buried a shot in the 21st minute of Wednesday night’s match against Sporting Kansas City, Akindele stuck to his script — kissing his ring finger, pointing to the sky and immediately running to hug his teammates.
For Akindele, this season has been an unexpected second chance. He rocketed out to a promising start in his rookie season, scoring a personal high of seven goals. But that number fell each year, until he finished his fifth and final season in Dallas with only two goals during 18 appearances.
When he made the move to Orlando City, Akindele was determined to forge a second act in his career. In his first season in purple, he’s already done that, outpacing Nani and Dom Dwyer to lead the team with nine goals scored this season.
Akindele said the difference comes from being in a position where his team fully believes in his ability to execute.
“The coaching staff believes in me a lot, my teammates have been providing me great crosses,” Akindele said. “I think just the opportunity to be on the field more often, there’s just a combination of a lot of things and me taking advantage of my chances.”
When it comes to scoring goals, Akindele’s strongest suit this season has been his shot selection, which has led to an increased rate of finished chances. Akindele is the second-most efficient attacker on the team, netting nine of his 31 shots (29%) so far this season. In comparison, Nani has scored nine goals on 45 shots (20%) and Dwyer has finished five on 52 (9.6%).
Only one player has been more efficient in finishing so far this season — rookie Benji Michel, who has taken three shots and buried two of them for goals.
In a season when goal production has been a thorn in the Lions’ side, O’Connor praised Akindele for bringing a level of clinicism that the Lions need.
“I think his finishing is underrated,” coach James O’Connor said. “I think he’s someone that is very capable of scoring goals whether he plays left of the front three, whether he plays central of the front three, I think he has an ability to score goals.”
For his teammates, however, Akindele’s presence on the field goes beyond his ability to put the ball in the net. Players along the backline speak often of his willingness to track back and pick up marks, sprinting back to aid the defense in transition situations.
On Wednesday night, Akindele and his teammates joked about the heat, admitting that they were exhausted by the second half in the Florida humidity. But defender Shane O’Neill pointed out that, despite that fatigue, Akindele came back to make tackles in the final minutes of the match.
“Obviously the goals are huge but [it’s] the work rate he puts in week in and week out … in situations where I’d say 90 percent of strikers in the league wouldn’t be putting in the same type of work that he does,” O’Neill said. “It’s a massive lift. As a defender there’s times when you’re suffering back there, and it takes so much pressure off of you.”
That commitment to the team is reflected in Akindele’s attitude both on and off the pitch. When asked about his most recent goal, Akindele was quick to point out the players who made it possible — Carlos Ascues blindly serving in a cross with perfect weight, Dom Dwyer pulling away two defenders to give him a lane to run into.
For Akindele, the result is always focused on the team. It’s a quality that attracted O’Connor to the striker from the start.
“He’s a team guy and I place great value on players that put the team first,” O’Connor said. “When you need to dig in, you’ve got people who dig in. I’m delighted for him because he’s a great young man.”
Wednesday night’s win was just another notch in a year full of positives for Akindele, whose son was born in February, less than two months after he signed with Orlando City. Since then, he’s set a new personal record in single-season goals and worn the captain’s armband for the first time in his senior career.
Both on and off the pitch, this year has been crazy, Akindele said, but in all the right ways. It’s a feeling that he’s hoping to savor as the team makes its final push for the playoffs.
“You know when they talk about the good old days?” Akindele said. “I feel like I’m in the good old days now. I need to really live in the moment and enjoy that now.”