Ager Aketxe is still a Toronto FC player for now — though perhaps not for much longer.
Reports in Spain from both Marca and AS — and corroborated Tuesday by MLSsoccer.com — have claimed Aketxe is set to leave the Reds for Spanish side Cádiz. Aketxe will return to the club he spent part of the 2016-17 season with, going there on an initial loan with an option to buy, according to Marca.
The 24-year-old midfielder has struggled since joining Toronto, posting no goals and just one assist in 11 MLS games. Aketxe earns $1.295 million a year, per the MLS Players Association, with only Toronto’s three designated players plus 2017 MLS Best XI midfielder Victor Vázquez taking home more. Aketxe was signed from Athletic Club on a free transfer in February using targeted allocation money.
The writing appeared to be on the wall when Aketxe did not travel for road games at Minnesota United and Sporting Kansas City last week. Instead, 19-year-old rookie Liam Fraser started in midfield in the latter game, with 18-year-old Ayo Akinola making his second career appearance off a thin bench. MLS’ summer transfer window opened Tuesday.
“He’s still on the team,” Toronto coach Greg Vanney said Tuesday when asked about Aketxe’s status. “It was just a decision — my decision — not to bring him along this weekend. We took the group that we played and that’s where we’re at for now.”
Vanney said Aketxe’s adaptation to life at TFC has been slower than that of fellow winter signings Gregory van der Wiel and Auro.
“With Greg and Auro especially, they were very direct needs for us in terms of the right-back position and we’ve had such centerback issues from the onset that those were direct needs,” Vanney explained. “They were thrown into the mix right at the start.
“With Ager, when he arrived it was pretty quickly that we were into knockout play [in the Concacaf Champions League]. And for me, when going into knockout play it was [about] trying to keep as much consistency from the group from last year, guys who understood their roles, had relationships on the field, who knew what we were trying to do as a team — trying to transition as much continuity from last year to this year in these knockout games. So he wasn’t exactly in the mix right off the start and that was a process of we had those guys in play, and it was about bringing him on slowly.”
Toronto’s intention, Vanney said, was to get Aketxe up to speed in the club’s early MLS games. But those appearances were not ideal when it came to settling him into the group because of the way the Reds’ Champions League commitments and, later, injuries prevented them from fielding consistent lineups.
“I’m sure he had expectations,” Vanney continued. “I had expectations. We’re all trying to hit the same place, right? I think that’s where we’re at. Look, he’s a talented young player. There’s no two ways about that. For us, it’s always about trying to get the best out of every player all the time. And that’s where we’re at. We’re just trying to get the best out of him.”
Aketxe has also faced the challenge of adjusting to life in Canada while speaking only limited English — the dynamics of which Vanney is familiar with having had a spell as a player with French club Bastia.
Asked how Aketxe was doing on a personal level, Vanney replied: “I think OK, you know? I use myself as an example because it was my best experience. I went to France, I spoke two words of French and like any young man, he spoke a little bit of English, not a whole lot. You end up spending a lot of time with the guys who speak the language that you know, and/or you spend time with people away from the team who speak your language.
“I was the same way when I went to France. There was an English-speaking family who were from the U.S. that we spent a lot of time with away from the team and then there was a few guys that I spent more time with around the team, and those guys helped me to learn more French and to get integrated into the group.
“That’s the process that he has to go through, right? For anybody who does it, it’s about how openminded you are, how willing to put yourself out there, to integrate into a group, to try new things, and that’s always a gauge, because everybody’s different. Everybody’s different for their tolerance to put themselves out in a very unique, different environment and grow from it.
“I think he’s always feeling that out one day to the next and trying to integrate into a group, but he’s integrating into a group that has been up and down in terms of guys in and out. Again, it’s a process with a lot of variables and it is what it is, at the end of the day. All we want is for… we want any player we bring in to be successful, at the end of the day. That’s our goal, and to try to make it as comfortable as possible.”