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Ayo Akinola’s dream first MLS start makes case for Toronto FC’s youth

Mar 17, 2019; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto FC forward Ayo Akinola (20) is embraced by midfielder Michael Bradley (4) as he celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal against New England Revolution in the first half at BMO Field. (Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports)

TORONTO — When their jobs are on the line — and in soccer, they almost always are — most coaches will rely on veteran players.

There are good reasons for that. Veterans have seen it all before, so they are better equipped to stay level-headed. They may communicate more effectively. They tend to be more reliable, and the quality of their performances fluctuates less.

Fielding young players is riskier. They can be more unpredictable — so the common refrain goes — and on their bad days, they’re a liability.

But unpredictably can be a good thing. Young players like Ayo Akinola try things that others with more games under their belt would think better of — and every so often they pay off when no one really sees them coming.

“We were losing, so I just had to try something,” Akinola said of his equalizing goal in Toronto FC’s 3-2 win over the New England Revolution. “(I had to) try to get the crowd roaring.”

It is a freedom of thought and expression that is sometimes trained out of older players. Akinola admitted he could not even remember who had passed him the ball outside of the New England penalty area (it was Jay Chapman), but in a blur it was in the back of the net.

Four opponents closed in on the 19-year-old forward as soon as he gained possession, but he was too quick for the three to his side and rear and skipped past the man blocking his route to goal as if he was not there.

 

“He is far stronger than I think anyone anticipates,” Toronto coach Greg Vanney said. “You see those two physical center backs thinking they can physically handle Ayo, and he just spins them. His acceleration is good too so if you get too tight, he’ll just pull away from you.

“Defenders don’t know him right now. What I said to him is that these guys like to be physical, so if you can spin them or if you can get in behind them, just accelerate because I don’t think they can stay with you.”

Both of the general managers Vanney has worked under at TFC have stated lofty goals of one day building their roster around homegrown players like Akinola, who was born in Detroit but grew up in Brampton, a Toronto suburb. That has not yet materialized, and Vanney is regularly asked when it will.

The reality is that while a lot of money has been pumped into the academy, much more has been invested in ready-made, high-profile star players with the expectation that immediate success would follow. It did, but that does not always mix well with playing the kids.

Perhaps that is changing. Whether TFC can replace Sebastian Giovinco’s quality remains to be seen but there is more flexibility without him; when the starting point is not always Giovinco and Altidore together up front, there is more opportunity for young players to be slotted into the lineup in different ways.

Mar 17, 2019; Toronto FC forward Ayo Akinola (20) dribbles the ball past New England Revolution midfielder Wilfried Zahibo (23) and defender Scott Caldwell (6) on his way to scoring a goal at BMO Field. (Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports)

There is also a desire on the part of Altidore, who has signed a new contract, and captain Michael Bradley, who will likely do the same, to help usher the next generation into the first team.

“I kick their ass every day,” Altidore said of Akinola and Jordan Hamilton, who scored TFC’s second goal on his 23rd birthday. “They’ll be the first to tell you, because I see potential there.

“I see a generational talent for a Canadian in Jordan Hamilton, who is for me already one of the best Canadian strikers, if not the best. He needs to show that. He knows that. Ayo… last year, you saw glimpses and I think he’s made a huge leap this year already in preseason. He had a great preseason and he looks really good. You have two players who, I tell them every day — I expect five, eight goals out of you guys this year to help us and help (carry) that load.”

Mar 17, 2019; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto FC forward Ayo Akinola (20) reacts after scoring a goal against New England Revolution in the first half at BMO Field. (Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports)

“This isn’t an easy club to play for as a young player,” added Bradley. “There’s pressure. There’s a lot of good players. They’ve got to deal with me, and I can be hard on these guys sometimes. But I do it because I love them and because I know how much they have to give.”

Toronto had an awful record when conceding the first goal last year but this time, with a front five that featured four locally raised players, they kept pushing and took a 2-1 lead. At 2-2, Akinola dug deep in the 80th minute to make a lung-busting decoy run to the near post that left Altidore unmarked for the winner.

“That’s one of the things I really like about Ayo — when the ball goes wide, he’s going to run hard into the box,” Vanney said. “I think it’s a game we don’t win last year. We won it this year with two guys who haven’t played a lot in Ayo and Jordan.”

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