A spot in the starting XI opened up for the 20-year-old with star forward Jozy Altidore unavailable and working his way back to fitness. Akinola delivered five goals in three starts in group stage play, helping pace TFC to the round of 16. Altidore debuted off the bench in the third game and it was apparent pretty quickly that the pair can play together.
"It's going to be great having him and Jozy available," defender Omar Gonzalez told reporters on a video conference call Friday. "I think there are going to be some pretty scared backlines."
GOAL: Ayo Akinola, Toronto FC - 83rd minute
With his first touches in his brief substitute appearance in
Toronto's draw against New England
, Altidore sprung Akinola in behind and drew a dangerous free kick. Akinola has spent time during his youth career on the wings at times, though Vanney is quick to point out Akinola's best position is as a center forward.
Regardless, Vanney has options with his two strikers.
"Ayo and Jozy on the field together was nice," Vanney said after the match. "It’s a handful for defenders. ... I’m pleased. They are two strong guys who are going to be a handful for defenders to deal with in the moments we decide to use them together. We’ll see how we play it out as we move through the tournament and into the rest of the year."
Vanney has known Akinola for a long time, dating back to their time together with the TFC U-14 academy side. Vanney has seen Akinola grow from academy prospect to professional, scoring goals at every stop along the way.
Who better than Altidore, a teen prodigy with the New York Red Bulls before making a move to Europe, for Akinola to learn from?
“He’s got a nice mentor on the field in Jozy who knows how to score goals," Vanney said. "He’s a smart player who can help give him some information along the way.”