“He's 14 years old, and old men are very quick to forget what it's like to be a young man.”
If it’s remotely possible to encapsulate Real Salt Lake’s nuanced approach to their newest signing in one sentence, the words of assistant general manager Tony Beltran might just do the job.
Officially inked as RSL’s 32nd homegrown player on Jan. 14, Axel Kei is already turning heads around the world. Some of that is inevitable, given that he’s smashed the modern record for youngest-ever American professional player – not just in MLS, but all team sports – long held by Freddy Adu, whose very name still connects with a broad mainstream audience even after all these years.
Plenty of the buzz comes from the exhilarating streak of raw, effervescent attacking talent Kei brings to the pitch, too.
Adu had already played 100 professional matches when Kei was born; the former D.C. United and RSL wunderkind was still in his ascendancy at that point, and it would be years before his name would become shorthand for excessive expectations and unfulfilled potential. For Kei, that made Freddy not so much a shadow to step out of as one more homework assignment on his path towards stardom: A piece of history to educate himself about.
“I didn't know who Freddy Adu was until the record came up and then I had to go look him up,” Kei told MLSsoccer.com with a smile last week. “I looked him up with my dad, my dad was telling me, ‘Yeah, he was a good soccer player, they used to call him the next Pele.’ All that stuff.
“I did some research and yeah, I mean it's incredible, obviously. I made history in the US, that’s big.”
Freddy Adu comparisons
You can draw the comparison if you must. He’s ready for that. In fact, this month’s milestone is actually the second time he’s broken one of Adu’s marks, having already made his pro debut back in October, when he appeared for Real Monarchs in USL Championship action on an academy contract. Kei was 13 years, 8 months and 9 days for the first record; he was 14 years and 15 days for the second.
“The whole pressure of Freddy Adu and all that stuff. I saw all that, I read all the articles, I watched all the YouTube videos,” noted Kei. “Of course there’s going to be people that want to see – ‘oh, this kid, we heard this kid is good, he’s out here breaking records, whatever, I want to see what he has, see what he got.’
“I'm not letting that get into my head. This is just like, I'm still gonna be me. I'm still gonna train. Not because people are saying they want to see this, they want to see that, that I'm gonna change my playing style. It’s just the way I am, I’m not going to change this. I'm still going to be the same Axel Kei, I’m still gonna play how I play. It's just focusing on what I like to do – soccer.”
If you’re struggling to set a fair barometer for Kei, consider that Beltran and his colleagues at Zions Bank Training Center know all about Adu’s story. How burdensome a record like that and the comparisons it generates can be. And yet Kei’s abilities are so striking, his upward trajectory already so steep, that they could not avoid the conclusion that Salt Lake should sign him now anyway.
Axel Kei scores a hat trick for RSL Academy | MLS NEXT Cup 2021
This isn’t some speculative gamble. Kei is on track. He’s earned this contract.
“The longer you go, the longer you play, there is a weight to everything that you do day in and day out, and you lose that kind of childhood joy and childhood purity. And it becomes a job at some point,” said Beltran, himself a onetime Generation adidas signing who left UCLA early to become the No. 3 overall pick of the 2008 SuperDraft, the first step in a distinguished decade-long pro career.
“With Axel, he's just full of confidence and obviously, full of ability. And he's always doing everything with a smile on his face. And seeing him have such joy and I think him having such joy and competence in an arena where he's most comfortable – you can see most of his personality emerge on the field. And so there's something very pure and exciting about that.
“We believe in Axel, and offering him a first-team professional contract at his age is very representative of that belief.”
Kei believes in himself, too, and perhaps it’s a sign of maturity that as he analyzes his own game, the striker already flashes a recognition of certain core truths about the sport’s top levels.
“I can play anywhere up front,” he said. “But if you were to ask me a year ago, I would say I'm a winger because I like to dribble a lot, I like to take players on – I’m a showman, you know what I'm saying?
“But now I feel like if you want to make money, you got to score goals; my dad tells me all the time. So I guess I'm a goalscorer. Plus, I like scoring goals now. So I like playing No. 9 more, but if the coach were to ask me, ‘we need you out right,’ I would go. If he said, ‘we need you on the left,’ I would go.”
As much as they value his spirit, RSL are determined to keep their prodigy grounded and protected. They’re quick to point out that he’s just one of a whopping five academy signings in the same week, further productivity from a setup that proudly dubs itself “The Homegrown Factory.”
“We have to act in a protective manner for the boy because he is still very much a young man. And so it's a difficult balancing act, with all the obvious plaudits and excitement around him being the youngest signing in MLS history and all that,” said Beltran. “You have to think about Axel the person, Axel the youth. And so, look, I think most importantly, we're putting a lot of the footballing stuff second to everything that he needs to learn, and everything that's ahead of him to develop into a good person and a reputable human.”
They don’t expect Kei to log significant MLS minutes any time soon, and it may even take quite a while for him to become a regular with Real Monarchs in the new MLS NEXT Pro league. He’s already been playing up multiple age groups in their academy – more than justifying it with his performances – and the club’s holistic approach to player development is the main reason Kei finds himself in Utah in the first place.
Born in Cote d’Ivoire and raised in San Diego (with a chunk of childhood spent in Brazil thanks to his father’s soccer career), Kei played for one of the LA Galaxy’s regional youth club affiliates and was courted by Sporting Kansas City. But all he needed was one visit to RSL, who have their academy’s dormitories, high school and training facilities headquartered under one roof alongside the first and second teams at ZBTC, their $80 million mecca in Herriman, Utah.
“I knew some kids here, so I feel like that helped me a lot. It felt like family when I came here,” said Kei. “I'm not just saying it because it's the right thing to say, I’m saying it because it’s true. I came here, and it felt right. It felt so right to the point that when I went home, I didn’t go on trial to SKC, I just wanted to stay here.”
At times Kei sounds very much like the adolescent he is. He finds it surreal how many aspiring young players have messaged him since his signing, to tell him how he’s inspired them. And he marvels at the established pros who have taken note of him, too.
“I used to watch Chris Richards, all these guys on YouTube, all their stuff,” he said. “And now I have them following me on Instagram, like, it’s crazy.”
But the manner in which he recognized and seized the opportunity presented to him by RSL hints at resolve beyond his years.
“I talked to my parents about it. And my mom disagreed,” he explained. “She didn't want me to come here. My dad didn’t want to make the decision for her. So he told me it's gonna be in my hands to talk to her about it. I talked to her and I told her, I promised her that if you give me two years, I will get a contract. And it took me nine months, I think? Nine or 10 months.”
Yet he’s also quick to acknowledge his shortcomings, sometimes in surprisingly blunt terms.
“It’s just, I’ve just never been fit. So right now, if I want to play at the highest level, you’ve got be fit,” said Kei. “I’ve got to do the same thing over and over. That's what the coaches expect, that’s what the team’s expecting me to do: You’ve got to be able to move, receive the ball, turn and go. So that's what I’m focused on more. I’m trying to get in shape, fit as possible here.”
Even that observation is just another reminder of Kei’s vast upside, the sweeping possibilities for the future given where he’s already at. He sees it, too, and wants to see what’s on that horizon.
He and his family are still in the process of completing his citizenship and securing the passport that can open doors to the US national team programs – though dual-national watchers may soon have another case to chew their fingernails over. He’s very proud of his Ivorian heritage.
“I want to play in Champions League, I want to play in the World Cup,” he said. “What national team I’m going to play for, right now, I don't know. But yeah, I want to play the World Cup. I want to play for the national team.
“I would love to play for the United States. But since I want to play for Ivory Coast, too, that’s my parents’ country, I want to represent. So I don't know. I don't know. It all depends; right now I'm indecisive.”
Calculated realism aside, as Beltran noted, there’s something uniquely thrilling about the sight of a talented youngster hitting their stride. It’s not only RSL fans who can take heart from the high hopes and big dreams of a teenager with the world at his feet.
“Also, I want to win MLS Cup with the club, because I guess they haven’t won it since – did you say ‘09?” said Kei as he reeled off his goals and ambitions, turning to an RSL communications manager to confirm the length of the organization’s title drought.
“That’s way too long,” he deadpanned with a mischievous grin. “This is a new era, Axel Kei – we're gonna win that thing.”