From the rec league to the big leagues: The rise of Toronto's Ayo Akinola

Ayo Akinola - Toronto FC - March 17, 2019

TORONTO – Though a big decision looms in his future,  Ayo Akinola is just getting started.

The 19-year old Toronto FC striker scored his first MLS goal against the New England Revolution on March 17, powering through a crowd of defenders to pick out the bottom corner with a quick shot.

“It was a great moment, I'm not going to lie,” the soft-spoken Akinola said on Thursday. “But I took it as just another game. As a young player, I've got to learn way more.”

His mother and younger brother, Tom, who is also in the TFC Academy playing with the U-19 team in the USSDA, were in attendance.

“My brother told me my mom cried, I don't know how true that is,” Akinola said. “For them to see me playing, my first goal, was a great moment for the family.”

Akinola was born in Detroit on January 20, 2000 to parents from Lagos State in Nigeria, and moved to Toronto, where his brother was born, a year later, before settling in Brampton. His father still lives and works between frequent visits.

It was in that hotbed of Canadian soccer talent that he and his brother first began to play house league soccer.

“I was seven or eight,” Akinola said. “We played soccer to stay away from trouble, something to do rather than just stay home.”

First with Brampton East SC, then Brampton Youth SC, come 2013, he thought he'd try out for the TFC Academy.

“It was the next big step as a kid, hopefully making it to the pros one day,” Akinola said. “I trained there longer than I expected, tryouts were only a couple weeks.”

It was only when he was invited to a showcase in New York that Akinola learned his fate: “That's when they first told me I was part of the team.”

There, with Nick Theslof and Greg Vanney as his coaches, Akinola caught the eye of US Soccer, thanks to a tip-off from his former club coach.

“My club coach at Brampton made contacts with a guy down in Florida. He told one of the national team scouts to come to New York, watch a kid play named 'Ayo'. We beat Red Bulls, 5-0, I scored two goals,” Akinola said. “After the game, I saw two national team scouts, wearing gear, standing at the field. I didn't really pay attention to it. A couple weeks later, in March [2014], I got my call-up.”

At 15, Akinola moved to the USSF's Residency Program in Bradenton, Florida ahead of the 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup in India.

“It had it's ups and downs; more ups. It was the same core I played with at the U-14s and U-15s, integrating was easy,” Akinola said. “Moving away from home, thousands of miles, to another country... It was a big jump at such a young age. It wasn't easy for my mom, letting her boy go.”

Having represented the US at U-15, U-17, and U-20, Akinola credits the program with giving players exposure through tournaments and friendlies.

“They want to show what American soccer players can do,” Akinola said. “[The world] doesn't think America is good; that North Americans don't know how to play. We can play.”

He aims to continue doing so at the FIFA U-20 World Cup this summer in Poland. 

“I've got to make the roster first, that's my goal,” stressed Akinola. “Hopefully, I'd like to bring the best of me, show the world what I can [do] on the field.”

Back at TFC, Akinola worked his way up the player development pathway, making his professional debut for TFC II in 2016 against FC Montreal in the USL.

“It was an eye-opening experience: realizing how fast the game is, how competitive,” Akinola said. “[It] also humbles you. You've got to stay level-headed, grounded. The USL was a great platform, a great base where I laid my foundation.”

After a trial at PSV Eindhoven in late 2017, Akinola was signed to a first-team contract in Toronto, where he has been taken underwing by a pair of strikers, one American, one Canadian, who have experienced that which lays before him: Jozy Altidore and Jordan Hamilton.

“I love Jozy,” said Akinola. “Since Day One he has tried to teach me. The key thing he always says is be reliable, [but] don't be afraid to make mistakes. It's not going to be easy, you have to have the right mindset, focus right, that your attitude every training is right, and you'll get opportunities.”

“One of the legends of US soccer,” he added. “I have huge respect for him.”

Not that that means he doesn't think he couldn't knock Altidore off the ball: “People underestimate how strong I am. I think I could take him... You can tell him.”

As Akinola wheeled away from his goal, a wide smile spread across his face before catching a leaping Auro in his arms. That joy in his game has roots in his favorite team.

“I have a favorite in each league, but number one is Barcelona,” said Akinola. “My favorite player is Ronaldinho. He always had a smile on his face on the field. If you're not having fun, why play? You've got to be loose. He was relaxed, enjoyed the game, loved what he was doing.”

It is with that same laid back approach that Akinola faces the big question: Who he will represent at the senior international level?

Born in the US and raised in Canada by Nigerian parents, Akinola has three options.

The Nigerian FA contacted his mom during the U-17 World Cup in India.

“They saw me play against Ghana,” Akinola said. For now though, “I don't want to focus too much on that, I'm representing the US.”

One day that question will need answering. But for now, Akinola is content with the next steps in his journey rather than focusing on what lies further ahead.

“Yeah, yeah, I'm still young,” Akinola said. “Unless I make the men's roster. Right now, I can play for [any] country.”