Ayo Akinola has been one of the stars of the MLS is Back Tournament, scoring five goals in Toronto FC’s first two matches in Florida to draw widespread attention to the 20-year-old striker’s talent – and spark some buzz about his prospects at the international level.
Born in Detroit, raised in Brampton, Ontario and the son of Nigerian parents, Akinola is eligible to represent all three nations. Two years ago he told the Toronto Star that he was “still discussing with my family,” but that “at some point, I’m going to have to make a decision which one is the best fit for me.”
To further spice things up, TFC coach Greg Vanney has been critical of both Canada and the United States’ perceived lack of recruitment, suggesting that the CSA are not doing their utmost to woo Akinola to cross over to the north side of the border and that U.S. Soccer don't seem to have him in the US men's national team mix.
But to date the Reds Homegrown has spent his entire youth national team career in the United States’ system and USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter sounded confident of Akinola’s loyalty in a Zoom roundtable with journalists on Tuesday.
“This is a guy, similar to Sergino [Dest] when we were talking about him, that was raised in our youth national team program,” said Berhalter, “was an under-17 player, under-20 player, meant a lot to our program. He was going to be on the U-20 World Cup team if he didn't get injured before that. He was a big part of that team and what they were doing. So we consider him part of our program.
“And that means most likely, next stage for him would be the U-23s, the Olympic team, and then potentially the senior national team. ... these are things that hopefully progress as he continues to perform a high level.”
Berhalter has been watching MLS is Back games on site at the Wide World of Sports complex and called Akinola’s displays “a great performance.” The two have indeed chatted at the MLS is Back Tournament, and Akinola recounted their discussions on a Tuesday evening interview on ESPN's Atlanta-Columbus.
“He’s just given me words of encouragement,” Akinola told ESPN's Taylor Twellman and Jon Champion. “Most of the time we were just talking about the tournament and what I can improve on. Just in my games, just in between the two games that he’s seen. It’s not really much about the national team, but just the focal point of watching this tournament.
“I think just for me personally, just thinking of the national team and this tournament, it creates too much havoc. I feel like I should just focus on one thing and then the thing after."
Akinola's deferring his decision will do little to quell the speculation on which team he will choose to represent, and he indicated his desire to weigh the pros and cons of all the national team programs before making one of the most important decisions of his career. On the other hand, Berhalter warned fans and pundits not to goose the throttle on the hype train just yet when it comes to him and other young American standouts prospering at the tournament.
“With the performance of Ayo and [Orlando City’s] Chris Mueller, we're talking about two games and three games, or three games each, and we're saying this is a senior national player. So we just have to be careful, we have to give these guys time to grow,” said the coach. “We have to let them enjoy this, enjoy this period.
“Ayo, I spoke to him, I said, ‘man this is a fantastic thing you’re doing, I'm so happy for you. You're performing, you scored all these goals … enjoy it. Don't think about anything else. Just enjoy the form you're in. Not many players get that.’”
The overarching message from Berhalter to the young guns: Focus on the tasks at hand, and the process will unfold accordingly.
“As these guys maintain their level and continue to perform at a high level, it's going to give the coaching staff confidence that they can do it at international level,” he said, “but also give them confidence that they're starting to realize their goals as players and they're starting to realize they can have a long career and successful career.”