CHESTER, Pa. – As players on the Philadelphia Union walked over from one practice field to another near the end of Wednesday’s training session, Eric Ayuk decided to do so while balancing a ball on his head.
It was just a small glimpse into the 18-year-old Cameroonian’s enormous talent – which Union head coach Jim Curtin believes fans will see more of following Ayuk’s promising MLS debut last week.
“He’s an unknown in our league,” Curtin said. “But he’s dangerous. He’s got some real pace out there. I’m very happy with his progression.”
The toughest part of adjusting to MLS for Ayuk has been dealing with the culture shock of coming to a new league and country, while continuing to learn a new language.
Born in Cameroon, where he mostly spoke French, the winger was discovered by the Union while in Thailand in what Curtin described as “a program where a lot of young Cameroon players get thrown into a pro environment.”
In Cameroon, he was a part of the same Rainbow FC Bamenda organization that produced Montreal Impact defender Ambroise Oyongo. A preseason trialist, Ayuk was officially signed by the Union on March 3.
“This is the first environment he’s been in that has a real structure to it, and we’re trying to help him along,” Curtin said. “As he’s gotten more comfortable, you see the confidence grow. He’s a dangerous player. He’s a guy that when you line up, you don’t want to go up against. He’s a guy with pace. He’s deceptive. He’s tricky with the ball. And now he’s got some confidence to go along with it.”
Curtin admitted Ayuk's MLS debut came sooner than expected as the Union are dealing with some injuries to key offensive players. Ayuk, though, was thrilled to get the chance to play the final 16 minutes of Saturday’s 2-0 loss to FC Dallas, nearly drawing a penalty kick in his limited time on the field.
“I was feeling good, and coach gave me the confidence in training,” Ayuk said. “I was really surprised when they called me to be in the 18. I was so happy, and I’ll keep training hard.”
With C.J. Sapong (fractured cheekbone), Cristian Maidana (left MCL sprain), Conor Casey (sports hernia) and Zach Pfeffer (suspension) all likely out for Sunday’s game against the Chicago Fire (5 pm ET; ESPN2, ESPN Deportes), Ayuk figures to make the 18-man roster once again.
And if the team is trailing, Curtin indicated he’d be comfortable bringing Ayuk into the game because he has the kind of one-on-one ability that “you just can’t coach.”
Sebastien Le Toux – a talented Union winger in his own right who’s helped Ayuk with his transition by speaking to him in French – has certainly noticed that skillset and says it’s something the team needs.
“He’s a very explosive player,” Le Toux said. “He’s still young, but he has great ability technically. He loves to go one-v-one with players. He has a great first touch, and he tries to always go at a defender. He still needs to learn more about tactics and formation, especially defensively, but he’s got lots of quality and I’m sure you’re going to see him a lot.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at email@example.com.