After nine months on the sidelines, Ayo Akinola returned to the pitch for Toronto FC this weekend.

The 22-year-old striker suffered a knee injury in last summer’s Gold Cup on international duty with Canada, but entered Saturday’s 2-1 loss against FC Cincinnati at BMO Field in the 74th minute, coming on for Kosi Thompson with TFC in search of an equalizer. 

Akinola nearly made an immediate impact, but a low ball that bounced through the area squirrelled under his foot at the back-post. That would have been storybook stuff, but in the end just getting back on the pitch was a victory of sorts.

“I felt fine,” said Akinola post-match. “Just more the enjoyment, the excitement after nine months being out. To get my first couple minutes back playing felt really good.”

“I felt physically fine. The knee, it's all fine,” he continued. “Obviously it would have been better if we got the win, but overall I was happy.”

2020 was a breakout season for Akinola, who scored nine goals in 15 MLS appearances that year. 2021 he was expected to be a key contributor for TFC and had just started rounding into form, scoring three goals in the six games leading up to the 2021 Concacaf Gold Cup.

He was dearly missed thereafter.

TFC took their time getting Akinola ready for his return. He was available and on the bench for recent matches against Philadelphia Union and NYCFC, but returning from a serious injury is as much a mental project as it is a physical one. 

First the damage must heal and then the player must trust that it has. Those extra weeks on the training pitch, inching closer to return, were vital.

“As the weeks went on,” explained Akinola. “The more confident, the more comfortable I got being able to trust my knee, being able to put it under different situations that would occur, game situations. I felt really comfortable out there.”

Confidence in key.

“Big picture Ayo has shown confidence,” underlined Bob Bradley. “There's been more moments in training where you really see him take the ball, go quickly, make hard runs to get into the box and those are all things that are really important for him going forward.”

Nine months is a long time for a professional athlete. Even more so for young player still just starting his professional career. 

Along the way there are a lot of quiet moments to reflect and reevaluate. Ayo has used that time wisely. He called it a ‘life experience’.

“Just knowing what it really is to be a professional, knowing what it's like to really take care of your body. Your body is your temple,” replied Akinola, asked what he learned about himself along the way. “Personally, the biggest experience that I had throughout this journey was just more patience, more accepting, knowing that this is the new me.”

“But also having that determination factor, knowing that this is not a setback for me – this is a comeback,” he added. “I want [this injury] to make me even better. It makes me a better athlete, makes me better off the pitch.”