Being forced to settle for one point when three were within grasp is never ideal, but for Ayo Akinola Toronto FC’s opening match of the MLS is Back Tournament at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida was a morning to remember.
The 20-year-old forward was tasked with filling the role usually occupied by Jozy Altidore and did so admirably by scoring two goals, but also exhibited the hold-up play and attacking intelligence that Altidore provides.
Though Greg Vanney ribbed that Akinola may have wished he had converted a few more of his looks in the 2-2 draw with D.C. United, the coach was pleased with his output.
“He was doing fantastic work,” said Vanney. “He's really had a great preseason and has worked really hard to get himself fit and to understand what it is that we need him to do up top. And it showed today.”
The first was a thing of beauty.
Alejandro Pozuelo played into Akinola’s feet on the edge of the box, he turned in-field to find space to unleash a curling right-footer from inside the arc. The effort froze Bill Hamid in the D.C. goal as it sailed into the left-side of goal in the 12th minute.
The second, in the 44th minute, was a touch less elegant – a simple tap in from a few paces after Pozuelo’s pass/shot landed neatly in his path.
“It was kind of both,” said Akinola diplomatically when asked if it was a pass or a shot. “I thought he was going to – I know he had seen me, but I thought he was going to chip it.”
“Thankfully, I kept on going, I followed through,” he continued. “As a forward, your instinct is just to keep on going, no matter what happens, even if it's a rebound, or if it's a bad ball, just keep on going to goal.”
In truth, there were more on offer that day.
Seven minutes after the opener, Tsubasa Endoh slipped Akinola in clear on goal. He navigated rounding the keeper, but could not get the ball to settle for the finish. And he nearly completed a hat-trick with what would have been the game-winner deep in stoppage-time when his looping header sought to squeeze under the bar.
But Hamid, forced into a tight spot, was alert and touched it over.
“At one point I did,” smiled Akinola. “As soon as I hit it, I thought it was going in, but then I saw Bill coming for it and I was like, ‘Damn, he's going to save it.’”
Having only found out a day or two before the match that he’d be tasked with filling Altidore’s boots, Akinola had only one thing on his mind: “How can I take my chance?”
“Every opportunity that I get, I have to seize the moment,” explained the young forward. “Scoring goals [helps]; thankfully I was able to score two today.”
He pointed to the staff and his teammates for preparing him for the moment.
“Pretty easy,” was how he described slipping into the role. “Credit to Jozy and the coaching staff, they really helped me.”
“I always want the ball, turn and dribble, but one thing they taught me well was patience,” Akinola continued. “Be patient, stay between the centre-backs and eventually the ball will come to you. That I needed to improve on; they were a huge guidance, especially Jozy.”
With a quick turnaround to Thursday’s meeting with the Montreal Impact in game two of the group stage of the tournament, a hot foot from Akinola could see him continue in the role.
“Ayo has had a really, really good stretch,” observed Michael Bradley. “He's fit, he's sharp. He has such a unique package, in terms of being strong, fast, he has good feet, he's smart in how he can move off of the centre-backs.”
“When he plays like that there isn't any centre-back who's going to enjoy playing against him,” remarked the TFC captain. “Really happy to see him get his reward today and we're going to continue to need him to step up for us in a big way.”
“From a personal standpoint, very, very happy for him because he's worked really hard this last stretch, he's trained really well,” added Bradley. “You want to see guys get their reward when the lights come on and he got that today.”