TORONTO – While focused on the present, one must always have an eye on the future.
The start of 2018 CONCACAF Champions League and MLS season is fast approaching, and the reigning MLS Cup, Supporters' Shield, and Voyageurs Cup Champions, Toronto FC, are braced to defend their titles and eager to make their return to the regional competition for the first time since 2012, marking their fifth appearance in the Champions League.
TFC's Round of 16 series against the Colorado Rapids gets underway on February 20 at Dick's Sporting Good Park with the second leg at BMO Field on February 27, days before the first-ever season opener in Toronto on March 3 against Columbus Crew SC.
Anticipation is building for what lies ahead, but a significant move flew under the radar back on December 18 as the club and fans revelled in the glow of lifting the MLS Cup: the signing of 18-year-old Ayo Akinola to a first team contract.
“It's a really happy feeling,” beamed Akinola at the BMO Training Ground before departing for the second phase of preseason in Mexico. “I do this for my parents, my friends. They've been pushing me. I kept my word.”
Akinola, then 16, made 10 appearances for TFC II in the 2016 USL season, but has spent much of the last year away from the club in residency with the US National Team program.
“[He's] had some great experiences the last few years, playing in the under-17 World Cup,” said Greg Vanney. “He's been away from us, down in Bradenton, but we've seen steps in his game that make him very intriguing.”
“He's a hybrid: can play on the wing, can play striker, alone or in a two-man combination,” continued Vanney. “He's proven that he can play within his age group at a high level, now it's about competing with professionals.”
“He's passionate and driven to be successful,” added Vanney. “He's not afraid of contact, physical play: I've seen him put his shoulder down and put guys much bigger than him in their place. That's part of it as forward, not being afraid of the moment. There are still some things he's going to get used to – speed of play, some of the final product – for his age, he's in a very good place.”
Akinola described himself as, “A hard worker, a quiet leader; likes to impact the game, making runs in behind. Finishing, that's one of my biggest assets. Powerful, a lot of contact, that's what I live for.”
“At a young age, I found that my physical attributes were useful,” smiled Akinola, told of Vanney's remarks. “I started to implement that in-game, showing these older guys that I'm not afraid to lay one on you.”
Having excelled at the World Cup with the US last summer, Akinola chose to pursue the start of his career in Toronto.
“This is where I grew up, where my brother was born,” explained Akinola, who was born in Detroit before moving to Brampton, Ontario. “Family was a huge reason I wanted to stay, being around rather than being distant, not having that connection. And I know everyone – the staff, the players – I can gel in quickly.”
With Toronto having a deep-stable of attackers, including Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore, Tosaint Ricketts, Jordan Hamilton, and Ben Spencer, Akinola knows he must bide his time, soak in all he sees, and when given the chance, make sure the coaches know what he can provide.
“Whenever my time is on, bring the best, show why they signed you,” said Akinola, who turned 18 in January. “You've got to pay attention to details when watching and when you come on bring it out, so when the [coach makes his] next selection, he's thinking about you.”
As the 15th TFC Academy player to sign for the first team, Akinola's arrival marks the start of a new age for the club. He is the first member of the 2000 age group to graduate to the MLS side, though three of his classmates – Julian Dunn, Rocco Romeo, and Noble Okello – inked professional contracts for TFC II and III last September.
“It's lovely, I'm not going to lie,” said Akinola of familiar faces rising together. “We used to play against each other a lot back in club [soccer]; we know each other really well. Having them around will make you a better player, your connection with each other will get closer, create a bond, a friendship that can never be broken. That's a good asset to have.”
Akinola has already caught the eye of one major supporter.
“I watched him in the U-17 World Cup,” said TFC captain Michael Bradley. “He played very well. It's easy to see he has qualities that are unique. I came away from that excited about his potential; to get to know him more, have him with the group and start to push him along because he's another of many young players around here that are good players.”
“There are some talented, young players around here,” added Bradley. “That's exciting for me to see, for our fans, for people who are close to the club. It should be a big source of pride.”