It is rare that the day after one’s birthday is one to be celebrated.
But such was the case for Noble Okello, who turned 20 on July 20, only to make his MLS debut the following day in a scoreless draw against the New England Revolution as Toronto FC wrapped up the group stage of the MLS is Back Tournament.
“To make your debut at 20,” began Alex Bono post-match. “I came into the team at 20 and it took me a little while to make my debut, so for him to come in, make an impact quickly, and prove that he can be on the field with these guys is great for him.”
“He's been training well and he deserves an opportunity to come in and prove himself, so I was happy for him,” added the goalkeeper. “He has an awesome base and I’m happy to see where his career can take him.”
With Greg Vanney intent on using this competition to get minutes to youngsters, Okello knew his time would come sooner or later, but with the previous games against D.C. United and the Montreal Impact going the way they did, the midfielder was forced to bide his time.
“Greg’s told me I’ve been working hard in training and really stepping it up in different ways, so I felt like my time would come, at any point, for my debut during the group stage. I didn't know exactly when, but I felt good that I might get a chance to play,” said Okello. “It just so happened that I got to in the third game.”
Toronto were on the front foot for the first half, but come the second with the additions of Gustavo Bou and Cristian Penilla, Bruce Arena’s Revolution had shifted the balance in their favour. Okello and the rest of the substitutes were tasked with quelling that momentum.
“The game was getting tight and players are getting tired, so me and Tsubasa [Endoh needed to] make a difference,” recalled Okello. “Just energy and adding something different to the game.”
“[The message] on the bench was the usual stuff: stay focused, get ready, be ready when you go on,” he continued. “But when they called my name to sub on Jozy [Altidore], for example, told me, ‘Stay locked in, be ready for everything that happens in the game, just do your thing and have fun’. That was the message from my teammates.”
“Greg told me to do what I do best and enjoy myself,” he added. “But also stay locked in because we had to win or tie to win the group.”
His coach was pleased.
“Since we've come back from this pandemic break, if you will, he's put in a lot of work,” said Vanney. “He's starting to grow into himself and really develop power in his frame. He's got an incredible profile as a player and presence about him, in terms of his size. It was just allowing him some time to grow into himself, so that he could use some of that power, open up spaces, and play strong and physical.”
“He's still getting the feel for the speed,” he continued. “Today was a slow game, so it was about being able to cover space, recognizing when guys were tired and out of position; how can you cover. It was as much a cerebral game today as it was anything.”
“I’ve been wanting to get Noble on for the last couple of games so I utilized this opportunity and I'm happy for him. He just needs to keep working hard, keep growing his game, and filling into himself and he's going to be just fine,” Vanney added. “He's a player with a ton of upside and we're really pleased with the growth that he's had, especially just over the last month and a half.”
For his part, Okello was not daunted by the challenge.
“I’ve been ready for a while to play at the first team level,” he said. “There’s obviously a difference from TFC II to the first team, in terms of speed. The game [against New England], in the heat, needed me to come on and show something else.”
One of his first interactions was a clattering challenge with Wilfred Zahibo. While his New England counterpart got the better of that one, Okello was quickly back on his feet, ready for the next one.
“There’s a difference,” the 20-year-old allowed. “But I don't think there was a moment where I thought, let me change what I've been doing.”
Okello’s potential is plain to see; reflected by a nickname that has been heard around the BMO Training Ground: Baby Pogba.
“People have been calling me that for a long time now,” said Okello. “I guess people see similarities in our game. I just want to play my game as good as I can."
Post-match the glow of seeing a young man take another step forward was on everyone’s mind.
“Everybody knows I started with the Academy and built my way up,” said Okello. “Jim Liston was one of the guys that was very happy for me because he’s seen me since I was like 12 grow and develop and now playing my first game.”
Nearly a year ago, Okello made his first team debut when he came on for the second half against Ottawa Fury FC in the Canadian Championship.
“[Since then] I’ve been focusing on a lot of things, specifically, on my positioning, offensively and defensively,” explained Okello. “I’ve been getting a lot of help from the coaching staff on how I can have more power when I'm running to cover ground and also offensively finding the right position to start attacks. That has been the focus over the last six months for myself and I think it's paying off.”
The one regret?
“I was thinking about that today,” said Okello over the phone from Orlando on Friday. “I put it down to wash – I forgot to take it – I gave it to one of our equipment managers. I don't know where it is. I wish I kept it.”
Hopefully it will turn up, a belated birthday present of sorts – a birthday in the bubble deserves a little extra.
“It was a little bit different for obvious reasons, but it was good,” laughed Okello at celebrating his 20th far from home. “The guys got me a cake and I enjoyed myself. There was a lot of love from all my teammates.”
Where this tournament has provided a debut for Okello, for another TFC Academy product it has been a coming out party.
Ayo Akinola has five goals in three matches, scoring twice against D.C. and completing a hat-trick against Montreal.
“For me it's not really a surprise because I've seen him doing it for so long, since we were young,” said Okello. “But it’s very good for him, now that he’s gotten his opportunity, to express himself and show everybody that he’s ready and he's good enough to play.”
“I'm just happy for him,” he added. “I’ve known that he’s been able to score goals and impose himself for a long time now.”
The two, both members of the 2000 age group, have been teammates in the TFC system for years.
After the New England match, it was Akinola’s turn to comment on a younger player’s debut – he is six months older than Okello after all.
“I’ve known him since I was 14, so to see a friend of mine developing and finally getting his opportunity to make his MLS debut, I'm very happy and very proud of him,” said Akinola, presumably smiling beneath his facemask. “I hope he continues that path.”
Success for one academy graduate is fuel for them all.
“Of course I see it as motivation,” said Okello. “I see my friend literally doing it.”
“All of us young guys, Jayden Nelson, Jahkeele [Marshall-Rutty], Julian Dunn, Rocco [Romeo] – all of us aspire to be doing it,” he continued. “It's motivation for all of us because all of us can do the same thing as long as we take the opportunity.”