TORONTO, Canada—The 2020 Major League Soccer (MLS) season will be one that Ayo Akinola won’t ever forget. A global pandemic turning the campaign on its head is only part of the reason, but from an individual standpoint, the Toronto FC striker will remember this as his official introduction into MLS.
While Akinola did have a strong outing in his limited usage in 2019, very few were expecting the 20 year old to be a first-choice starter in 2020. In the first two matches of the season, Akinola didn’t feature in either contest and only made the match day squad once. At the time, it seemed as though Akinola was on the verge of occupying a supporting role this year as well.
Then the Pandemic hit. When the Reds and the MLS regrouped and were preparing for the first match of the MLS is Back Tournament, Greg Vanney had a decision to make. With Jozy Altidore unavailable for the first game of the tournament, Vanney had to turn to his bench and in doing so handed Akinola a start.
Akinola wasted no time in putting his mark on the game, scoring twice against D.C. United and one-upped his own performance with a hat-trick in the 401 Derby. Akinola only ended up playing three games at the MLS is Back Tournament but still finishing second in goals. Only LAFC’s Diego Rossi had more goals.
After suffering a hamstring injury leading into Phase 2 of the league’s return-to-play plan, Akinola would eventually return and pick right back up where he left off. He emerged and was here to stay.
His knack for goal would lead to him finding the back of the net nine times in 15 matches, good enough for a goal-scoring rate of .76 per 90 minutes—the best in MLS. If it weren’t for another injury later on in the season, the Brampton, Ontario native could have had his name in contention for the league’s Golden Boot award, despite—again—being just 20 years old.
Right from the jump, it was obvious just how seamlessly Akinola was going to fit into TFC’s offence. His pace and power, along with intelligence made him a tough striker to deal with. His skillset is very much like Alitdore in that sense and allows the Reds to continue to play Vanney’s preferred brand of attacking soccer. In the past, the club has struggled at times when they’ve had to switch up their playing style because Altidore wasn’t available. But with this year, Akinola has proven that he is able to easily slot in for Altidore (if necessary) and be the man to lead the line for TFC.
While the two are, in a way, competing for playing time, Altidore hasn’t been Akinola’s enemy in 2020, by any means. After his breakout performance at the MLS is Back Tournament, the youngster was quick to credit Atidore’s support along with the TFC coaching staff.
“Credit to Jozy and the coaching staff, they really helped me,” Akinola told media July.
“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.”
Being able to watch Altidore in training and to have the support of the experienced striker is going to be even more important as the Reds prepare for the playoffs, but also for the future development of Akinola. While many may tout him as a future Altidore replacement, the time TFC have with both players may be invaluable both on and off the pitch.
Having Akinola explode the way he has this year, will force opposing teams to game plan for him, whether Altidore starts or not. With Alejandro Pozuleo playing in the number 10 role behind Akinola, the two have helped each other’s games. Both Akinola and Pozuelo co-led the team with nine goals a piece. The attention that Akinola will continue to draw from the opposition, will continue to create space for Pozuelo and other TFC midfielders to work the ball around efficiently and effectively.
Akinola has made good on his opportunity in the regular season so far. His breakout has been recognized around the league, finishing fourth in the U-22 Player of the Year voting, behind only Diego Rossi, Brendan Aaronson, and Daryl Dike.
As TFC prepares for the MLS Cup Playoffs, it’s another opportunity for Akinola to shine and show his potential. Coach Greg Vanney and his staff are high on the young striker’s potential and will continue to provide him with ample time that he needs to continue to develop into an elite striker in MLS.
“I think he (Akinola) has a super high potential,” Vanney told media last month. “He’s still going to keep learning and keep working. But he’s got high potential.”
The bar has been set. It’s now up to Akinola to continue to live up to expectations, perhaps filling the massive shoes that loom in front of him, of the club’s greatest striker.