BRAMPTON, Canada—A week ago today, Ayo Akinola had one of the best games of his budding career, playing 90 minutes and finding the back of the net twice against D.C. United as Toronto FC opened their MLS Is Back tournament with a 2-2 draw.
It was a pretty great beginning to the competition in a rare start for the 20 year old... and then it got better.
Akinola stepped up again, scoring his first career hat-trick in the 401 derby and increasing his MLS is Back Tournament goal tally to five goals in two games. He’d only scored twice for the first team prior to this week and is now up to seven in 17 matches for The Reds.
Akinola’s breakthrough is a welcome one for Toronto FC, who are forced to play without designated player and first-choice striker Jozy Altidore. The American is still ramping up his fitness level after joining the rest of his teammates a few weeks later for training camp.
With Altidore missing out on the matchday squad completely in Toronto FC’s first two games of the tournament, Akinola has been given an opportunity and he’s taking full advantage. During the game against Montreal, he set a new club record for fewest days between multi-goal games, according to Waking The Red’s Martyn Bailey.
He's DONE it! https://t.co/YnnQLKIMaY— Martyn Bailey (@martyn_bailey) July 17, 2020
He is exactly the type of striker Toronto FC have been lacking for a while: one that can make important and intelligent runs, has the physical presence to shake off the opposition, and boasts an abundance of pace.
Toronto FC Head Coach Greg Vanney has always seen Akinola as this type of striker, and has been waiting for a breakout like this from him.
“I’ve always viewed him as a striker,” said Vanney to the media after the Montreal Impact match, noting that the USMNT youth teams instead tend to play him on the wings. “In his head, he’s always been trying to come to grips with just who he is at the professional level, what he’s going to be most successful at as a professional.
“For us it’s always center striker who plays between the centre-backs or off of the one centre-back tonight because they played in a back three.”
For someone who hasn’t even played 50 professional matches, Akinola has a football IQ beyond his years. His ability to make the perfect run between defenders makes him a good link with the likes of Pablo Piatti and Alejandro Pozuelo, who thrive off having players around them who can run onto passes and get into space.
Akinola’s second goal against Montreal, for example is a perfect example of his connection with Pozuelo, and the type of run that makes him so dangerous.
The Poz-Ayo combination CANNOT be stopped.#MTLvTOR | #TFCLive pic.twitter.com/jwLgsCygKm— Toronto FC (@TorontoFC) July 17, 2020
He makes a sensational run between the defenders, gets onto the end of the pass, and calmly puts it away to give TFC the lead.
From his strength to his speed, he gave us a glimpse of his full repertoire on Thursday against Montreal, and it was his hat-trick goal that was his finest in my opinion. After a long kick from Quentin Westberg and a header forward from Nick DeLeon, Akinola ran after the ball, knocked over a Montreal defender like he wasn’t even there, and ran at the goal before elegantly finishing his third of the night.
GET OFF ME #MTLvTOR | #TFCLive pic.twitter.com/LWH1faLumP— Toronto FC (@TorontoFC) July 17, 2020
It capped off an incredible match for the youngster, by far the best of his career thus far. With Jozy Altidore unlikely to start the third match of the group stage against New England, Akinola is almost a guarantee to play.
Vanney has a decision to make when Altidore gets back to full fitness about how and where Akinola is going to play, and might even be forced to move him to the wing, but for now, expect Ayo to get some serious minutes up top.