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Given a clean bill of health, Akinola waits his turn in star-studded Toronto attack

TORONTO — Ayo Akinola learned all about patience in the long months spent rehabbing the injured anterior cruciate ligament in his knee.
Ayo Akinola learned all about patience in rehabbing an injured anterior cruciate ligament in his knee. CF Montréal goalkeeper James Pantemis (41) makes a save as Toronto FC forward Ayo Akinola (20) jumps over him avoiding a collision during second half Voyageurs Cup semifinal soccer action against CF Montréal in Toronto on Wednesday, June 22, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

TORONTO — Ayo Akinola learned all about patience in the long months spent rehabbing the injured anterior cruciate ligament in his knee.

Given a clean bill of health, the 22-year-old forward is now biding his time and waiting his turn in Toronto FC's star-studded attack.

"Physically I feel much better … a lot stronger, fitter, more comfortable," he said of his knee.

"It definitely taught me … what being a pro actually is like," he said of the injury setback. "I'd say before the injury, I probably took a few things for granted. Just because I'm young, I'm healthy, I don't think these type of things are going to happen to me … It definitely humbled me."

He says the injury also forced him to learn how to really take care of his body.

"Like if you want this, you're going to have change a few things now. So it definitely matured me in certain ways."

Still, a year after going under the knife, he says he has yet to get back to his physical peak.

"It does take a while for you to feel like your normal self. And I've seen it through players through the league who's have ACLs, like (Atlanta United's) Josef Martinez, (Portland's) Sebastian Blanco. They're not truly themselves until after probably like a year later.

"From what I feel, (I'm) not yet (there)." 

Akinola required surgery last August to repair his right knee after going down July 18 in Canada's 1-0 loss to the U.S. at the CONCACAF Gold Cup. It was his second appearance and first start for Canada.

Akinola's breakthrough year was in the pandemic-truncated 2020 season when he scored a team-high nine goals in 15 games. He turned heads with five goals in two games at the MLS is Back Tournament that July.

Listed at 5-10 and 196 pounds, Akinola is a physical presence who can disrupt defences. 

Before the injury in 2021, he had three goals in 11 regular-season appearances. It's been a long journey back.

"Now that I look back at it, I'm like 'Thank God it's over,"' he said.

"I just knew it was going to be a grind for me. Knowing that I was going to face many obstacles and challenges. But I think I've handled myself very well."

Coach Bob Bradley has brought Akinola back slowly in his injury comeback.

Akinola returned April 30, playing 16 minutes off the bench in a 2-1 loss to FC Cincinnati. He made three more appearances as a substitute before starting May 21 in 2-2 draw with D.C. United.

He has played in 16 league games this season, including seven starts, with one goal in 715 minutes. He added two goals in three Canadian Championship appearances.

Akinola says he knows there is more work to be done. "I know, yes, I haven't been playing my best," he said.

He also knew the midseason arrival of Italian stars Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi would cut into his playing time. He said he just focused on "working crazy in training" so he would be ready when needed.

Akinola has come off the bench in six of his last seven appearances in all competitions. But that could change with first-choice forward Jesus Jimenez going cold of late.

While the Spanish striker collected seven goals in his first nine games in Toronto colours, he has only scored twice in his last 19 matches in all competitions and has been held off the scoresheet in his last eight outings.

The question is how much time does one give Jimenez to blend with Insigne and Bernardeschi before offering Akinola his chance to lead the attack.

Bradley said he has asked Jimenez to up his game, be it pressing the opposition or taking positions in the penalty box that might open space for a teammate.

"We all see qualities (in him) but I think we're also trying to push and encourage him to give more," he said.

"Strikers live and die in their own mind with goals. That's a lot of (their) confidence and that's a lot of just their mood," he added. " But there's a lot of ways that you can still contribute to a team."

Bradley referenced Liverpool's Brazilian forward Roberto Firmino, who while not a goal machine has played a key part in facilitating the success of Mo Salah and Sadio Mane, who has since moved on to Bayern Munich.

The coach says he has yet to see that extra push from Jimenez.

"No, not really. That's why we're encouraging and challenging and pushing him. Because he can do that. Look, we believe in him. He knows that too. But in a stretch where things haven't come easy, then he's got to just focus himself and recommit himself." 

Akinola's hope is he gets his chance, stays healthy and plays well. Then things will take care of themselves, for club and country with the November World Cup looming.

"Control the controllables," he said, quoting advice from his mother.

In January, Akinola signed a new contract that runs through 2024 with an option for 2025. The deal is part of the MLS U-22 Initiative which allows clubs to sign up to three young players, age 22 and younger, to "lucrative contracts at a reduced budget charge.'' 

While he is making US$671,875 this season, his salary budget charge will only be $200,000. 

Born in Detroit, Akinola moved to Canada when he was one. 

He represented the U.S. at youth level from 2015 to 2019 and made one appearance with senior team before switching allegiance to Canada. He scored in his lone appearance for the U.S., a 6-0 win over El Salvador, but was not cap-tied since the match was a friendly. 

Akinola joined TFC as a homegrown player in December 2017, spending two seasons with Toronto FC II with eight goals in 34 appearances. 

Toronto (7-12-5) hosts the Portland Timbers (7-6-12) on Saturday.


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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 10, 2022.

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press