TORONTO — Born in Detroit to Nigerian parents and raised in Canada, Toronto FC teenage forward Ayo Akinola has options when it comes to playing internationally.
That's true despite the fact that Akinola helped the U.S. to the quarterfinals of the FIFA U-17 World Cup in India last year. While U.S. Soccer got to Akinola first, the 18-year-old can still make a one-time switch in international allegiance.
Spicing up the story is the fact that Akinola's 17-year-old brother Tom, a member of the TFC academy, attended a Canadian youth identification camp in 2015. Tom was born in Toronto but could play for the U.S. through his father, who now has American citizenship.
Nigerian soccer officials have also reached out to Ayo Akinola. As has the Canadian Soccer Association, which has told him where they think he could fit into the program, both short- and long-term.
"I'm still discussing (it) with my family," Akinola said in an interview. "Because I feel like it's a really big (decision) ... It's a one-time switch so you can't switch back."
"I'm still young," he added. "No time to rush. But at some point, I'm going to have to make a decision which one is the best fit for me."
He says the choice may come ahead of qualifying for the 2019 FIFA U-20 World Cup.
Akinola says he has been treated very well by U.S. Soccer. Canada has also been good to him, he adds, singling out Toronto FC which he says welcomed him 'with open arms."
Akinola moved north of the border when he was one. His father still lives in Detroit, where he works at Detroit Metro Airport. The Akinola boys live with their mother in Brampton, Ont.
Akinola was 14 when he started with the U.S. youth program, soon after joining the TFC academy. He got the call-up after a scout saw him in a 5-0 win over a New York Red Bulls youth side.
"I still remember the day — it was March 22, 2014," Akinola said of the U.S. invite in a 2017 U.S. Soccer video.
"Through (under-)14, -15, and now -17, all in all, playing for the United States is the greatest thing ever," he added in the video.
At 15, he moved down to Bradenton, Fla., where he spent more than 18 months with the U.S. residency program. At the FIFA U-17 World Cup, he had one goals and one assist in five matches. He scored four goals in the CONCACAF U-17 Championship earlier in 2017.
He signed with Toronto FC as a homegrown player last December, becoming the 15th player in club history to graduate to the first team from the TFC academy.
Akinola opened his senior account with Toronto with a goal in a 3-0 win over Ottawa Fury FC last week in the second leg of the Canadian Championship semifinal. While he has played just 24 minutes off the bench in three league games, coach Greg Vanney likes what he sees.
"He's clever. He's aware. When he makes runs, sometimes he's making runs to open up other people. Sometimes he's making runs because the spaces are available for him.
"I think he's very well-connected to the guys around him. A lot of young players, you'll see they make runs just for themselves. He's got a better sense of his relationships to guys around him ... I think he's doing a nice job. He's a big, strong kid who will continue to learn to compete with professional centre backs in different ways. But I think he's got a foundation to continue to grow as a striker and continue to find ways to score goals and not just be a link-up player."
The usually restrained Vanney, a former U.S. international, showed his emotional side after the Ottawa game when a reporter asked him whether Akinola was considered a Canadian and American. Vanney's blunt response was that Canada Soccer could do a better job trying to woo the teen into the fold.
The CSA did not help its cause by opting not to put a Maple Leaf next to Akinola's name in the TFC lineup it tweeted before the match as it did for Jay Chapman, Liam Fraser and Ryan Telfer.
Like those three, Akinola has a Canadian passport. But his time with the U.S. program has prompted more than a few people to welcome him to Toronto when they see him at BMO Field.
"I'm like 'I've been here my whole life,'" he said with a smile.
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