Ayo Akinola didn’t arrive at the MLS is Back Tournament with very many expectations, but five goals has been enough to propel him into the conversation as one of the event’s biggest breakout stars, and also the subject of a looming national team tug-of-war.
Eligible to play for both the United States and Canada, Akinola revealed on Tuesday evening that he has yet to make a senior national team commitment, and isn’t planning on making one in the immediate future.
“I haven’t decided,” Akinola told ESPN at halftime of Tuesday night’s broadcast of the Atlanta United-Columbus Crew match. “I feel like I’m still at a younger age, so I feel like there shouldn’t be any pressure of even deciding. I should weigh up all options, and just see the pros and cons of each country.”
Earlier on Tuesday, U.S. Men’s National Team coach Gregg Berhalter revealed that he has spoken to Akinola, but not as part of some recruiting pitch.
“Ayo, I I spoke to him and I said, ‘Man, this is a fantastic thing you’re going through. I’m so happy for you. You’re performing, you score all these goals. I go enjoy it’,” Berhalter said. “Don’t think about anything else. Just enjoy the form you’re in. Not many players get that.
“We were just talking about the tournament, and what I can improve on, just in my game, from the two games he’s seen in this tournament,” Akinola said of his conversation with Berhalter.
The USMNT coach expressed confidence in Akinola ultimately sticking with the United States given his lengthy track record as part of the U.S. youth national team setup.
“Again, this is a guy as similar to Sergino (Dest), that was raised in our youth national team program,” Berhalter said. “Goes from Under-17 player, Under-20 player and adds a lot to our program. He was going to be on the Under-20 World Cup team if he didn’t get injured before that. He was a big part of that team and what they were doing.
“We consider him part of our program and that means most likely the next stage for him could be the U-23s, the Olympics, and then potentially the senior national team,” Berhalter said. “Things that hopefully he’ll be a part of as he continues to perform at a high level.”
As impressed as Berhalter has been with Akinola’s play at the MLS is Back Tournament, he tried tempering some of the growing hype around the young Toronto FC striker, who is currently tied for the tournament lead with five goals.
“We’re talking about three games each and we’re saying ‘This is a senior national team player’,” Berhalter said. “We just have to be careful. We have to give these guys time to grow. We have to let them enjoy this period.”
Akinola echoed similar sentiments, making it clear he isn’t trying to spend much time thinking about his national team future, choosing instead to enjoy his outstanding run of form in Orlando.
“Thinking of the national team and (the MLS is Back) tournament, i think it just creates too much havoc,” Akinola said. “I feel like I just should focus on one thing, and then the next thing after.”