TORONTO — An unused substitute in Toronto FC's last two games, forward Ayo Akinola is still waiting for liftoff.
It's been a long road back from knee surgery last August. But the 22-year-old from Brampton, Ont., has been cleared to play and says his time is coming.
"It's nearly nine months now. Any time my name is called upon to come on the field, I know I'll be ready for it," he said after training Wednesday.
"From what the doctors and medical staff told me I'm pretty much ahead of schedule," he added. "So everything's been going in my favour."
It didn't feel that way last July when Akinola injured the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee in Canada's 1-0 loss to the U.S. at the Gold Cup in Kansas City.
Making his first start and second appearance for Canada since switching allegiance from the U.S., Akinola was forced off the field after his right knee appeared to twist in a challenge with James Sands.
Akinola has come a long way since, with countless hours spent rehabbing the knee. After watching TFC's last two games against Philadelphia and New York City FC from the bench, he should be available again Saturday when Toronto (3-3-2) hosts FC Cincinnati (3-5-1).
The success of forward Jesus Jimenez has given coach Bob Bradley time to bring Akinola back slowly. Signed in February from Poland's Gornik Zabrze, the 28-year-old Spaniard has six goals, tied for the league lead with Austin FC's Argentine striker Sebastian Driussi.
"He's a cool guy," Akinola said of Jimenez. "Very calm. Very mellow type of guy … Very technical, very good with his feet."
Akinola says he has been studying the way the Spaniard moves.
"I'd like to play up top with him," he added. "That's what I kind of envision. But at the same time I don't make the decisions around here. Obviously that's up to Bob."
Akinola says Bradley has been checking in with him regularly, getting feedback on how he feels — mentally and physically — and telling him how he looks on the field.
Akinola says he feels fine physically. It's more mental now, in terms of "trusting" the knee in a game situation.
Akinola says he felt the most frustration right after undergoing surgery Aug. 5. He was essentially restricted to his home for the first eight weeks, other than getting treatment at the TFC training centre.
He credits his mother for looking after him while his mobility was limited.
"She took care of me when I was home. Drove me to the training ground every single day. She was the only person I could really talk to face-to-face."
As he started to get back on the field to train, he started scouting other MLS teams in action.
"Knowing that I was coming back to the mix, I really wanted to prepare myself ahead (of time) so that when I do come up on defenders I already know their weaknesses, I know their tendencies."
While Akinola said he was briefly in shock when he was told he had injured his ACL, he soon focused on his recovery
"I'm a big believer that everything happens for a reason so I'm not upset that an injury like this happened to me," he said. "It was just probably God's plan."
He also realized that he would be back playing early in the MLS season — leaving plenty of time to stake a claim to being on the Canada team that goes to the World Cup in Qatar in November.
"Knowing that I could still have a shot to be part of that roster for the World Cup, I was more at ease," he said. "I was calm."
Getting to Qatar is a "big, big goal."
"For me personally that's all I've been wanting to do since I played soccer," he said of making it to the World Cup.
Akinola was in the stands last month when the Canadian men qualified for Qatar with a 4-0 win over Jamaica. Even thinking of it brought a smile to his face.
"Just to be part of it. just to see it, witness it, was amazing," he said. "But now that's done. Now it's time to get business done in Qatar."
Canada head coach John Herdman has been in regular contact, checking up on how Akinola is doing.
"He's been really good with me … It's nice to know you're still wanted," Akinola said. "That one of the reasons why I kind of switched to Canada, to feel wanted."
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 the senior team before switching allegiance to Canada last June. 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 announced his arrival with five goals in three games for Toronto at the MLS is Back Tournament in the summer of 2020. He missed most of the 2021 pre-season with an unspecified medical ailment but had three goals in 11 league appearances prior to injuring his knee
In January, Akinola signed a new contract with Toronto that runs through 2024 with an option for 2025.
Akinola's new 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.'' Akinola made US$157,513 last season.
While Akinola has made no secret of his desire to play in Europe at some point, he said he opted to sign a new deal with Toronto because of the club's belief in him and the support the team's medical staff has provided.
"Some of them have known me since I was 14," he said. "They've known me for a while so they know my body."
He also saw teammate Ifunanyachi Achara come through ACL surgery.
"That gave me a sense of relief. Knowing what they've done with Achara, I know that they will take care of me the right way."
Akinola, who signed with TFC as a homegrown player in December 2017, has made a combined 46 appearances across all competitions with 14 goals. His breakthrough year was in 2020 when he scored a team-high nine goals in 15 games.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 27, 2022.
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press