MLS: From Leaf to Lion, the Tesho Akindele story

Honduras' Emilio Izaguirre (R) vies for the ball with Canada's Tesho Akindele (L) during their 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers football match in the Olimpico Metropolitano stadium in San Pedro Sula, Honduras on September 2, 2016. / AFP / ORLANDO SIERRA (Photo credit should read ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP/Getty Images)
Honduras' Emilio Izaguirre (R) vies for the ball with Canada's Tesho Akindele (L) during their 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers football match in the Olimpico Metropolitano stadium in San Pedro Sula, Honduras on September 2, 2016. / AFP / ORLANDO SIERRA (Photo credit should read ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP/Getty Images) /

Tesho Akindele has had many changes in his life, from growing a Leaf to becoming a Lion. Here is his story, through his childhood, college and into MLS.

Canadian national team soccer player Tesho Akindele continues to defy the odds and has taken what now is becoming considered an unconventional pathway to the professional game. Akidnlede, the first Canadian player to win the MLS Rookie of the Year, had a nomadic upbringing and came through to the professional ranks through the MLS Superdraft, a player acquisition tool which is expected to become extinct in a few years.

As MLS Multiplex looked at in a prior article, the SuperDraft is not bringing in the high-end talent it once was, with the finest of the draft being largely replacement-level MLS players. Akindele is in this group of players, however, his journey is unique and the impact he made in his rookie season is one that is unparalleled by other players.

Born in Calgary, Alberta to Nigerian immigrant parents, Akindele played soccer as soon as he could walk. It turns out he wasn’t too bad at it. While he improved, soccer began to take more time away from schooling. However, as an immigrant family, the Akindele household valued education more than the average Canadian parent.

‘My parents were always really big on education so they pushed me and thought it was a good decision for me,’ Akindele said when speaking to MLS Multiplex.

The Akindele family moved to Thronton, Colorado when Tesho was eight years old, leaving the talented youngster without a predetermined soccer reputation. Fortunately, he found his feet very soon and cemented himself within the Colorado soccer scene.

At 17, already an established talent within the mile-high state, Akindele was offered a spot in the Colorado Rapids MLS academy system. He quickly declined, opting to pursue a college education and varsity career instead.

Within three years, his decision to decline the Colorado Rapids was proven to be right. the Calgary native tore up the college scene en- route to his SuperDraft selection by FC Dallas. The Canadian forward is now one of the few high-level athletes to finish their university degree. He has an engineering degree after completing his courseload with MLS’ SNHU program, providing him with career options once his playing days are over.

Many athletes are drafted from their freshman or sophomore years, but the fact that Akindele completed college is a testament to his personality and future-proofing of himself. Most athletes are without a fallback career if their lives require it. Playing in MLS, even as a consistent player, is unlikely to fulfil the dreams of a lavish retirement. With Akindele’s education, and his ability to work in a different field after his soccer days are over, he has set himself up for a successful life.

While the Canadian has a fall fallback career, he has also had a very different experience in adjusting to the professional game. ‘The main adjustment is the speed, skill and size. I used to rely on my size, but once I got to MLS I had to be smarter in the way I played,’ outlined Akindele.

What Akindele speaks about is paralleled in every sport and can even manifest itself it other career paths as well. In hockey, Vancouver Canucks rookie Elias Petterson was criticized for his lack of size and weight ahead of his rookie season. He quickly put all of these doubts to bed, earning himself the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s best rookie. The physical adjustment is one that is expected and is also something which is taught now from a young age of sport.

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For all of the adjustments that must be made on the pitch, however, none are tougher than the one young players face when thrust into a locker room with older players. The off-field adjustments are often the most difficult for many young players.

‘It’s a lot different, in college everybody hangs out because you’re all within four years of each and that’s just not the case in the professional game.’ The partying and post-game hangouts don’t exist to the same extent in the professional ranks, as well as the age and cultural gaps that exist within a senior locker room.

Some of the things that hold younger players back from integrating into locker rooms are the facts that some of the team members have families, are at different life stages, and may not share a common language. For some players, these can be the things which spell their demise in the professional ranks. For Akindele, though, his experience from moving when he was a child and moving to university taught him how to adjust to unknown, new situations.

The changes from Canada to the USA, then from elementary to college and college to the pros were not the last of the hurdles in the young forward’s life. After settling in and finding success in Texas, Akindele was transferred to Orlando City, putting yet another stress into his life.

The move to Orlando could not have come at a worse time. Akindele’s wife was set to have a baby the next week. In a May 2019 with, Tesho said, ‘Literally one week after we got here [in Orlando], she had the baby.’

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From the Canadian beginning, through college and now to the professional ranks in Orlando, Tesho Akindle has taken an unconventional path on his way into the professional soccer world. He has defied the odds at every corner and has now established himself as one of the premier players in Canadian soccer. His story is a remarkable one, with every change the next step in an increasingly rare tale.