Toronto FC's Ayo Akinola caught between potential and unfulfilled talent

Ayo Akinola (20) in action during the MLS game between...
Ayo Akinola (20) in action during the MLS game between... / SOPA Images/GettyImages

The story of Ayo Akinola is both inspiring and poignant. His rise from periods of homelessness as a youngster, show how much mental fortitude he (along with his mother and brother) possess.

Anything that happens on the football pitch obviously pales in comparison to what Akinola and his family have endured. However, he once more must show his fighting spirit and ability to deal with adversity, in order to fulfill his potential.

Akinola's rise through the ranks at TFC was something he could have only dreamed of in his youth. As 2017 drew to a close however, he became the became the 15th player to graduate from the Reds' academy and sign a contract with the first team.

During his first two seasons with Toronto FC, the 22-year-old's opportunities were limited at the MLS level, although he did show glimpses of what he could do. He appeared in 12 regular season games -- including two starts -- scoring once and adding two assists.

Ever since Ayo Akinola burst onto the scene in 2020 during the MLS is Back Tournament, Toronto FC and their fans have been expecting more, but will the striker ever fulfill his undoubted potential?

It wasn't until the Covid-compromised 2020 season, when Akinola announced his arrival to the footballing world. More specifically, during the MLS is Back Tournament in Orlando.

Akinoa became just the second player in franchise history to score two or more goals in successive games. He also become the first player to score a hat-trick in the Canadian Classic against the Montreal Impact.

For good measures, the forward became the third-youngest player in MLS history to score a hat-trick full stop. He finished the tournament with five goals, good enough for second-most behind Diego Rossi of LAFC.

Even after normal service was resumed -- or as normal as it could be joining Covid-19 - Akinola continued to impress for the Reds. He finished the 2020 season tied with Alejandro Pozuelo for the team lead with nine MLS goals. (For the record, Pozuelo essentially played twice as many minutes).

Akinola's good form overall spilled over into the following season, highlighted by three goals in his first 11 MLS games of the season (which included eight starts). He even began to attract attention from clubs in Europe.

Misfortune arises

Then fate determined the Detroit, Michigan native must suffer some bad fortune. He suffered an ACL injury in June which playing for Canada and it brought a premature end to his 2021 season.

Despite the Injury, Toronto FC saw enough in Akinola to offer him a new contract through the 2024 season, with an option for 2025. The deal included a considerable raise from the $157,513 he earned in 2021 and meant the world to him and his family after their previous desperate financial struggles.

At the time, TFC President Bull Manning was intrigued by how much more was to come from Akinola. As per CBC, Manning released a statment saying:

"Over the last few years, watching Ayo grow as a player and a person has been extremely gratifying to the many staff who have worked with him along our player pathway. We have seen glimpses the last two seasons of just how impactful Ayo can be and it's exciting to think of what's still to come for him as a TFC player."

Now though, Akinola faces a new challenge in his professional playing career after not making the necessary and expected progress this past season. He scored just twice and overall had minimal impact, despite setting personal highs of 14 starts and 26 overall appearances.

Time to prove his worth

As much as Toronto FC struggled as a whole in 2022, Akinola knows he must focus on improving his own level of play. The question is, will he return to the form which enticed so many people in 2020?

There is no denying the Canadian international has the talent to succeed, with the pace, strength and technical ability to terrorize any MLS defence. There is no reason why he can't still fulfill his undoubted potential.

However, this is now a crucial period in Akinola's career and it will be interesting to see how he responds. At some point, if you don't live up to expectations -- fair or not -- it will be perceived that you have wasted your talent and opportunity.

There is nothing to suggest Akinola can't bounce back from his poor 2022 campaign and show everyone what he is more than capable of. If he actually does however, is another matter altogether.

While you can never be entirely sure, we confidently predict Akinola will bounce back next season and once again treat football fans like he did during 2020. If nothing else, his upbringing ensures that he knows how to deal with tough times and come through to usually find himself in a better position.

What do you predict for Akinola next season with Toronto FC? How confident are you that he will return to his 2020 form? Let us know in the comments section below.