Canadian international Tesho Akindele hopes to lift U.S. Open Cup with Orlando City

·6 min read

Canadian international Tesho Akindele has been on the mark of late for Orlando City SC, scoring late goals to secure wins over Charlotte FC and New York City FC.

He hopes that bodes well for Wednesday's Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup final against visiting Sacramento Republic FC of the second-tier USL Championship.

"It's been a big couple of weeks for me personally," said Akindele. "Obviously being able to score two really big goals for our team. But then just for our team in general, we've won four games in a row and now we're headed into a cup final. So there's a lot of momentum with us."

The 30-year-old Calgary-born forward won the U.S. Open Cup in 2016 with FC Dallas, coming off the bench in the 58th minute, under current Orlando head coach Oscar Pareja.

Orlando faces a resilient underdog in Sacramento, which has already dispatched MLS opposition in the San Jose Earthquakes, Los Angeles Galaxy and Sporting Kansas City.

Sacramento opened tournament play with a 6-0 win over the Portland Timbers under-23 squad before posting a 2-1 victory over Central Valley Fuego FC of the third-tier USL League One. It then dispatched Phoenix Rising FC of the USL League Championship 2-0, San Jose, the Galaxy 2-1 and Kansas City 5-4 in a penalty shootout after the semifinal finished knotted at 0-0.

Sacramento sits fourth in the USL Championship Western Conference at 12-8-7. Orlando is fifth in the MLS Eastern Conference at 12-10-6.

Orlando, which entered the draw in the third round, reached the final by defeating the Tampa Bay Rowdies of the USL Championship 2-1, Philadelphia Union 2-1, Inter Miami 4-2 in a penalty shootout (after a 1-1 tie), Nashville City 6-5 in a penalty shootout (after a 1-1 draw) and the New York Red Bulls 5-1 in the semifinal.

Akindele started against Miami and Nashville and came in off the bench against the Red Bulls.

All of Orlando's tournament games have been at home. Sacramento also played on home turf apart from the quarterfinal win over the Galaxy.

Wednesday's game at Exploria Stadium is already a sellout with 25,500 expected in attendance.

"Most of our games during the year aren't sold out and it's still super-loud in that stadium so I can't even imagine what the atmosphere's going to be like sold out," said Akindele. "I hope we're going to get a lot of Sacramento fans over there too because it's always nice to have that kind of back-and-forth between the two fans groups. It just adds to the atmosphere."

"We don't want to have too many Sacramento fans," he added quickly. "Maybe we can have them up in the corner somewhere."

Orlando is looking to hoist its first trophy since joining MLS in 2015. The U.S Open champion also earns a spot in the Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League.

"We just think it's kind of our time here," said Akindele. "And we think the fan base here deserves a trophy at the MLS level and we hope to be the team to bring that to them."

Only one Florida team has ever won the U.S. Open Cup, which dates back to 1913. The St. Petersburg Kickers of the Florida Suncoast Soccer League did it in 1989.

The last non-MLS team to reach the championship game was the Charleston Battery which lost to D.C. United in 2008 with Canadian Marco Reda in the lineup.

Orlando had the weekend off to prepare for the final and last played Aug. 31 when it beat Seattle 3-2. No such luck for Sacramento, which dug deep into its roster in a 3-1 loss Saturday at East-leading Louisville City FC.

In nine MLS seasons, Akindele has 42 goals and 16 assists in 232 regular-season appearances, including 115 starts. He has another three goals in 13 playoff appearances.

Born in Calgary, Akindele moved to Mississauga, Ont., when he was two and Winnipeg at four. Three years later his father, a financial analyst, moved the family to Thornton, Colo., just north of Denver.

But there have been regular family gatherings at his grandparents' home near Kelowna, B.C. He also has family in Edmonton, Toronto and Vancouver.

Akindele has won 19 caps for Canada with three goals and two assists. His last national team appearance was in the 2021 Gold Cup and he did not figure in the recent round of World Cup qualifying.

He still has his eye on Qatar, however.

"I'm for sure holding out hope (of making the Canadian team) and I'm trying every day to just work as hard as I can off the field and then really try to put in the performances on the field that would get me called into the team. The forward position, especially, is so deep on the team. There's so many talented players right now. So just even to be in that conversation is a real blessing for me.

"At the end of the year, I hope I'm there in the roster that gets flown out to Qatar. But if I'm not, for sure I'll be here in Orlando as the No. 1 fan of the team, because I've been with those guys through so much."

Akindele was drafted sixth overall by Dallas in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft after a stellar career at the Colorado School of Mines where he set a school record with 76 goals while studying electrical engineering. He won Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference player of the year honours in 2012 and '13.

The awards kept coming. He won MLS Rookie of the Year honours in 2014, with seven goals and three assists in 26 games (including 18 starts) and helped Dallas capture the 2016 Supporters' Shield and U.S. Open Cup titles. Six of those goals came in a six-game span in July-August that year.

He was traded to Orlando in December 2018 in exchange for US$100,000 in targeted allocation money and US$50,000 in general allocation money. Akindele is out of contract after this season.

"You never know what the future holds. That's the life of a soccer player," he said.

Off the field, Akindele obtained a master's degree in finance after finishing his engineering degree. He has invested in real estate with a recent interest in urbanism, the study of the physical needs of urban societies.

He has switched from looking at real estate as a commodity to a tool "to make cities' and people's life better."

"Whatever I end up doing after soccer, I hope to be able to positively impact my community, my neighbourhood, my city, whatever it is."

Akindele, who is married with two children, already has a reason to celebrate Wednesday. His youngest son Rook turns one that day.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 6, 2022

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press