Bolu Akinyode arrived in the United States just ahead of his 10th birthday in 2004. Two years later he found an online advertisement to try out for the New York Red Bulls Academy at Giants Stadium. He hasn't left the club since.
Akinyode says his transition was tough, especially with fitting in at school, and not knowing where to play soccer. He was a highly-rated prospect back in Nigeria, even appearing in some youth national team camps at the U14 level.
"It is funny, I was in NJ and I didn’t know what the academy was, how to get there or how to get to training, so I didn’t play soccer the first couple of years here," Akinyode tells Once a Metro.
"I ended up moving to Brooklyn, and tried out for the academy at Giants Stadium. It worked out and once I made the team I started to get to know kids and knowing different people and it helped me transition.
"I made a lot of my really close friends through the Red Bull Academy, and it's just soccer made me feel at home and settled in the United States."
Once settled in, Akinyode ended up captaining the U16 academy team, and playing with the U18s as well. Akinyode stayed local for college: attending Seton Hall University, where he would come home in the summer and play for the Red Bulls' U23 team. Since joining the academy, there has been only one year in his career that Akinyode played club soccer outside the Red Bull organization, staying in New Jersey to play with the Premier Development League NJ-LUSO Parma.
"There is no coincidence why I stayed in NJ: because there are good players here and the academy is great," Akinyode said
"It is one of the best states for soccer in my experience, and being so close to home just makes it better."
In addition to playing for every youth team possible in the academy, Akinyode served as a ball boy for the first team, watching NYRB II head coach John Wolyniec grace Giants Stadium as a player. The relationship between the two continued throughout Akinyode's career.
Wolyniec coached Akinyode his first year with the U23 team, and the pair stayed in touch after. That relationship Akinyode said tipped him off to the formation of NYRB II - and his first professional opportunity.
"I came in and I trained with the first team one time, and I trained with the reserves over the summer while I played with the U23s, and John and I just kind of stayed in contact," Akinyode said.
"He told me, ‘Hey, if you’re free and you want to play, we’re having a team and you should try out.’ I came to the tryouts and did pretty well and I winded up signing here."
Akinyode credits the team's success to having as many players as possible in the Red Bulls' system to start out. He says that bringing in guys that have been learning soccer under the same philosophy "makes it definitely easier for us to gel and grow as a team."
Currently NYRB II sits third in the USL Eastern Conference with 39 points in 25 games. The playoffs are not assured yet for the team, with five teams in the mix for the final three playoff spots.
"Right now it is just about the last three games: get as many points as we can get," Akinyode said.
"We are not looking too far ahead, because if you look too far ahead, you might forget the present, so we just want to get as many points as we can in the last three games and then go from there.
"You have ups and downs as a player. It has been good for me, I’ve enjoyed the transition. And working with the coaches and stuff, I’ve definitely become a better player and I think I’ve made a lot of progress so far this season."
Part of that progress for Akinyode has been playing at the highest level he can in three different positions. He has featured as a defensive midfielder, a center back, and a left back, with Coach Wolyniec letting him know early in the week which position he needs to prepare to play.
Akinyode says his favorite position is defensive midfield, with Speedy Williams being the partner he has felt most comfortable with in the 4-2-3-1. But he is always ready to play center back and left back, two positions he played at the academy.
"Right now I’ve enjoyed playing left back, and I like learning the position, but I like myself as a defensive midfielder kind of winning balls in the middle and spraying passes around," Akinyode said.
"As time goes on, I think I’m only going to get better at it and when I feel more comfortable playing that position I’ll slot right in."
After taking in the roar of the crowd warming up, Akinyode said it took a few touches for him to settle down, but after that it was just soccer. After the match, wanting to keep soaking in the moment, Akinyode and fellow NYRB II teammate Victor Manosalvas ventured over to the Chelsea locker room in the hopes of exchanging jerseys. The pair encountered manager Jose Mourinho, snapped this delightful picture, then offered a tale of what came next:
After the game we wanted to exchange jerseys with some of the players, so we went by the locker room, and Mourinho actually came out and let us go into the locker room and meet the players.
We got to talk to everyone. I got to talk to Jon Obi Mikel, who is from my country, and I talked to everyone from Courtois to John Terry to every player on the team. Ramires and Fabregas, they were just standing around with the players letting us talk to them and get some jerseys and stuff. It was really, really cool.
For Akinyode, beyond the immediate objectives of this season, the long-term goal remains to get back into the national team program for either Nigeria or the United States. He was called into a United States U20 camp in 2012, his second national team call up.
"It was an amazing experience; there was nothing better than representing my country," Akinyode said.
"I see the US as half of me, and I spent half my life in Nigeria - so both experiences were good times in my life. It would be my dream to play for either national team. It is just about which one contacts me first - I have no preference.
"That will be a dream of mine, and a goal of mine to get back and make that or an Olympic team because I am eligible for both."