In the city of Villarreal, near the eastern coast of Spain, apartments of every shape, size and color line the narrow streets. A warm spring sun beats down on a young man who walks past the many cafes and occasional markets. He’s a futboler – not completely unusual, especially in this country and near the training grounds of Villarreal’s many professional and youth squads. But this young soccer player is an American – a Minnesotan no less. His name is Mukwelle Akale, the son of a Minnesota-born mother and a Cameroonian-born father. And he just could be one of the best attacking players the US has ever produced.
Mukwelle’s travels would stagger most adults, let alone an 18-year-old. Despite the travels, the hardships and the absence of his family and friends, Mukwelle is living his dream. He has lived in Villarreal for the last several months – since his golden birthday, January 18th. It was then that Mukwelle (pronounced ma-kwel-lay) could finally sign his first professional contract and start the process of making his dream – playing soccer for a living – a reality.
Mark Yueill is a coach for the Minnesota Thunder Academy (MTA) which is part of the US Development Academy (DA). He’s known Mukwelle and coached him since he was 13. He tells a story that soccer followers in this country have heard many times.
“Here in the US, if Kevin Garnett comes out of high school to play pro, you have a lot of people holding your hand,” he said. “Mukwelle is doing the same thing on the other side of the Atlantic in a new country.”
Yueill points out how outside the soccer world hardly anyone has heard of Mukwelle. “It was a lot of work and perseverance on his part.”
That it was. Yueill speaks of an old 2005 minivan that he owns, that now has over 300,000 miles on it from driving to tournaments across the country. He says Mukwelle has seen the “lion’s share” of those miles.
Mukwelle’s mother, Janet, keeps track of the trips her son has made since joining the US U-14 National Team – both van trips across the country, and transcontinental flights. It started with his inclusion with the U-14s, leading to trips to Los Angeles and back. A few of those trips also took the team to Mexico for friendlies, his first taste of international soccer.
In the fall 2011, when Mukwelle was a freshman in high school at DeLaSalle in downtown Minneapolis, he scored five goals and had two assists in his very first game. As a 14-year-old he eventually led all state soccer players that year, with 38 goals. There was no doubt something special was happening.
At the time the decisions, regarding the young attacking midfielder were simpler than they are today. The Development Academy was going to a 10-month program, meaning anyone who played for a DA team, as Mukwelle did with the MTA, would no longer be able to play high school soccer. Then-DeLaSalle coach Colin Aswegan verbalized the issue. ”His game is at the national level,” he said. “He needs to be with talented players. When he is with the team he is always pushing us, but we aren’t really pushing him.”
Said Yueill, “He has great touch, he can break down and beat defenders and put the other team under pressure with pace and imagination. Some people see what’s directly in front of them. Mukwelle sees the field in terms of pathways – pathways through the defense and to goal.”
Mukwelle developed those skills at a young age with his father Ralph, who ran coaching clinics and teams in the Twin Cities. He would have Mukwelle watch videos of famous players and then work through the mechanics of a particular move. Mukwelle was a fast learner and persistent.
His decision to play high school or DA soccer ended abruptly, in December of 2011, when Ralph received a call from Wilmer Cabrera, who (then) was the US U-17 coach. Cabrera asked Mukwelle to join the Residency program. Ralph asked Cabrera why he wanted his 14-year-old son in his residency camp.
“He told me the U.S. struggles to develop playmakers who are able to break down situations with skill. That’s what he saw in Mukwelle,” said Ralph.
Mukwelle joined the team in Bradenton, Florida just after Christmas and right before his 15th birthday, making him the youngest player in the US U-17 Residency program.
For the next several years he traveled a great deal between the Twin Cities and Bradenton. In his typical persistent way he continued to work hard and learn. He said there was also homesickness, but it never seemed too bad because most of his teammates were experiencing the same thing.
At the end of his time in Bradenton, Mukwelle was able to move back home and join his classmates at DeLaSalle for his junior year. It’s something that the young US Soccer player looks back on with great fondness after several years away. Those who know Mukwelle say he’s polite, well spoken, funny and just loves to hang out with his friends and play video games. What differentiates him from others his age is his talent and his drive to succeed.
“The sacrifices I’m making are not doing the normal things that people my age would normally be doing,” says Mukwelle. “It means giving up now for what you will gain in the future, and I’m about a driven as you can be about that.”
Mukwelle took advantage of his time with family and friends but continued to put on miles, traveling in Yueill’s minivan for DA trips with the MTA and flying to US Soccer training camps and tournaments. He was often gone for weeks on end, yet his mother Janet said he always kept his grades up.
In all, Mukwelle has seen 10 countries over the last four years, traveling to Azerbaijan, Argentina, Czech Republic, France (three times), Holland, Turkey, Mexico (twice), Panama, Portugal, and numerous flights to Spain. But it was a trip with the U-18s to the Canary Islands that started to change his life.
After leaving the residency program and under the watchful eye of US Under-18 coach Javier Perez, Mukwelle was seeing a lot more playing time – so much so that he was a key player for the US in the Copa del Atlantico tournament in the Canary Islands in February of 2014. Even though the US didn’t win a single game, they were competitive throughout the tournament which saw them play against the Spain U-19s and Argentina’s U-20 national teams. Despite the age difference, and often a large size difference, Mukwelle walked away from the tournament with the MVP award, making him only the second player from outside Spain or the Canary Islands to receive the honor since its inception in 2009.
Mukwelle’s performance was so impressive that his agent received a call from Villarreal offering the 17-year-old American high school senior a spot on their Juvenile A team (U-19), without so much as a trial.
An itinerary was thrown together quickly for Mukwelle to see if Villarreal seemed like a good fit for him. Because of the rush he says the trip got a bit “sketchy.” To get to his destination he took a domestic flight, with a stop in another state, and then onto Paris. He then flew to Barcelona, figured out to take a train to a bus, then boarded another train where he finally got picked up and driven to Villarreal.
Once there he knew Villarreal was a perfect fit. “Everyone is playing each training session like it’s a match. High intensity. Everyone is a high quality player and everyone has something to show, has something to give. So you can only improve. I loved it right away.”
Villarreal weren’t the only team with interest. He so impressed in the tournament that according to Mukwelle he received offers for trails with some of Europe’s biggest clubs, including Barcelona, Atlético Madrid, Real Madrid, Olympique de Marseille, Paris Saint-Germain, Olympique Lyonnais, and teams in Holland.
Mukwelle says he and his parents, along with his agent, chose Villarreal because they have a great record of developing talent. “Villarreal is known for their development of world-class players from a very young age,” he says. “They have a history of a lot of players who have started out as 12-year-olds and gone on to be first-team players and sold off to bigger clubs. That’s what my goal is. That’s my reason for being here. Also, the Spanish style fits my style of play perfectly.”
Akale finished his junior year, then in August started shuttling from Minnesota to Spain and back again about once a month. In the meantime he started accelerating his classes to finish high school early. His mother says one of Mukwelle’s accomplishments she’s most proud of is he still holds a B-average throughout his jet-setting, training and games. Mukwelle says he is working hard to finish several credits, to graduate on time with his class this spring.
A little later in 2014, the US U-18s played in the International Tournament of Vaclav Jezek which the US won with victories over Czech Republic, Hungary, and Ukraine. Mukwelle scored the tournament winning goal over Ukraine and once again hoisted the tournament MVP award.
Between those two performances and the call to play professionally with Villarreal, Mukwelle confidence rose. Not that he didn’t always believe in himself, it’s something he says he’s always had. But tournaments like the Copa del Atlantico as well the Tournament of Vaclav Jezek boosted his belief in himself. “For me, I knew the quality of the players and what teams they were playing for, but when I stepped on the field I just played like I’d play against anyone. But after the tournaments, and winning those awards against all these great players, I finally started to realize that maybe I can do this.”
Mukwelle credits another experience in the last two years that may surprise. “I gained a little more confidence at the right time, living back at home in Minnesota and playing with MTA. The level of play probably wasn’t quite as high but I gained back a little confidence playing at the Academy level. That really helped a lot.”
The Villarreal Juvenile A player also credits his U-18 team for helping build his confidence which he says came from the success of playing an attacking 4-3-3 system. It’s the same system US Soccer is implementing throughout their teams, says Mukwelle. What is that system? “It’s a 4-3-3 with four in the back, three midfielders, one attacking, one half-and-half attacking and defending and another strictly defending,” explains Mukwelle. “Then you have a center striker, a left wing and a right wing. Everyone moves the ball, moves the ball, moves the ball. Defenders to attackers to midfielder back to attackers. The point is to use combination play and create chances in the box and use width to create some crosses.” In other words an attacking style, right up Mukwelle’s alley.
Currently, the attacking midfielder lives in the Villarreal dorms where he can watch the first team train from his window. His plan is to get an apartment of his own next season. He gets up around 7:30 a.m. for breakfast and starts their preventivo (warm up) at 9:30 with training starting 10:00 and ending at noon. After 15 minutes in the gym they eat lunch with the first team and is free the rest of the day. He says he sometimes sits near Mexican National Team player Giovani dos Santos.