Akale has now been with Villarreal in Spain for 19 months. He says his Spanish is nearly fluent and he has his own apartment and is learning to cook. “It’s pretty comfortable,” said Akale by phone last week.
The 19-year-old US U20 player said the last year has been a busy one. He scored 11 goals and had 8 assists with Villarreal’s Juvenil A team.
You’d think I’d be scared but it wasn’t like that at all. I was just ready to get out there and enjoy it. I felt like this is where I belong – let’s do it. Let’s get on with it.
Toward the end of the season, they brought Akale up to train with the C team – two steps below the first team – to get a feel of what he’d be experiencing this coming year when he went to their reserve and left the youth system with the Yellow Submarine.
He reports that his Juvenil A team won their league of 16 teams for the second year in a row which qualified them for four competitions. “We got knocked out last spring in the first round of the Youth Champions League. We also have the league competition,” explained the Minnesota native. “If you win the league it opens the door to two more tournaments.”
Those tournaments are called the Champions Cup and the Kings Cup. In the Champions Cup, the winners of all eight leagues in the U19s play a knockout competition starting at the quarterfinals. “We were knocked out in the first round of that one too,” laughed Akale.
After a one week break, his team started in with the Copa Del Rey. It includes all teams that finish first and second place in the eight leagues with 16 teams involved, with home and away games. Away goals count like in Champions League, where away goals act as tie breakers. “We won our first two games and then we went up to Real Madrid,” said Akale. “We tied both games but they had more away goals so they ended up going through.”
Akale was finally able to return home to Minnesota in late June. He helped his father Ralph with a soccer camp for a week and then headed off to the US U20 camp for another week. He tried to get some R & R by heading to some friends’ lake cabins but that only lasted a week and a half before having to head back to Spain to start preparing for this season with his C team.
When he returned to Villarreal for training, he was pulled up to the Villarreal B team and played the first half against Rayo Vallecano’s first team.
Really cool to make my preseason debut with Villarreal B and play first half against Rayo Vallecano's first team! ~YM?
— qTip (@mukwelle_akale) July 23, 2016
He continued to train with the C team but was then surprised – as were all the players – to learn that former head coach Marcelino had departed the club after leading his team to a 4th place finish last season. The announcement, posted on the team website, was startling to many. “Villarreal wants to wish Marcelino all the best for the rest of his career,” the announcement simply said.
The team pulled in Fran Escribá, a 51-year-old manager who played his entire career at Valencia and has been coaching since 2001. His latest head job was with Getafe CF in the second division, which had gained promotion to the first division.
Akale said he could immediately see a change in styles between the two managers. “In the second session I trained with the first team,” explained Akale. He said he’d never been given that opportunity in the year-and-a-half he’s been with Villarreal.
“From what I’ve seen he’s a really good coach, a players coach. If you have questions you can speak with him. It’s not just him telling you what to do. So it’s pretty nice,” said Akale.
Akale said he didn’t want to stand out and look like a kid training with the first team. “I wanted to feel like I was one of them,” he explained. So Akale kept his head down and his mouth shut.
The second day he trained with the team, the coaching staff surprised him with the news that he was going to travel with the first team to Leganés (a team that was promoted last season) for the Villarreal’s final preseason game. He was thrilled.
Traveling with the team is when he started feeling more comfortable and speaking to more players. Akale said the individuals who really reached out to him where the other foreigners, including Bojan Jokic and Nicola Sansone.
“Sansone is our new striker from Italy and he speaks English. When someone can speak English you feel better immediately and you quickly become friends,” he explained.
Akale not only traveled with the team but got significant playing time subbing in the 61st minute of the match that they lost 3-2.
“You’d think I’d been scared but it wasn’t like that at all,” said Akale. “I was just ready to get out there and enjoy it. I felt like this is where I belong – let’s do it. Let’s get on with it.”
“I was running at players and doing my thing with the ball. I almost had an assist when the defenders made a mistake and the ball came to me. I played it through to Sansone who had a shot but it was saved. So I was close to getting an assist on that play.
“Pretty late in the game the right back was going to play it back to the goalkeeper and I read the play and ran towards it. The pass was short, so it was perfect. The keeper came out and I did poke it past him but the ball went out of bounds. It was close,” said Akale with a sigh.
That game was Escribá’s first with the team and Akale was glad he was there. He says the new manager praised his team but Akale believes there will be changes coming with different tactics for the team. “He just said he saw some things we have to change. He looked at me afterward and smiled, gave me a pat on the back and said nice work. The assistant coaches also told me I had done a really good job. I was pretty happy.”
“I think he was just bringing me up to give me a taste and see what it was like and to see what I’m working towards,” said Akale. “You never know; another chance comes, I play well again, and I stay with them a little longer. You never know what can happen. For now, I’m just happy that I had the chance and I’ll keep working.”
As has been previously reported, the day was bittersweet for Akale. He found out the morning of his game with the first team that he had lost his grandmother, Alice Madzey, who he was close with and lived in the Twin Cities.
— qTip (@mukwelle_akale) August 14, 2016
Alice Madzey must have been very proud on August 13th, as were many of Mukwelle Akale’s friends and family. As the season kicks off in Spain, it’s clear that Akale’s stock is on the rise.