This is Part 2 of a 2-part profile of Minnesotan and US National Team player Mukwelle Akale. Part 1 can be found here.
Mukwelle Akale’s journey could be easier. While many US players are choosing to stay at home and play in MLS, Mukwelle says that was never an option for him. His words may sound familiar to American soccer supporters – like something they’ve heard from their national team coach, Jurgen Klinsmann.
“My dream isn’t just to be a professional player but to be one of the best,” Mukwelle says emphatically. “To do that you have to go to where the biggest teams are, where the best players play and where the biggest love for soccer is, and that’s Europe.”
While shuttling back and forth from Minnesota to Spain, Mukwelle was honored again late in 2014, when he was named a finalist for US Soccer’s Young Male Athlete of the Year award. With DeAndre Yedlin also one of the five competing for the award, Mukwelle says he had no illusions about winning – and felt the 21-year-old Spurs player was the most deserving, for not only making the World Cup squad but also playing well in the tournament. He says he was greatly honored to be included, and the nomination also helped boost his confidence.
In Minnesota, Mukwelle has at times been compared to his idol, Lionel Messi. While no one can actually compare to the otherworldly Argentinian, there are far more similarities than one would see in the average young player: left-footed, close control, bursts of speed and seeing the field as well if not better than any of the other 19 field players. But for all those strengths there could also be a weakness in a similarity: size.
On March 4th, Mukwelle finally saw his idol, not on TV but this time for real – live – playing against Villarreal at the Estadio El Madrigal in the 2nd leg of a Copa del Rey match. It was a game Barcelona won 3-1, with no goals by Messi but an assist from the maestro to Neymar, who tallied two in the match. While Mukwelle was impressed, he was also surprised with what he saw.
“In person, Messi doesn’t look like a soccer player, he looks like someone who is not that athletic. I can’t explain what a soccer player is supposed to look like. All I can tell you is that by just looking at him and not knowing who he is, you wouldn’t expect him to be who is he and what he does. That’s what surprised me,” said Mukwelle.
It’s something that might also be said about Mukwelle. While Messi stands only 5’ 6”, he is still two inches taller than Mukwelle, who is 5’ 4” and only 120 lbs. There is not much stature or bulk to the young attacking player. Understandably, his size seems to be brought into almost every discussion that addresses the progress of the young Minnesotan.
When Mukwelle is asked about his size, it’s obvious the subject has been brought up previously. He answers with perhaps a bit of disdain for the question. “The ball is played on the ground. If you’re smarter than your opponent you don’t need to be bigger than him. You outsmart him by positioning, having good touches on the ball and not putting yourself in positions where you need to be stronger than the person next to you.”
Minnesota’s most notable international soccer contact to date has to be Tony Sanneh, who has watched Mukwelle plenty of times while working for US Soccer as a scout and assessor for the Development Academy. While Sanneh is not ready to call him the “best” young player to ever come out of Minnesota, he ranks him highly, along with Leo Cullen, Manny Lagos and Eric Miller. “Each of those players are slightly different in what they bring to the pitch,” says Sanneh. He says all of them, including Mukwelle, are definitely the top Minnesota guys in the last 20 years. Interestingly, Cullen is now Mukwelle’s agent.
“Mukwelle is definitely the most explosive offensively, and has the best play-making ability. He shows an incredible maturity and has played in some very big games for his age,” said Sanneh.
“Is he big enough to play professionally? Yes! You look at DaMarcus Beasley [who stands 5’ 8”] and he was really thin and small. He was so light he’d sort of bounce off of people. He was a little taller then Mukwelle, but he was more frail. But he [Mukwelle] is going to have to continue to work on his strength. You look at a player like Eden Hazard [who also is 5’ 8”], but he’s strong and has a low center of gravity. Mukwelle is certainly fast enough to get around guys, but he’s got to be strong enough that they can’t just put an arm up and stop him.”
Former coach Mark Yueill has no doubt the smallish player can compete with anyone. “When you stand and talk with Mukwelle, you realize he’s not a very big guy. But I can honestly say, never once on a soccer field have I ever looked at him and gone, oh gosh! I wish you were bigger. Never once. A year ago the US U-17s played MLS teams in the preseason. He was playing against fully grown professional men and always held his own.”
Referring to the Copa del Atlantico tournament, Yueill said, “Everyone on Spain and Argentina’s teams were full-out professionals with top-end clubs. River Plate, Barcelona, Real Madrid… you can take your pick. There were some big men there. And here’s Mukwelle, all 5’4’’ of him, winning the MVP trophy.”
Sanneh says he’s seen no indication either that Mukwelle can’t play with larger players. “You look at Maradona, Pele, Messi, they are all small. And he has that Messi-like burst – plus he’s very technical.”
The former US National team player says that he also believes Mukwelle’s success will come in two parts: the first is up to Mukwelle and his own efforts, and the second is getting someone to believe in him and give him a chance – something he may have found at Villarreal.
“The Spanish league is very technical, very possession-orientated,” said Sanneh. “Both are things that are in his wheelhouse. 90 percent of it is getting the confidence. So if he’s in a league and even a system that he believes in and compliments his game, he’s going to be much more likely to succeed.”
Like all athletes, Mukwelle has plenty of goals. He explains that every couple of weeks a few players will get looks from the first team. He soon wants to be one of those players, getting noticed and training in front of first team manager Marcelino García Toral.
Long-term he would like to become a starter, and one of the best players on the first team for Villarreal. Setting even loftier goals, he wants to be playing well enough to be recognized as one of the greatest players playing the game.
For his country, he also has his eyes set on being considered for the next Olympic squad, and making the 23-man roster for the 2018 World Cup team.
While his goals may be lofty, who’d have thought that a 17-year-old Minnesotan would be picking up international tournament awards against players bigger, older and with more experience. It’s probably not a wise idea to doubt Mukwelle’s dreams.