Canada has lost two of its forwards at the Gold Cup, with Toronto FC feeling long-term pain as a result.
TFC forward Ayo Akinola is out for the season after injuring the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee in Canada’s 1-0 loss to the U.S. on Sunday at the CONCACAF championship.
Cyle Larin, injured in the same game, is also out of the tournament but his prognosis is less dire – a soft tissue leg injury that will sideline him for weeks not months.
Akinola exited the game at Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas City in the 24th minute with Larin following him off the pitch in the 53rd.
Akinola, making his first start and second appearance for Canada since switching allegiance from the U.S., could not continue after his knee appeared to twist in a challenge with James Sands.
“It’s been one of the lowest moments of my career,” Canadian coach John Herdman said Tuesday in an interview from Texas. “I’ve experienced one ACL on the women’s side [as Canada coach] but this is the first time on the men’s.
“Until the MRI came through there was still a bit of hope, that it might be OK,” he added. “And then it came through and everyone was just devastated for him. It was a tough day.”
Veteran Toronto forward Dom Dwyer said the MLS team was “devastated” at the news.
“He’s a fantastic kid, fantastic talent,” Dwyer said in Toronto. “We’re all behind him, we’re all with him. I’ve had knee injuries myself and it’s something that you can come back from and be much stronger.”
Herdman said doctors erred on the side of caution with Larin, keeping one eye on the September start of the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.
“When they MRI’d it, they just saw a slight tear in there,” Herdman said. “So usually two to three weeks is what you’re looking at, about 14 days.”
The Gold Cup final, should Canada get there, is Aug. 1.
The 26-year-old Besiktas striker has been on a roll of late, scoring a record 10 goals for Canada this year including five in his last five games.
Akinola announced his arrival with five goals in three games for Toronto at the MLS is Back Tournament last summer. He missed most of pre-season this year with an unspecified medical ailment but has three goals in 11 league appearances, eight of which have been starts.
“He’s in a good mindset,” said Herdman. “He had a rough ride with some medical issues early this year, which I think helped him understand the mentality it’s going to take to get through this. He’s already setting himself some goals to get back in record time.”
In a social media post, Akinola said he was “gutted” to be out for the year. But he added that mentally he was “still in a good place and not bothered by it at all.”
He thanked everyone for their “heartwarming messages.”
The 21-year-old Akinola is the second young TFC striker to suffer an ACL injury in a year. Rookie Ifunanyachi Achara underwent knee surgery in early July 2020 and has yet to return to action although the club says he is close.
Herdman said Canadian midfielder Stephen Eustaquio had already shared war stories with Akinola.
Eustaquio, who now plays his club football for FC Pacos de Ferreira in Portugal, injured his ACL minutes into his debut with Mexico’s Cruz Azul in a game against Tijuana in January 2019.
“He’s in great hands at Toronto FC,” Herdman said of Akinola. “That’s the positive note in all of this. He’s at a very good club with great medical care. So he’s going to get the best (care) in North America.”
The injuries leave Herdman with Lucas Cavallini, Tyler Pasher, Theo Corbeanu, Junior Hoilett and Tajon Buchanan as options up front.
“We’ve definitely got options there but it then leaves us thin in other areas,” said Herdman.
Canada has 21 outfield players with midfielder Harry Paton back in training after completing COVID protocols.
The 70th-ranked Canadian men play No. 50 Costa Rica in Sunday’s quarter-final in Arlington, Texas. The Costa Ricans defeated No. 45 Jamaica 1-0 Tuesday to win Group C.
Canada has until 24 hours before that match to name medical replacements from its previously announced provisional tournament roster. Attacking options on that list include Tesho Akindele (Orlando City), Theo Bair and Tosaint Ricketts (Vancouver Whitecaps), Daniel Jebbison (Sheffield United), and Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty and Jayden Nelson (Toronto FC).
“We’re exploring the potential of maybe one replacement at this point in that forward position,” said Herdman.
But bringing someone in for anywhere from one to three games given club commitments and COVID concerns is complicated.
“It’s going to be a tricky process but hopefully we’ll bring one more in. And if not, we’ll work with the guys we’ve got and push them as far as we can,” said Herdman.
Canada came to the tournament without star striker Jonathan David, who is with Lille in France.