Canadian forward William Akio has scribbled his name onto a Valour FC contract, with the news becoming official Wednesday afternoon.
Of course, there’s a bigger story behind the signing – a couple of stories, actually – that offer more context than the basic details of a press release. And both of them outline Akio’s incredible journey that will have him in Winnipeg next week to prepare for the opening of Valour’s training camp.
A gifted scorer from the University of Texas-Rio Grandy Valley, Akio had 18 goals with the Vaqueros in his three seasons at the school and is coming off a season in which he was named both a Western Athletic First-Team All-Star and the Conference Offensive Player of the Year, as voted on by the league’s coaches.
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“I like to just run, run, run and with me playing up top I can help not just scoring but tracking back down the wing, running the ball up the channels and crossing it in… my speed plays a very important part in my game,” said Akio in a phone interview with CanPL.ca from Edinburg, TX. “I’m so excited to get there. I’m just going to keep my head down and go to work.”
Akio writes his final exam on Thursday, has his graduation commencement on Friday and then will fly to Calgary where he will quarantine at an airport hotel before heading to Winnipeg.
Calgary is listed as his hometown but – and it’s here where the layers of his story start to unfold – Akio was actually born in a refugee camp in Kenya in July of 1998, not long after his parents Paul and Grace had fled the civil war in South Sudan. Both William and his older brother James were born in that camp, in Nairobi, before the family came to Canada – ultimately settling in Calgary. His father now works as a lumberjack, his mom is a maid and he has four brothers.
“I was very young, so I don’t remember very much about the refugee camp,” he said. “My parents have talked to me about how hard it was and the difficult times they had. I don’t remember seeing and experiencing much to have memories of it but the refugee camp was the safest place for them to go to because of the civil war in South Sudan. I just remember it being confusing to me at first when I first came to Canada.
“My parents tell us all the time about how we literally came from nothing, so take the best out of every opportunity you get. I try not to complain about many things. I feel that when things get rough for me I think about my parents and what they went through. That gives me the reassurance everything will be OK. I’ve just got to keep my head up.”
Akio’s final season with the Vaqueros garnered national attention and had him being considered a possibility for the MLS Draft. But the pandemic forced many conferences to move their seasons from the fall to this spring – the ACC was the only major conference to play last fall – meaning many seniors wouldn’t be eligible for the MLS Draft in January and thus making the Canadian Premier League an option for Akio.
And it turns out there was already a previous connection to Valour FC head coach Rob Gale. Back in 2018 and around the CPL ‘Got Game’ trials Gale was giving Ali Musse – who he would soon sign – a tour of the team’s facilities at IG Field. Accompanying Musse was his friend, Akio.
“I was showing Ali around the stadium as a player we were going to potentially sign and he said, ‘I brought my friend William,’” said Gale. “I remember saying, ‘Nice to meet you William. C’mon in… we’ll show you around, too.’ I started to get to know him and he said, ‘I’m going to play in this league one day.’ I was just giving him a bit of banter and said, ‘Make sure Valour is your first choice and we’ll keep tabs on you.’
“It’s funny, isn’t it? You only get one chance to make a good first impression… Isn’t that what they always say. So, don’t blow it. Treat everybody with respect and it will come back to you. I certainly believe in that.”
“That’s how I first met Rob, when he was giving us a tour of the place,” added Akio. “I remember saying ‘One day, hopefully I could play for you.’
“Three years later I hear from Rob offering me this opportunity.”
Akio gives Valour an intriguing piece, Gale believes, that could help the attack unlock defences.
“He’s blossomed in this last year as a top-level player south of the border, where was just named one of the Top 100 college prospects (by topdrawersoccer.com) even though he was playing at a small university that doesn’t get much hype,” said Gale.
“We’ve said all offseason we wanted to add more attacking threats and I felt we needed to add a pacier, more direct dimension to our attack at times. William likes to get behind and get into goal-scoring positions and he’s done that really well at the college level.
“He’s shown a nose for the goal and a consistency in creating opportunities for himself and his teammates.”