Ralph Akale isn’t the first soccer player – turned coach – turned father – to have a son whom they’ve guided along in hopes of someday attaining greatness as a soccer player. Some coaches’ kids lose interest in the game. Others show talent and are “good-enough” players. Then there are others. Others like 14-year-old Mukwelle Akale.
“He has great touch – he can break down and beat defenders and put the other team under pressure with pace and imagination,” say’s Mark Yueill, Mukwelle’s coach for the last three years with the Minnesota Thunder Academy. “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 (pronounced muck-wel-le) has developed these skills at a young age. He’s left footed and he plays the game at a pace both physically and mentally. In most games he is far above anyone else on the field.”
“His pace with the ball at his feet is ridiculous,” said Mukwelle’s high school soccer coach Collin Aswegan. “It’s like the ball is stuck to his foot.”
Those special skills, pace and advanced thought are evidently what caught the eye of U.S. U-17 National Team coach Wilmer Cabrera, who sat in on a recent U-15 National Team camp that Mukwelle and fellow Minnesotan Max Stiegwart attended in Lakewood Ranch, Florida. There was speculation at the time that Caberera would be looking for standout players in the U-15 camp as parents were told that training sessions and practice games were off limits except for one scrimmage. Such restrictions are not the usual at these camps.
After returning home from the camp held on December 11-18th, Mukwelle was asked by U.S. Soccer to join the U.S. U-17 Residential Academy in Bradenton, Florida.
Ralph Akale, Mukwelle’s father who moved to the U.S. from Cameroon in the mid ’80s and has been playing and coaching soccer in Minnesota since that time, said he wanted to make sure they were asking their son to move away from his mother, 9-year-old brother and his father and coach, for the right reasons.
“I asked him, why Mukwelle?” said Ralph Akale of a recent conversation with Caberera on Tuesday morning. “Coaches will generally make a generic statement like, he is one of the best players. Caberera 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.”
Mukwelle’s father says he’s seen a change in his son in the past 6 months to a year. “I watch him with the eye of a coach. Very, very recently I have started to see a player who is doing things that have been ingrained in his memory. Things from the training ground and things he has watched. I have put him through a regiment where he had to watch special players on YouTube. He will watch them and then he will practice them many times. We will also have a serious discussion on whether he is doing it right or not.”
“When he is talking to his father it’s different than when he is talking to his coach. We found out a long time ago we had to do that,” said the elder Akale with a laugh. “I had to say to him, the person talking to you now is your coach. When your coach has finished you can talk to your father.”
Yueill doesn’t only praise young Mukwelle. He also has plenty of positive things to say about Ralph who’s been assisting him the last several years. “Ralph is great at it because he doesn’t sit and tell him what he should look for. He asks him questions. So Mukwelle is answering these questions on his own which I think is brilliant from a parenting perspective.”
“He’s still quite young,” Yueill said. “He’s only 14, so many of the things he’s worked on for many years, it’s taken him a while to mature and understand how those pieces fit into a game — how do you read a situation and when to apply that fantastic skill he has.”
Cabrera told Ralph Akale that Mukwelle will be the youngest player at the residency camp. But he assured the senior Akale that he felt Mukwelle’s personality was beyond his age and would fit into the program well.
Yueill points out that even though Mukwelle will be coming in as a very young player in the U.S. U-17 Residential Academy he isn’t concerned about the age difference. He points out that Mukwelle led the Minnesota State High School League regular season in goals scored this past season (38) as a 14-year-old playing against 18-year-olds. He also explains that Ralph still plays pick-up games on weekends against men and Mukwelle is almost always by his father’s side mixing it up with adults who have grown up with the game in Africa, South America and Central America. “He’s been playing against older guys for years and that will not be intimidating for him at all,” said Yueill.
So how does Mukwelle feel about moving away from home to play soccer for the U.S. U-17 National Team? “Like a 14-year-old the first thing he asked us was if he can bring his Xbox,” laughed Ralph Akale. “Seriously I don’t know how to feel right now. This is very hard on his mother. I’ve been telling people you have to be careful for the things you wish for. But I am very proud of him.”
Mukwelle’s coaches say he has other qualities above and beyond his skill and vision on the field. “Perhaps his strongest quality is his relentless work rate. It’s a blessing to have the most skilled player on your team be the hardest worker on the team,” said Yueill.
Ralph Akale thinks Mukwelle’s finest feature might be another quality. “I made him realize that humility is the first thing that has to be mastered. If you’re not humble you are not going anywhere. We have worked very hard to make sure there hasn’t really been much publicity about him up to this point and time. We wanted him to develop in the right way. In my opinion he is very humble. Of course I’m talking from a coaches perspective,” he says with a warm chuckle.
The 14-year-old forward will be spending his holidays packing and will leave the Minnesota cold and practice domes for sunny Brandenton, Florida on December 28th.