BUCKHANNON – One West Virginia Wesleyan College soccer standout was not about to let graduation mark the end of his playing days.
In fact, 2018 graduate Juwon Akintunde only had about 24 hours to celebrate the conclusion of his collegiate career – both on and off the pitch – before hopping a flight to Portland, Maine, where he would join GPS Portland Phoenix, a semi-pro team competing in the U.S. Premier Development League.
For Akitunde, who worked at The Record Delta as a sports intern this spring, a summer in the PDL is just the next step on a long soccer journey that has traversed several states – and continents.
Growing up in football-crazed London, England, Akitunde was introduced to the pitch at a young age.
“My dad took me down to the local team, Belmont United,” Akintunde recalled during an interview this spring. “It was like a two-minute walk from my house.”
But Akintunde had aspirations that went beyond the neighborhood club, and before he turned 10, he was already catching the eye of some big-name clubs. One of those was Queen Park Rangers, the White City, London-based squad that currently plays in the Championship League, the second-tier of professional English soccer.
“I got scouted by a pro team, QPR, and I was there five years,” Akintunde said.
For a young kid in a country obsessed with soccer, playing for such a prestigious program was a dream. Getting released, well, that was more of a nightmare.
“When I got released, I cried,” Akintunde said. “It was tough. I was only 14 at the time. I remember I cried in my friend’s arms.”
But Akintunde didn’t dwell on the letdown long. In less than two weeks, he was back on the field, this time playing for the youth program of Brentford FC, another Championship League pro team in Greater London. After two years there, Akintunde returned closer home to play for Barnet FC in north-west London. At that point, he was 16 years old.
Looking back at his youth career, Akintunde said the expectations put on kids are hefty in England.
“It was tough,” he said. “I had a really tough coach when I was young. You have to be thick-skinned to play at the level I played at. And my parents, they sacrificed a lot to get me to training. My dad was involved in soccer, so he’d give me advice.
“At 16, things become more even serious,” Akintunde continued. “I didn’t get a scholarship, which is like an apprenticeship to play [professionally], so I decided to get my A Levels [at school] and play for a youth side. And then unfortunately, I broke my leg and was out for about six months. I didn’t play soccer again until February 2013.”
But play again he did.
“At the time, I was just playing for a youth side, U-17s,” Akintunde said. “My friend’s dad was the coach, and I just wanted to play somewhere and get back into things. I had a good year there, and my friend got asked to join a team called Maidenhead, and I got asked to join as well.”
Maidenhead United FC is a semi-pro soccer club located about an hour west of London.
“I had a really good year and played in the FA Youth Cup, which is a youth cup for all of England,” Akintunde said. “We got to the first round proper, which was good. I scored five goals that campaign.”
A handful of Akintunde’s teammates from Maidenhead United now play professionally, including Matty Cash, a midfielder at Nottingham Forest.
“It was a really good, talented team,” Akintunde said.
But after playing for more than a decade in and around London, Akintunde was ready for something new.
“I was interested in a different challenge,” he said.
That led him to look at opportunities in the United States. Even then, his road to Wesleyan was anything but a straight line.
“First I got a full ride to go to Cincinnati State, a junior college,” Akintunde said. “But I fell out with the coach.”
On his own in a foreign country, Akintunde had one goal in mind: find somewhere to play soccer.
“I had to do everything myself, I had to recruit myself basically,” he said. “I had a good resume; Cincinnati State was a top-10 junior college. Sam Turner (then an assistant at Wesleyan), I had messaged him, but they didn’t have the money [for a scholarship]. I was planning to go to Union College, but then Sam came to me with a really, really good offer, one I couldn’t refuse, so I joined Wesleyan. Union wasn’t happy about it, but I had to look after myself.”
In his three years at Wesleyan, Akintunde reeled off plenty of highlights, even if it took him awhile to get to the level he wanted.
“The first two years I was here, I scored four goals each,” he said. “For me personally, that wasn’t good enough at all. It took me awhile to adapt.”
In his first game for Wesleyan, Akintunde scored at Cal Pa.
“I was like, ‘OK this is going to be good,’” he said. “I don’t think I scored for four more games.”
His second season in the black and orange also started in conspicuous fashion.
“The first game of the season, I got sent off,” he recalled. “I think that really took a blow on my season. One thing for strikers, if you get going you can keep the goals coming. I couldn’t get going.”
Akintunde wouldn’t score in 2016 until the sixth game of the season, and his misfortune was shared by the team as a whole, which started 2-5, including a 9-0 shellacking at Charleston.
But the ‘Cats finished strong, winning nine of their final 12. Heading into his final year wearing the black and orange of Wesleyan, Akintunde was ready to make his mark on the program. But first, he would have to overcome one more setback – head coach Gavin Donaldson decided to remove Akintunde from the starting 11.
“This year, it was different,” Akintunde said. “It was harder for me to adjust, because I wasn’t starting. I scored in the first game of the season, and that was a relief, because I had loads of chances that game, and I finally scored with seven minutes left.”
Unlike the previous two seasons, Wesleyan kicked off the 2017 campaign with a decisive win, beating Cal 4-0. And Akintunde was determined to keep his foot on the gas.
“I scored again, and I didn’t start then either,” he said of the season’s second game, a 2-2 tie at Shippensburg. “I thought, this might be my year.”
Another highlight of the season was Akintunde’s game winner against Notre Dame College at home, and he also tallied a brace in a 2-0 win over Wheeling Jesuit.
Akintunde finished the year with 17 goals, ranking him seventh nationally in Division II. The Bobcats also collected some impressive hardware, beating eventual national champions Charleston in thrilling fashion to win the Mountain East Conference tournament.
Akintunde credited a number of changes with helping him along his senior year.
“I was more composed in front of goal,” he said. “I worked hard on finishing. When things got going… as a striker, you just need confidence.”
Mentally, Akintunde was more composed this year as well. And Donaldson’s decision to remove Akintunde from the starting lineup – even when he was leading the nation in goals – also served as a motivating factor.
“It got me angry,” Akintunde admitted. “It did spark a nerve. Whenever I came on, I had to play well straightaway. Maybe when I play under pressure, I play better.”
Akintunde graduated in May with a degree in media studies. Less than a week later, he made his debut for the Portland Phoenix in a 2-1 loss to the Boston Bolts.
Overall, Akintunde has worn the blue-and-black in seven of the Phoenix’s nine games. He scored his first goal in a 3-2 win over the Seacoast United Phantoms. He’s scored twice more – including in a 3-1 win last weekend over AC Connecticut – and collected an assist in Portland’s game on June 15, setting up his former Wesleyan teammate, Matthew Bentley, for the game winner.
Bentley, who will return to Wesleyan as a junior next fall, has appeared in seven games for the Phoenix. Another Wesleyan player, 2018 graduate Josh Spencer, is also playing the PDL this summer. He represents Lionsbridge FC in Virginia Beach.
Bentley played a big part in landing Akintunde a spot on the Phoenix.
“The [Portland] coach asked the Charleston coach, Dan Stratford, if Matt was any good,” Akintunde said. “He likes to hand pick his players. And the Charleston coach said, ‘Another player who’s also good is Juwon Akintunde, a striker.’”
Within a week of first talking to Portland head coach Paul Baber, Akintunde signed with the Phoenix.
“I had a couple offers already to join a PDL team, but I wanted to listen to everyone,” Akintunde said. “I signed within a week of speaking to [Baber]. He’s also English, so that helps, and he has connections in USL (United Soccer League, the second-tier U.S. professional league).
“It just felt right to go there. Plus, I’ll be with Matt, so that makes things a bit easier.”
While in Maine, Akintunde will not be paid to play, but he will stay with a host family and help coach youth through the end of the PDL season in mid-July. The Phoenix are currently near the top of the table with a 5-2-2 record, behind just Black Rock FC in the Northeast Division.
After he hangs up his cleats in Portland, what’s next for Akintunde?
“Ideally, if I look at it in the bigger picture, I want to go home,” Akintunde said. And if a professional soccer career isn’t in the cards?
“I’m looking at sports journalism,” he said. “I don’t know about coaching. That depends. The next few months are topsy-turvy, I don’t know where I’m going to be.”
Looking back at his time in Buckhannon, Akintunde said he leaves with fond memories.
“It’s been good,” he said. “It’s been a journey, an experience. I’ve learned some lessons, and I’ve grown up a lot… I’ve also seen a lot, not just of America, but of the world. It’s definitely something I’m glad I did and something I’ll cherish forever.”