Through Josh’s Eyes: Aboubacar Keita

ABOUBACAR KEITA
Age at MLS Cup: 20
Hometown: Westerville, OH

ALL COMPETITIONS IN 2020:
Games: 12
Starts: 11
Minutes: 1032
Goals: 0
Assists: 0

A local player and a homegrown product of the Crew Academy, 20-year old Keita helped anchor the Crew’s backline after the injury to opening day starter Vito Wormgoor. The Crew surrendered only 11 goals in Keita’s 12 appearances in all competitions as he split time with Josh Williams. 2020 saw further growth in the young center back’s career. He’s already won a championship with his hometown team, and as Josh will explain, the best is yet to come.

THROUGH JOSH’S EYES

“One of the things I love about Bouba in working so closely with him over the years is that you can see him getting better and better. I’ve known him for years now, going back to when he was at the Crew Academy. He had so many physical tools and gifts that were so apparent when you watched him against kids his own age, but now that he’s become a professional, he still has those tools. He’s physically dominant. Back then, he was raw, but now he is developing into a professional soccer player. His comfort on the ball grows daily. He’s always asking questions. It’s awesome to see that kind of growth because I remember being in that stage of my career. I didn’t have the physical tools he does, but I remember being raw like that and then just seeing some things that worked, and then feeling those things working in a game. So what I love most about him is his ability to be a sponge. He’ll ask questions and then soak things up. And then as I’m telling him things throughout the year, I’ll see him incorporate them into games. For someone to receive information and then apply it in training and in games, that’s my favorite thing about Bouba, just seeing that whole process.

“Bouba is just a physical freak. If he and Lucho raced, I think Luis is faster, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Bouba won. He’s just a physical freak. He’s a big kid who’s working in the weight room a lot. You can tell he’s filling out and he’s someone you can see from week to week where he’s getting better in different aspects of his game. It’s so impressive. He’s always willing to do extra work with Ezra, and to me, that will keep him in the league a long time. It’s because he’s willing to put in the work. As a young player, he knows he has his deficiencies, but he has the willingness to confront those and work on them, and that’s the reason he keeps getting better. I mean, he’s already played in a youth World Cup as a starter. The future is so bright for Bouba. Just his step up from when he made his debut last year, since that debut game in Orlando, you have just seen his confidence level in his ability grow. And he’s always asking the right questions to become even smarter and to continue to grow his soccer IQ. I think the sky’s the limit for him.

“It’s always a difficult relationship because he wants to play and I want to play. So in reality, there is competition and you need to outperform the guy next to you. But I remember when I came up, guys were always so supportive, and I remember how that made the situation so much better. And in professional soccer, injuries and things like that happen every single year, so you need to be prepared. Having said that, there have been teammates in my career I was battling with and I didn’t have a good relationship with, and it makes showing up to training miserable for a little bit. Like, ‘Yeah, I need to deal with this guy again.’ I never liked that feeling. So for me, I don’t like negative thoughts or negative emotions about anybody. I want to be able to have positive relationships with every. Especially Bouba. So I don’t place an emphasis on jealousy or anything like that. If he has success, then good, because that’s ultimately good for our team and it means I need to start raising my level. And when I started playing more regularly, I hope that’s what his mindset was as well, where you go, ‘Okay, this is where the standard is being set, so I need to raise my game to that standard.’ And he does that.

“There were times this year where he absolutely earned the right to be on the field (over Josh), especially being a left-footed guy coming out of the back. He was playing well and we weren’t getting scored on, so to me, I knew I needed to raise my level because he earned the right to play. So to me, it should never ever be a negative thing. Competition should only bring out the best in us. If I’m not playing, why should I feel negative about Bouba? He didn’t make the lineup decision. So I think that’s the relationship Bouba and I have. We all have that. It’s true of Jona and Vito and all the guys. The better each of us are playing, the better we’re getting as a unit and as a team. The higher standard is what it should be about. It should never be about anything other than that.

“I mean, the fact that I watched Bouba as an academy player and then all of a sudden (in 2019), he’s on the field next to me in Orlando. I remember thinking, ‘What a cool thing to watch happen.’ To me, it was amazing. I got to watch a kid who wanted to be at this level and all of a sudden he is playing at this level. So that’s a dream come true and I got to see the progression. I would like to think I had a little part in that. Of course I’m gonna think it’s almost like you’re his coach, and then all of a sudden you are just watching him rise through the levels and knowing you’re kind of helping in that. But ultimately, what he’s doing is his doing. Him getting where he’s going can only be done if he wanted it that badly. Unless he wanted it, he’s going to be stagnant. I think he’s just breaking the surface of what he can accomplish. I’m still going to push him every single day. If my standard isn’t there, he tells me, and if his standard isn’t there, I tell him.

“Jona says something where we hold Bouba accountable because we see his potential and we see what he can do. So if he’s off, we hold him to the standard. In any drill, we stress taking pride in what you’re doing right here. If we’re doing a passing drill, the first touch needs to be crisp and it needs to be clean, but because in a game it needs to be crisp and clean. You can see Bouba taking pride in things like that. I’m sure when he came through the Academy, they were preaching stuff like that, but I remember when I was coming up, having guys like Chad Marshall and Danny O’Rourke saying stuff like that to me elevated me. I still take a lot of what those guys told me back then with me now, so I’m just passing on what I learned from them. I hope Bouba looks back on this as a positive, even if I might be tough on him sometimes. But that’s how it needs to be. You need to have someone you’re looking up to talking to you about raising your level. That’s the only thing I’m trying to do with Bouba.

“I remember when he was with the Crew Academy and I have videos of me interviewing him when I was doing a coaching license. It was an interview about his game and where it was gonna go. I haven’t watched it in the five years since that happened, but it was like a player/coach interview. I think I asked him a bunch of questions like who he modeled his game after. What are your strengths? What are you weakness? How can you improve? Stuff like that. He was not the best interview subject. (laughs.) I was the first one to let him know that. I said, ‘You’ve got to give me more information that that!’ The Bouba now is not the Bouba back then. The Bouba I know now is easy and playful and talking a lot. Back then, he was a quiet kid. And I don’t think he wanted to do that interview. I didn’t want to do it either, but I kinda had to.

“He’s still kinda shy and the older guys on the team like to embarrass him a little bit. We’ll make him sing every once in a while and he’s always embarrassed to sing. So we’ve made him a sing a couple times. As his older brothers, we try to poke fun of him in those situations since he’s a little shy. He’s just a good guy. He’s a good young kid who wants to fit in and have fun. He’s been an ideal teammate. He never causes any problems.

“To me, I think he is the future of the Crew at that left centerback position. He was in camp this year with a joint camp of the U23 and the senior Men’s National Team. So to have the experience he’s had and to be a sponge and soak up information and apply it to the future, his future is so bright, and it will not only shine for the Crew, but also hopefully the National Team as well.

[What follows is a callback to Josh hearing from his own early career mentors like Chad Marshall and Danny O’Rourke after MLS Cup.]

“I don’t know what Bouba’s future has in store, but if he continues at this trajectory, I think old man retired Josh will be reaching out to congratulate him on his achievements. I’ll be living through him.”

[NOTE: To see a clickable list of earlier installments of this Josh Williams series or other MLS Cup related posts, please click HERE.]

******

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