With tools, teachers, and talent, Keita's development shows strong upside

As Caleb Porter said, he is not playing youth just to play them.

For Aboubacar Keita, there was certainly a purpose as the Homegrown defender was thrust into a Crew backline decimated with injuries and, in the words of President and General Manager Tim Bezbatchenko, Keita "did as well as we ever could have expected for someone who’s put in that situation."

The 19-year-old centerback, who only started playing soccer as a 12-year-old, started eight matches in 10 total appearances in his debut season with the first team.

Keita, a Crew SC Academy product who attended the University of Virginia in 2018 before signing a Homegrown Player contract prior to the 2019 season, made his debut on July 3 at Real Salt Lake as a starter before eventually stringing together two separate stretches of four starts (July 17 - Aug. 3) and three starts (Aug. 31 - Sept. 21).

Notably, the Crew remained unbeaten throughout those combined seven starts (3-0-4) as well as throughout Keita's final eight appearances (4-0-4).

Keita proved to be a viable option, Porter said, but that does not mean anything is guaranteed.

"It’s been great for Bouba to get eight games. That was huge for his development. That also doesn’t mean automatically that he’s going to get 15 games," he said.

"He now moves into year two, where now he still has to earn his minutes but what we saw in his eight games is that the kid can do it. He still has some things to learn but he proved that he can get the job done and so that’s really, really exciting. I think he showed that he has a lot of upside."

Then-U.S. Under-20 Youth National Team Coach Tab Ramos saw that same potential in Keita earlier this year, thus including him in the 2019 U-20 World Cup team that made it to the quarterfinals this past summer in Poland, a run which featured five straight starts for Keita at left centerback.

Keita said the realization of playing in the World Cup had not fully sunk in nearly a week after the U.S.'s conclusion. However, there was no doubt he came back a different player, according to his teammates.

"The Bouba I knew way back has improved a lot," said Harrison Afful. "I keep telling him, I think when he came back from the U-20 World Cup, I told him this – I told him he has really improved but he shouldn’t be swollen-headed. Have your opportunity as it comes [and] you should be ready for every challenge because sometimes you’ll be here today and the next minute you’ll be somewhere else."

Defender Jonathan Mensah acknowledged the change in Keita's confidence level after the World Cup.

"It’s good to see his progression. As you said, he started playing at 12 and went to the U-20 World Cup and now here with the senior team, so [it’s a] big move for him," Mensah said.

As for the next step, though, Mensah said there's room for improvement. 

"So he needs to say, ‘wow, I can even do better.’ He’s big, he has all the tools, he has to keep improving. Even the big guys are still improving. The Ronaldo's, they want to score more goals, they want to keep their first touch clean."

As someone who was in those exact shoes as a young defender returning from a successful U-20 World Cup, Mensah emphasized the mental aspect of training and making the most out of each day:

"You have to train your mind to see the progress in whatever you do, because if you don’t progress every day at training, if you get to games it won’t be any easier for you. So if you’re training, you have to make up your mind that, ‘OK, I’m teachable. I will acquire knowledge from the other guys that have been in this business for a while,’ and I think he’s on the right track."

Fellow centerback Josh Williams said Keita has the right kind of approach to training and takes advantage of having a core group of veteran defenders to bounce questions off and study.

"Something with Bouba, and hopefully it’s like this with a lot of the Academy guys, [is] the willingness to learn and ask questions and take what you’ve learned and then apply it to either training or in his case, 10 games," Williams said.

"Game time automatically raises your maturity level and to me, and kind of echoing Harry, you do change and you start to become a man and become someone that the team can rely on. And to me, that’s everything," Williams continued.

At 6'2", 180 lbs. to start the season, the 19-year-old Keita has shown the physical capability, and speed in particular.

Notably, of all Major League Soccer defenders with a minimum of 800 minutes played, Keita is the only player in the League with zero dribbles past.

Player   Dribbled past by opp. ↑ Games Played   Games Started   Minutes Played  
Keita, Aboubacar 0 10 8 801
Birnbaum, Steven 2 34 34 3032
Ibeagha, Sebastien 2 23 11 1112
Smith, Tommy 3 27 27 2415
Sauro, Gastón 3 15 15 1285
Bornstein, Jonathan 3 11 11 914
Onuoha, Nedum 4 27 26 2336
Afful, Harrison 4 22 22 1905
Crognale, Alex 4 12 9 881
Kevin Garcia 4 12 8 812
Wynne, Deklan 4 11 11 917
Smith, Graham 4 11 10 882
Long, Aaron 5 24 24 2108
Mabiala, Larrys 5 22 22 1904

Looking ahead, Keita is teachable, willing, and able, as others have noted. Now, as Williams put it, it's about filling the leadership qualities in addition to the X's and O's.

"If you really want the guys to rely on you, you have to be a voice people can depend on, not just for actions but for leadership and be a voice that steadies us in hard times and I feel like he’s not quite there yet in that part," Williams said.

"But to me, his willingness to become that leader is very commendable and something that I’m proud of him for."


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