Oakland Roots announced that they have loaned fullback Akeem O’Connor-Ward to the RGV Toros for the remainder of the season, effectively ending Ward’s time with the organization. He had fallen out of favor under Juan Guerra with just two starts and four appearances this season after being a routine starter the previous year.
He’ll be remembered as a key figure of Roots’ push for a playoff spot in 2021 and landing on Sports Center’s top-10 with his absolute banger against San Diego.
Following Ward’s two starts at the beginning of the season, likely due to a COVID outbreak, he was unable to get much time. He fell behind Juan Carlos Azocar on the depth chart and seemingly dropped to at least No. 4 at the position with Darek Formella and Memo Diaz getting time as Oakland’s left-side outside back when Azocar dealt with an injury against Atlanta and Los Angeles.
So where does that leave things? San Antonio soccer aficionado Harry Ramincol chimed in on Twitter that he hopes Roots bring in a suitable replacement for Ward, to which I replied a subliminal GIF of Ariel Mbumba–meaning Ward’s replacement could already be waiting in the wings.
Ward’s departure certainly reflects positively on Mbumba and, perhaps, academy contract player Lorenzo Hernandez as well. Focusing on Mbumba, the 20-year old mentioned on Max Ornstil’s podcast earlier this week that he has converted from the midfield to outside back. It left his teammates beside him with a strong reaction.
“That’s what’s on the paper, I’m an outside back right now… Coming in, I was told–even before preseason–that I’d be moving to an outside back. It was definitely different, it shifted my mindset because it’s not a position I’m used to playing. I’ve never been a defender… It’s definitely been a learning opportunity,” said Mbumba.
Mbumba got time in the starting lineup last season as a left-sided midfielder and winger; you’ll remember his rocket of a goal against Sacramento. He made 19 starts, 27 appearances, and scored four goals–ranking him as the second-highest goal scorer on the team alongside Chuy Enriquez and Wal Fall in 2021. Although he’s given the outside back designation, Guerra’s system requires the fullback spot to frequently push forward, which is evident with how Azocar, Rito, Formella, and Diaz have been used. Azocar and Rito, for instance, have five and four goals respectively.
He reiterated on Ornstil’s podcast that this season has been an adjustment but he’s been keeping himself mentally prepared in case Guerra calls his name. Now with a veteran out the door, Mbumba potentially finds himself one step closer to finding a role.
“This season has been very different in terms of my minutes played. Last season, it was like 1,600 minutes the whole season and this year, I don’t think I have one. It’s been hard, you know, what I’ve really learned makes a difference is my mentality and trying to have my head on straight regardless of what I’m going through personally. If I’m not mentally right or ready, and the team does need me to hop in, I would just hurt our team. For me, it’s just trying to be mentally prepared and not checking out because things are different. I’m just trying to be involved and be ready, really, I think that’s the difference,” said Mbumba.
Time will tell if Roots feel comfortable enough with their depth at the position, but it intimates that Guerra likes what he has in Mbumba.
For Ward, he moves into a fortunate landing zone, joining a Western Conference foe with RGV in the thick of a playoff race midway into the season. Us at the blog wish Ward all the best.