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Fast-rising Keita still has plenty of development for the professional game

The young Crew defender is still only in the infancy of his soccer career.

FIFA via Getty Images

Aboubacar Keita is not your normal Columbus Crew SC Homegrown product.

Unlike many he played with in the Crew Academy, Keita hasn’t spent his entire life in Columbus, or even Ohio. In fact, he’s spent less than half of his time on Earth living in the city or country he now calls home.

Keita was born in New York but was raised in the Republic of Guinea. His family returned to the United States when he was 10 years old. At that point, Keita, who signed as a Homegrown with the Black & Gold this offseason, did not play soccer.

“I was raised in Africa and back then it was a lot of competition where I grew up at and I wasn’t one of the best. So it wasn’t something I was really interested in,” Keita told Massive Report.

It wasn’t until around 14 years old that Keita began to play the game. Unlike most of his peers, who took up the sport when they were young and worked their way up due to their love of the game, Keita was looking for a way to make new friends.

As it turns out, he was better at soccer than he thought.

“I played I believe a year at Santos (Football Club) and after that, I played high school soccer,” Keita explained. “I played that two seasons and then I came to the Academy.”

Despite only playing soccer for a few years, Keita was scouted and recruited to play for the Crew Academy, where he featured at the Under-17/18 and Under-18/19 levels, making 43 total appearances and scoring one goal. His play with the Academy earned him looks from various college programs, but it was the University of Virginia where Keita played college soccer.

After just one season in Charlottesville, Keita went pro, signing with the Crew on Jan. 22. Roughly five years after he first took up soccer competitively, Keita was a professional.

Upon his signing, the Black & Gold had a plan for the defender. Although he has the physical gifts — 6-foot-2, 180-pound — Keita was not quite ready for Major League Soccer. He met with Caleb Porter and discussed a plan to go on loan to a United Soccer League team for at least some of his rookie year.

Just after the start of the 2019 MLS season, Columbus announced Keita was going on loan to the Richmond Kickers. There, he made just three appearances, two starts, before suffering an injury.

It was enough, though, to earn him a spot on the United States Youth National Team roster for the Under-20 World Cup, where Keita started all five games for his country.

“It was pretty exciting,” he said of the experience in France. “Being around some of the best players in the world is pretty exciting.”

With the World Cup behind him, Keita is back with the Crew and looking to get his career off the ground. The goal for him with his club now is to continue to take steps forward and know that it’s not going to come as easy at the professional level. That Keita will have to work for anything he gets with the Black & Gold.

“Sometimes young players sign a contract and they think they’re just going to automatically now make those steps,” Porter said. “They have to work to make those steps and we have to help them make those steps as well. We need to put them in situations where they’re going to progress and grow.

“Now we can bring him back and we can put him back into our trainings and hopefully continue to get him time. But also, young players have to earn their time too. We’re committed to him, and that’s why we signed him.”

Due to his inexperience playing the game, Keita still has a number of areas in which he can improve. Unlike at the high school, academy and even college level, he can’t use only his size and athleticism to dominate games. While those will both be important at the MLS level, the defender needs to begin to learn and polish the mental side of the game that is so important on the backline.

“You have to be experienced in reading the game. When to step, when to drop, when to slide,” Porter said. “On that back four, there’s a lot of decision making and it takes time. He needs to learn to be more cerebral in reading the game.

“He just needs to learn the game, learn the decision making, needs reps playing in a back four. And then technically he needs to obviously continue to work on his passing range, his ability to play out of the back and start the attack for our team.”

For a player who started playing soccer when most kids enter high school, Keita accomplished quite a bit. He made a club team, made his high school team, was recruited to the Crew Academy, played Division I college soccer and now is a professional player. Oh, and he competed against some of the best youth players in the world at the World Cup.

The next step is becoming a contributor for the Black & Gold, something he continues to work towards the remainder of the season.

“It would be nice to get some games in. But just being here, training with the guys is another level that will make me better,” Keita said. “So I’m just going to be here and try and put everything in training, hopefully I get some games in.”