This is a new regular series that will bring attention to players building their careers in MLS, attempting to break through in Europe, or thriving in leagues outside of the regular purview.
The United States men’s national team is always on the lookout for quality center backs, with consistency and limiting mistakes a priority at the international level. While defenders tend to develop a little later than attackers, sometimes a player’s talent and maturity is apparent, even at a young age. Aboubacar Keita has a high ceiling, possessing the potential to be a long-term contributor for the senior team. However, his career is still in a nascent stage, with plenty of room for growth.
Born in New York City and raised in Guinea, Keita moved to Ohio at 10 years old. Previously not considered to be in possession of the necessary talent, he only began playing organized soccer at the age of 14 as a way of making friends. “I was raised in Africa and back then it was a lot of competition where I grew up,” the 6’2” center back told Massive Report in 2019. “I wasn’t one of the best. So it wasn’t something I was really interested in.”
Keita excelled with the Columbus Crew in the U.S. Development Academy and accepted a scholarship to the University of Virginia. In his one season with the Virginia Cavaliers, he started every one the school’s 17 matches, played all but one minute, and was named to the ACC All-Freshman team. TopDrawerSoccer named him the best freshman in the country. Based on his success at the collegiate level, the U-20 national team called, inviting him to camp.
The following January, Keita signed a Homegrown contract with the Crew. Almost immediately, he went on loan to the Richmond Kickers in USL League One to gain experience but dealt with injury issues. Recalled after three appearances, his first start for Columbus came in July, a 1-0 loss to Real Salt Lake. However, manager Caleb Porter gave the young defender plenty of chances to grow and develop, using him in ten matches that initial season.
The rookie surpassed expectations, pushing into the rotation and earning minutes well ahead of schedule. “I knew it was a lot different from college level,” Keita told The Columbus Dispatch. “But physically, I knew I was going to be able to handle the pressure and everything. I’ve been right with it… I just have to gain more confidence on the ball and just being a leader more.”
Keita has thrived in Porter’s possession system in Columbus, which requires centerbacks to start the attack and serve as an outlet under pressure. He frequently ends matches as one of the team’s top passers, in both accuracy and volume, rarely resorting to desperate clearances. Although the New York native did not feature in the MLS Cup Final victory, he started six of the final seven regular season matches.
Great pass from Aboubacar Keita on his debut for the Crew. pic.twitter.com/Eflb6BW2DC— Eliot McKinley (@etmckinley) July 4, 2019
Keita should be one of the key players at the upcoming CONCACAF Men’s Olympic Qualifying Championship and, team performance permitting, at the Tokyo Games. He was named to the January U-23 camp roster, his first appearance at that age level.
It was at the international level where he made his initial breakthrough into the American soccer discourse. Keita started five matches at the 2019 U-20 World Cup, where the then-inexperienced center back demonstrated immense potential en route to a quarterfinal finish. Writer Justin Sousa provided a full breakdown of his performance, describing a physical player with strong reflexes, technical ability, and natural instincts. However, he did struggle with decision making under pressure, a flaw that should improve with advanced age and maturity.
The 2019 World Cup was a turning point in his young career. “After the U-20s, when I came back, I was able to watch some of the games and reflect on some of things I needed to work on,” Keita told Brian Sciaretta of American Soccer Now. “I didn’t take an off-season. All I was doing was working and working. Coming into  I was a lot more comfortable working on the things I needed to work on. The World Cup was big stepping stone for me - seeing those players and where they were at and what I needed to do to be at the same level as them or higher. I have to be more comfortable with the ball and in building out of the back. I had to be more vocal.”
Far from a finished product, Keita is still learning and developing. Last season, his misplayed pass resulted in a goal for the opponent in a 1-0 loss. These occasional errors require a steady manager willing to build confidence by sticking by his players. “Bouba will learn from it,” Caleb Porter told The Columbus Dispatch. “Obviously we support him. He’s a young player. If you’re a central defender, you’re going to have mistakes like that, but you hope you learn from it and not let it happen again.”
There is little ambiguity with this particular player. Keita is a tall, physical defender who effortlessly passes the eye test, bullying attackers out of the way and winning almost every aerial ball that comes his way. He is fast enough to chase down long balls and shield off attackers, fitting into tactics that park the bus or utilize a high line. Even without his better than average passing abilities, the youth international would be considered one of the top centerbacks in his age cohort. Considering he only began seriously playing soccer less than a decade ago, there is still so much room for growth and Columbus is providing the right environment to improve his decision making.
There is not a correct path in player development, no straight road to the national team and stardom. Keita possesses all of the physical and technical tools to succeed but is still an unfinished product. Continued call-ups at successive youth levels and consistent playing time at the club level indicate he is headed in the right direction. The center back position is eternally up for grabs and its future may be in Columbus.