As warm-up progressions began and the Real Salt Lake Academy prepared for its next match in the Generation Adidas Cup, a group of younger players stopped to watch with echoes of “That’s him, that’s Axel Kei,” coming from the gaggle.
The incident, not unique to the 14-year-old phenom, having already made history twice. With only a decade and a half of life under his belt, he has become internationally recognized as one of the top up-and-coming football talents in the world.
And yet, despite the notoriety and the accomplishments, Kei still has so much left to prove, his professional journey is truly just beginning.
This is On The Rise: Axel Kei.
Kei’s rise began two years ago at the 2021 MLS NEXT Cup Playoffs where he bulldozed his way through the competition, helping the Claret-and-Cobalt capture its first-ever MLS NEXT Cup trophy and the tournament's Golden Boot award along the way.
His performance saw him earn training time with the Club’s second team, Real Monarchs, where he would eventually make history for the first time. On October 21, 2021 Kei came on as a substitute for the Monarchs in their match against Colorado Springs Switchbacks, making his professional debut at 13 years, 8 months and 9 days and becoming the youngest professional athlete in American team sport history.
This past January, Kei inked his first official contract, signing as the Club’s 33rd all-time Homegrown Player. At 14 years and 15 days old Kei became the youngest to ever sign a Major League Soccer contract, breaking a record held for 18 years by Freddy Adu.
Kei spent much of this year with the Club’s second team Real Monarchs, where he would record three goals and four assists in 13 matches.
“It was hard coming in off an injury, but I knew I could come in and help,” Kei reflected on joining the Monarchs. “It was good, but it was hard, it didn’t matter that I was 14, because when you’re on the field they have the same expectations for you, and for me that expectation was to score.”
The young forward’s first professional goal came against Colorado Rapids 2, pouncing on the end of a through ball from fellow Homegrown Bode Hidalgo to net the team’s lone goal of the match.
Since then Kei has scored two more goals and added an additional four assists. Other than the Colorado Rapids 2 match, the Real Monarchs went undefeated the rest of the season in matches where Kei provided an offensive contribution.
And with the end of the Real Monarchs season Kei was moved up to train with the first team, leading to his eventual first team debut.
“Crazy,” Kei said in response to making his Real Salt Lake debut.
“I tried not to give it too much thought, live in the moment, but it hit me after the game when I celebrated with my boys.”
Those boys were the entirety of the Real Salt Lake Academy, all of whom had come to watch Real Salt Lake take on Liga MX side Atlas FC, many of whom are seeking to follow in the footsteps left by Kei.
Real Salt Lake Head Coach Pablo Mastroeni had this to say about Kei’s debut, “Axel was running the channels, again, down a man, which is not easy to do, and carried a heavy load defensively.”
But as is the case in all professional careers, one's debut is simply just a small step on the uphill climb one takes in order to make it a career.
“My goal has always been to make my first team debut, which I’ve done, but I’m not satisfied,” Kei explained. “I want to make my MLS debut, once I’ve accomplished that goal I can move onto the next one.”
As Kei prepares for his second season with Real Salt Lake it is important to remember that expectations for the phenom are different than most in their sophomore professional seasons.
When preseason begins Kei will be 15 years and seven days old, nearly 18 months younger than Jude Wellings, the second-youngest on the team and 18 years younger than team captain Damir Kreilach.
As it currently stands, in Major League Soccer’s 27 seasons only five players age 15 and younger have appeared, four of which took the pitch older than Kei will be at the end of the 2023 season.
With all that in mind, the Club’s expectations for Kei during the 2023 season are seen in shorter increments. For example, right now Kei is training with the RSL Academy, playing matches and traveling to the MLS NEXT Fest to maintain game fitness.
And perhaps more importantly, Kei is focused on earning a spot with the first team during preseason. However, the team’s five week preseason features three weeks on the road, meaning Kei will miss valuable in-class learning in order to do so. As a result, the Club will send Education Director Roxana Luna with Kei to ensure he maintains and meets his academic goals, as his ability to perform on the field goes hand-in-hand with his performance off the field.
“Axel has great potential to be a talented footballer, but his ability to mature as a person will ultimately define if he is a successful footballer,” Assistant General Manager Tony Beltran explained. “A holistic approach to development in the areas of academics, citizenship and then soccer, continues to be driven and supported by Club staff.”
This is something Kei is keenly aware of.
“I know I have to focus on my discipline, both on and off the field,” Kei said. “I have to handle both of them in order to be successful.”
For now, Kei is focused on making it to preseason and proving himself.
“I just want to come in as fit as possible, be with the first team as much as possible, I can see myself helping, being at that level and helping the team,” Kei finished.
Whether fans see Kei dawn the Claret-and-Cobalt during the 2023 season, or further beyond, one thing is certain, expect many more whispers of "that's him, that's Axel Kei" whenever and wherever he takes the pitch."