What's been eating Nana Attakora?
The Toronto FC defender looked far from his best in the team's Major League Soccer season opener, a 4-2 loss to Vancouver Whitecaps, and didn't play in the Reds' 2-0 win against Portland the following week because of injury.
Error-filled performances in TFC's next two games (in which he was subbed out both times) saw Attakora lose his spot in the starting lineup when Toronto was held to a 0-0 draw at home to L.A. on Wednesday. He sat on the bench as an unused substitute.
It's worrying that one of the club's most consistent performers over the past two campaigns has been a defensive liability so far this season. So what's going on?
Attakora insists he's been dealing with "personal issues."
"A ton of things have been on my mind, which haven't allowed me to be myself in training and in games," Attakora told CBCSports.ca. "That's played a part. I'll be the first one to admit it — I've been distracted."
The TFC defender declined to give any specifics, saying only that he has put his personal issues behind him.
"I'm going to work hard in training and get myself back in the lineup because I know that I don't deserve to be in the team right now," Attakora said. "I've accepted that."
One of club's lowest-paid players
The Canadian prospect also went to great lengths to dispute speculation he is unhappy over his contract.
Attakora was one of the lowest-paid players on the team last season when he earned $40,000 US. He is currently in the last year of his current deal, but the club is trying to sign him to an extension.
"I don't even think about that stuff … so how would that be a distraction for me?" he asked. "I'm fine with the situation I am in and I will continue to honour [my contract]. I know what I signed four or five years ago, and if a new deal comes up, fine.
"My issues have absolutely nothing to do with that. Anyone who knows me knows I am happy. I have never once gone to the front office and said I want a new deal."
Under normal circumstances, Attakora's name would be among the first on the team sheet. But coach Aron Winter decided Attakora, a 22-year-old native of Toronto, did not deserve to start against L.A.
Attakora said Winter did not tell him he would be benched.
"He told me nothing," Attakora said. "But he didn't have to because I know the reasons why. I haven't had the best performances over the last two games, so I'm just going to take this like a professional and work hard and get myself back into the team."
Attakora has talked to Winter and the coaching staff about his personal issues, and they gave him some sage advice.
"I have to be professional and move past it. I spoke to the coaches about it, and they just want me to get on with it and try to focus."
Despite Attakora's recent loss of form, he insists the Dutch coach hasn't lost faith in his abilities.
"He told me I have everything needed to be a top defender," Attakora said. "It's not that he isn't confident in me — I know he is. He's stated that to me plenty of times."
Winter told reporters after the L.A. game that he expects Attakora to earn back his spot in the starting lineup.
"Nana at this moment is in a bit of a difficult situation because he's not performing like he was in the pre-season," Winter said. So "other guys will start when they're playing well. Nana, his time is coming."
As for negotiations over a new contract, the clock is ticking because the TFC defender is eligible to explore his options and sign with another club starting July 1.
Even though he's been reluctant to re-sign — he wants a two-year deal, while the club wants to lock him up for longer — Attakora is hopeful something can be worked out.
"I haven't received [a new contract offer] and I don't expect to receive anything until I start performing again," he said. "That's perfectly fine with me.
"I would love to stay in Toronto. It's my hometown so why wouldn't I love to play in front of my home fans, my friends and family?"