PORTLAND, Ore. – There are a few things you can’t help but notice right away when standing next to Fanendo Adi.
He’s not just big – 6-foot-4, 185 pounds – he’s solid. Opposing players routinely bounce off the Portland Timbers target striker like children on pogo sticks.
The next thing that stands out – especially if you happen to catch him freshly quaffed after a match – is his impeccable style, bordering on a bit flashy.
But when you talk to him, a whole other side comes out. He’s not intimidating, as his size would suggest. He’s certainly not arrogant, even if he wears velvet every now and then.
There’s an honesty that comes out – perhaps drawn from his humble beginnings growing up outside Lagos, Nigeria. There’s also something very straightforward about Adi, and that most certainly stems from the acknowledgment that he was brought to the Rose City on a Designated Player contract following a short-term loan from FC Copenhagen to do one thing, and one thing only: lead the club to an MLS Cup title.
“I want to be at the very top level for the team,” Adi said. “I want to be that person that everyone can count on. When we are having a bad game, I want to be that player that can bring the team out of a difficult situation. For me, that’s what I was brought here for.”
If it sounds like he’s putting pressure on himself, it would be a safe assumption.
It falls on a player who not only has the stature to handle such a weight on his shoulders, but also has the demeanor. It is, after all, what Adi has wanted to do since he was a boy, when one day he was sent out on an errand and didn’t come back for three hours because he got caught up playing soccer – in his bedroom slippers.
“Well, for sure I didn’t have soccer shoes,” Adi said, describing the moment in an interview with the Timbers website. “I’d just wear my slippers.”
He was discovered professionally when his sister helped him sneak into the city to try out for a players’ agent. He first signed with the Slovakian club AS Trencin in 2009 and helped them gain promotion to the first division in the 2010-11 season.
It was with Copenhagen, the top Danish club where he signed in 2013, when he really made a name for himself. He scored three goals in nine matches during the league season and featured in three group-stage matches of the 2013-14 UEFA Champions League.
Upon his 2014 arrival in Portland as the club’s second DP – defender Liam Ridgewell became the third soon thereafter – Adi immediately endeared himself to his new club and fans, recording braces in both of his first two starts, a 2-0 win over Chivas USA on May 28 and a 3-1 win over Real Salt Lake, the Timbers’ first at Rio Tinto Stadium, on June 7. He finished with nine goals in 24 appearances (18 starts), as he desperately tried to rescue the Timbers from a horrendous start that saw them gain just five points from their first eight games.
Despite the option of continuing on in Europe’s top leagues, Adi said his move to MLS has more than lived up to expectations. Moreso, he said, it’s helped him grow as a player in a way that playing in Europe could not offer.
“Very much, very much,” he said. “Before I came, I was used to, if I get tackled, I get the fouls called. But in MLS, I’m faced with a lot of situations where really I need to stand up and not just, you get tackled and you fall down, but you show strength up front as a big player. Physical-wise and otherwise, the experience of the league is at a very high level, so when you’re in Europe, you think an American league and talk about American players, but actually when you come here and see the league, you feel this new attitude and new level. I think it’s really a high-level league.”
While the league has lived up to Adi’s expectations, the expactions on Adi have increased. With half a regular season and an entire offseason under Adi's belt, head coach Caleb Porter said all signs are pointing toward further growth.
“You always expect a little bit more once a player settles and knows what you want out of him,” Porter said. “We know Adi, what he brings to the table. He knows us, he knows what we expect out of him, and he knows the league now. So I think he’s had a great preseason. He’s really been working hard, harder than I’ve every seen him work. His fitness is high: If you look at the data, he’s covered a lot of ground, and I think he’s been very effective.”
That was on display in Portland’s final preseason game Saturday against Norwegian side Stabaek. With left back Jorge Villafaña on an overlapping run, Adi steamrolled his way into the box and shielded off a defender for a simple tap-in on a cross.
But that’s just one way Adi can beat you.
He displayed the ability and touch to get in behind and, as one would expect from a player of his size, remains a threat in the air. Perhaps his biggest asset is the strength and touch to hold the ball up and let Portland’s talented attackers players play off him. That was highlighted by one of the prettiest plays all last year when Adi took two volleyed touches off a long ball and flicked to an on-rushing Will Johnson, who volleyed home for a goal.
“I feel like with someone like Adi, sky’s the limit,” midfielder Darlington Nagbe told MLSsoccer.com. “He’s big, strong, he can get in behind, he can finish, he’s good in the air. I feel like it’s going to be a big year for him, and I feel like the bigger year he has, the better it will be for the team.”
Producing for the team also comes with the added pressure of making up for the production they’ll be without as Johnson and attacking midfielder Diego Valeri miss the first part of the season due to injuries suffered down the stretch last year. That’s a combined 17 goals and 16 assists gone from the lineup, and Adi is well aware that Porter and the Rose City faithful are looking to him.
“I think I have more work to do now, because if you see in the team now, some very important players are not going to be with us for the start of the season,” Adi said. “So for me, I can say I have more responsibility now, not just to look at myself like I just want to get a goal, but what I can do and help the team? And the most basic thing for me is to win. … This year we’re looking forward to winning something for this great club.”
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com