“Again I saw under the sun that the race is not won by the swift, nor the battle by the valiant, nor a livelihood by the wise, nor riches by the shrewd, nor favor by the experts; for a time of misfortune comes to all alike.” — Ecclesiastes 9:11

Sam Adeniran achieved a career breakthrough with St. Louis CITY SC in 2023, scoring eight goals and one assist in 18 appearances (950 league minutes), just 11 of them starts – one of several factors in the expansion side’s unexpected success right out of the gates, and a siren’s call for European scouts who’ve reportedly taken a keen interest in the 25-year-old.

As quickly as all that materialized, he’s got no secrets, cheat codes or moments of clarity to explain it.

“Honestly, just not giving up,” the Houston native told MLSsoccer.com in a wide-ranging conversation this week. “I know it sounds cliché. But it's like, the players that don't give up and the players that keep going are the players that make it.

“Because I was in a position of where, I knew I was a good player, and I knew I had the talent. But there were also a lot of other guys that I knew that had talent, maybe even more talent than me, and they're not playing now. And it's literally just because they just decided to stop. I thank God that I had a family and really close friends that kept pushing me, because that's really the reason why I continue to keep on going. Obviously, I'm grateful for where it has led me to.”

Adeniran celebrates goal

A family legacy

As is so often the case, making it all look easy was preceded by years of hard graft and a nomadic existence far from the spotlight. More than a decade’s worth, in Adeniran’s case.

The big striker has soccer in his blood, thanks mainly to his father Adebisi, a professional player in Nigeria in his day – he went by Victor Ogunsanya back then – who set aside the chance to play for his country in favor of emigration to the United States, in search of higher education and opportunity more than three decades ago.

He played college soccer while studying at Brooklyn College in New York, where he would also write himself into US soccer history by playing for the Brooklyn Italians side that won the 1991 US Open Cup title. (One of his teammates was Bill Manning, Toronto FC’s longtime president.)

After a stint in the ASL, one of the modest pro leagues in the dark ages between the death of the old North American Soccer League and the birth of MLS, Adebisi moved to Maryland before settling in Cypress, Texas, where he took up a youth coaching career that continues today.

Naturally, Sam and his older siblings Victor, Ayo and Pelumi were dad’s first pupils, the beautiful game instilled in them from toddler ages with an emphasis on persistence and resilience, grounded in their devout Christian faith.

“The first thing is that you can’t be lazy,” the elder Adeniran explained in a recent interview with ASN Sports TV, an outlet run by Houston-based Nigerian-American journalist Sam Mbonu.

“If your team is practicing for one hour, you have to do an hour, 45 minutes. If your team is practicing two hours, you have to do two hours, thirty minutes. And any time they finish a season and they come home, we start all over. I never give up on them.

“If the season finish, I give them three days to rest and we continue. Why? I watch their game, I see them play and then I have to correct all their mistakes, so that by the time they’re going to go back, they know what to do. Thank God that they’re kids that listen and follow in my footsteps, and really want to improve.”


Love of the game

Demanding? Exacting? Relentless? Yes. But never excessively so, says Sam, the youngest in the family.

“He coached me, probably from the time I was born up until, I'd say 16, 17,” he said. “My dad having played pro, I learned a lot from him. Yeah, it did carry a lot of weight and carry a lot of pressure. But at the same time, my dad did a good job of not forcing me into anything.

"He always told me that when you play soccer, you've got to play it out of love. You don't play it out of fear or anything like that. So he never forced us to play, but he always encouraged us. I learned a lot from him, and I'm still learning from him until today.”

Key moments where Adebisi exposed them to other teachers and environments in the game may have been even more influential in the long run. None more so than the regular trips they took across the Atlantic and to South America to experience some of the world’s most passionate, talent-rich soccer cultures.

“They've been following me to Europe since they were 10 years of age, going to [an] Arsenal tournament, Man U tournament,” said Adebisi. “I go to Europe for tournaments, I take American children there. So they are the pioneers of it. Because of them, I start this program and they've been to Europe – every summer, my kids in Europe.

“And when I get to Europe, I leave them to other coaches to coach them, because I want them to see other hands. So if you see them play now, it’s not something that just happened one day, one hour, one year, no. Sammy is 25; Sammy has been going to Europe since he was nine years old.”

The combination of fatherly instruction and intrinsic interest – “from their little age, when they’re born, I can see that they want to play the game and they keep the passion going on,” dad recalled – put the kids on an upward trajectory early on.

“It was just on and off, back and forth between Houston and Europe and Houston and South America, just traveling and learning a lot about the game,” said the St. Louis striker. “So that was pretty much my upbringing.

“From when I could talk, the only thing I knew I wanted to do was play professional soccer.”

Adeniran collects ball

American abroad

His showings on those European trips drew attention at the clubs he visited. Yet ironically Sam’s big break happened much closer to home – at the famous Dallas Cup youth tournament, where his performances for Houston Express (which later merged with another club to become RISE SC) caught the eye of Liverpool FC scouts. He would spend a year on an LFC developmental side, and also trialed with the likes of Blackburn and West Brom. But without a British or European passport, the overseas teams couldn't find a permanent place for him.

Nevertheless, the seed was planted and Adeniran was determined to give it a shot across the pond. At age 18, he joined Portuguese side Belenenses, the first stop in a winding journey across the Old Continent. He was grinding, like so many other prospects, to make a name and climb the ladder in the “dog eat dog” world, in his words, of the lower divisions, at places like Leganés, Guadalajara (the Spanish version), Castellón, Kickers Emden, Atlas Delmenhorst – far from the glamorous superclubs so familiar to North American viewers.

“The lower levels, definitely in football in countries like Germany, Spain and Portugal where I was, it's a lot harder to play in those leagues than it is to play in the higher leagues, in my opinion, just because of how bad certain players want to move up and want to progress,” said Adeniran. “So they're literally giving everything, whereas some of the players in the highest levels, they've kind of already achieved that. So they're kind of just playing with a little bit more freedom.

“Especially being an American and going over to Europe,” he added, “people were telling me things like, ‘America is not a soccer country, you guys aren't good like the European countries.’ Trying to always prove those people wrong was definitely something that I tried to do when I was younger.”

Immersed in new cultures and languages, he weathered bleak moments, times of loneliness salved by his loved ones’ words from far away.

“There were definitely times where I wanted to stop,” he said. “I know I keep going back to it, but my family and God just really were my anchors at that time that really helped me to keep pushing and keep moving forward and not burn out.

“Because all that pressure from a young age is really difficult, especially when you're in a whole new environment and a whole different country, having to learn a whole new language, and you have to do all of this in the season and perform.

"My mom used to call me like, every hour. I was on the phone with my mom for a long, long time,” he continued. “Now that I look back at it, I'm just like, man, those were the moments that helped me push forward. Those were the moments that helped me cope. I didn't know it at the time.”

Adeniran crowd walking

Climbing the ranks

He might still be in Europe, were it not for the COVID-19 pandemic plunging most leagues into a deep freeze. Adeniran returned home to Houston and eventually asked out of his contract in Germany to pursue opportunities Stateside. He made his way to Puget Sound, signing with Tacoma Defiance, the Seattle Sounders’ second team, where he scored goals at a steady enough clip to gain promotion to the senior squad.

Pushing past international-caliber incumbents like Raúl Ruidíaz and Jordan Morris on a perennial trophy contender was a taller order, however.

“Coming into a team like that as a young player is obviously difficult, because you have players there that number one, have produced and earned a lot of respect. And then number two, players that are earning a lot because of what they've produced,” said Adeniran, who took “fond memories” from his time in Rave Green.

“So I kind of just had that mentality of I'm just going to do my part and work hard every single day in training, give my all and leave the rest up to the staff to decide. It doesn't always work out, because you have times where people have what they have, and that's the person that's been producing for them and they're going to keep trusting in that person. And the same way they're going to keep doing that is the same way, if they did it to me, I would appreciate that, too.”

Adeniran kept producing on loan stints back to Tacoma and at San Antonio FC, whom he helped win the 2022 USL Championship, which is around when St. Louis sporting director Lutz Pfannenstiel identified him as an ideal recruit for the hard-working, high-pressing ethos he was building at CITY SC. The Sounders, to their credit, let Adeniran go for $100,000 in General Allocation Money, another $100,000 in performance-based metrics and a percentage of any transfer fee abroad in the next two years.

A divine goal

His combination of a big frame, surprising pace and a poacher’s predatory instinct have made Adeniran a reliable spearhead for STL, whether working in partnership with another No. 9 or more of a second striker type. Even after spending a large chunk of the season’s early months on loan back in San Antonio, he finished 2023 as CITY’s third-leading scorer, finishing chances with force and grace alike.

A clever stabbed strike into the top corner in a 6-3 rout of Austin FC last August earned him Goal of the Matchday honors, and a moving tribute from his father.

“Oh, I'm a proud father,” said his dad when asked about that goal. “I call him after the game, I said, really son, you’ve made me proud. Because one thing is to coach your son or coach any player, [another] thing is for that player to have the knowledge that God has given to them.

“He’s a left-footed player, and the [defender] blocked his left side, so when I saw the way he bent the ball around, I mean, that's one of the talents God gave to him. I can't take the credit for it. I can only say I'm proud of him.”

Adeniran vs skc

Fashion: The second family business

A visit to Adeniran’s Instagram reveals another family legacy: Fashion. The Adenirans work together on VAPS Dynasty Clothing, a bespoke line of agbada, dashiki and other Nigerian-style garments that fuse culture, couture and heritage. The name is an acronym of the four siblings’ names, and all of them handle various company tasks in their spare time.

Sam often sports VAPS items on matchdays at CITYPARK and recently recruited his friend, teammate and housemate AZ Jackson to help design and model some pieces for a fashion show in St. Louis, further burnishing both players’ reputations for creativity and swagger. That said, the Adenirans’ family matriarch gets credit for the genus of the idea.

“My brother was about to get married and my mom was like, why don't we make our own clothing for the wedding?” explained Sam. “And that's normal for Nigerians to do, but it wasn't really you making it, it was you going out to other people to make it. But my mom was like, no, why don't we design it? We looked at her like she was crazy at first, but now when you look at what it's turned into, she kind of has that ‘I told you so’ mentality. We got to give her her flowers and her props.”

Might Adeniran get the chance to show off both his fashion and his scoring on even bigger stages in the future? If he can sustain his form of the past year or so, the possibilities are huge. And despite the many stops in his journey before St. Louis, he says he carries no chips on his shoulder or lists of doubters to defy.

“I know who I am. I know the talent that I've been blessed with. And I know that I'm capable of doing far more than what people expect – way more than what people expect,” he said. “And I've shown that. So I mean, I don't really have that chip, I just have that mentality of I'm going to prove myself right rather than proving other people wrong.”

Sam Adeniran dramatic

St. Louis swagger

He recognizes the faith shown in him by Pfannenstiel and CITY SC coach Bradley Carnell, and their system’s role in elevating his well-rounded skill set. Despite widespread predictions of a regression to the mean in 2024 considering a perceived statistical overperformance in year one, Adeniran believes there’s more to come.

“The staff and the organization seeing something in me and seeing that my style and the way I play can benefit the team,” he said, “that's something that I definitely noticed from the beginning when I first got here, that they had a plan in what they wanted to do and how they wanted to play. And I fit into it.

“We mastered it last year. We just ran through teams. Having won the first five games in our first season, I mean, we really showed people what we can do. And we're still that same team. We're still that same team that can win our first five games, we're still that same team that can go out there and compete.”

Adeniran says he’s got STL’s meetings with Seattle circled, but not with a point to prove so much as a chance to hit his old friends with some fresh smack talk.

“Sometimes we're playing video games together, we're talking on the phone and I literally always mess with them, I'm like, ‘I'm going to score on you.’ But it's all friendly banter,” he said.

“At the end of the day when we get on the field, no matter who I'm playing against, that's my opponent and I really give my all, and my plan is to whup you.”