Fanendo Adi started this season in Portland, opening a fifth campaign with the Timbers, but will be approximately 600 miles away as they undertake Thursday's second leg of the Western Conference Championship (9:30 pm ET | ESPN, TSN, TVAS). One of the club’s all-time leading goal scorers is in Cincinnati, Ohio preparing to write a new chapter in his career, when expansion club FC Cincinnati open MLS play in 2019.
Adi – who preceded his Portland stay with a journey that took him from the East-Central Nigerian state of Benue on through Slovakia, Ukraine, and Denmark – has found his next challenge in Southern Ohio, traded to FCC in July for for $450,000 in General Allocation Money (GAM) and $400,000 in MLS Targeted Allocation Money (TAM). He joined as the club's first Designated Player.
“I had never heard of Cincinnati before,” Adi tells MLSsoccer.com. But that didn’t stop him. Adi didn’t need to know anything about the city, as he has been in this position before.
“Having spoken to the management, the coach, and the staff, I was very much convinced that it was the right decision. Of course, I knew this would be a huge challenge and a changing environment, but I think it was a decision that was pretty easy for me to make. The project they talked about was something I wanted to be a part of and it was a big part of my decision to come here.”
Adi’s acquisition was a long-term play for FC Cincy – the club sold Adi on its MLS future, even as they remained aggressive in challenging for a USL title this season. They opted to make the move for Adi in July and have him stay with the team, instead of having him go out on loan, to lay a foundation for next season's inaugural campaign.
Adi was sold on Cincinnati early, and the club's supporters provided a warm welcome | USA Today Sports Images
As someone with several countries stamped in his employment passport, Adi knows first-hand that relocating to a new city, adjusting to its environment and culture and trying to make new friends doesn’t come without rough patches.
“The lucky thing is we came in early,” Adi says. “So right now we already have 1-2 people we know, our neighbors are good friends, and so the advantage of being here early enough for next year is the good aspect of it.”
Adi has also been able to make himself at home off the pitch in his spiritual and personal life. He’s already been able to find a church to attend in a nearby town and determined which of the local restaurants have earned a return visit. Has he found any local spots for good Nigerian food? “I think my wife is a better cook than [anyone at] any of those spots, so I eat at home,” Adi quips. “Once in a while I go out to eat something different.”
On the pitch, Adi has only featured sparingly for FC Cincinnati. Played just enough – 11 games, 6 starts; 592 total minutes – to whet fans' appetites with three goals ahead of next season, the club and Adi have instead focused on building an understanding of the club’s philosophy and integrating their future leader into the locker room. Adi was quick to point out the value of this when leading a locker room comprised mostly of new faces next season: “With little chats or talking about what the coaches like to see or how they like to position or how they like us to train 100 percent every day. Those little details I’ll be able to share with the new players and help them settle in better.”
The success of this innovative “integration experiment” will inevitably be measured by how fast Adi and the team can race out of the gates next season. Replicating the success of recent expansion outfits Atlanta United and LAFC – both established contenders in a short period of time – is the goal.
On an individual level, Adi can further an MLS legacy that already places him among the best African players in league history. It's a fast-growing list that includes fellow Nigerian striker Obafemi Martins on through contemporaries like Kei Kamara (Sierra Leone) and Harrison Afful (Ghana), as well as legends like Didier Drogba (Ivory Coast) or Doctor Khumalo (South Africa).
For Adi, this is a day-by-day project and it’s all about starting to repay the fans who have embraced him and his family with open arms. “The reception they gave me was simply amazing,” Adi says. “The only way to pay them back is to try to help the team and the club on the pitch, and try to win something with them. That would be a beautiful way of repaying the fans.”
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