Why Fanendo Adi to Columbus Crew could prove one of the smartest moves of the MLS offseason

Fanendo Adi - Caleb Porter - embrace

How does a former all-time club leading scorer and “one of the best players that has worn the uniform” in one of MLS’s most passionate cities become a pariah and a (lowercase) goat in another in under two years’ time?

More pressingly, how does a player in such a situation hoist their career out of the proverbial ditch?

These are the questions hovering over the head of Fanendo Adi as he treks north up I-71 from one side of the “Hell is Real” Derby to the other, closing a truly miserable chapter with FC Cincinnati and starting over in Columbus. And while his long-expected departure is hardly being mourned by the FCC faithful, it’s not hard to see why Crew SC saw too much upside and too little risk to resist giving him a shot.

“He’s become a very complete player. Not many guys have the physical tools that he has in terms of size and mobility. Usually you get a guy that has his size and they're not very mobile. He has a rare combination of size and speed, and he’s learned to play big, play strong, hold the ball, keep it simple, bring the midfielders into the game.

“He’s learned to get on the end of crosses, he’s become a better finisher, more consistent finisher. His fitness has never been better, his leadership’s never been better, you can see he’s bought in … I wouldn't trade him for anyone in the league.”

Those were Caleb Porter’s effusive words on Adi a little under three years ago, when the duo were with the Portland Timbers. Life comes at you fast in the big leagues, but still, this wasn’t THAT long ago!

The pair won MLS Cup 2015 amid a memorable run of form in which the Nigerian striker scored 32 goals over two seasons and another two in the playoffs, then topped the Western Conference table in 2017 before an upset loss to the Houston Dynamo in the conference semifinals. Adi and the Timbers staff seemed to have cracked the code, shaping him into a classic No. 9 with modern mobility and attitude.

Then Porter departed the club abruptly at season’s end, and a few months later Adi was on his way to Cincy after finding himself the odd man out under new boss Giovanni Savarese.

As the showcase acquisition of a deeply flawed roster, perhaps no one’s stock suffered from FCC’s nightmarish expansion season as much as Adi. He was hampered by injuries and starved of service, then compounded his own woes with an operating a vehicle while impaired citation sustained after state police reportedly clocked him driving over 100 miles per hour in the predawn hours on his way home from a loss last April, a charge later reduced to reckless operation.

Aside from a nod to the loyal fans who kept flocking to Nippert Stadium, there’s no way to sugarcoat how badly Cincinnati’s 2019 campaign went for all parties, and that casts a gray pall over literally everyone involved. That makes Adi a distressed asset, and those can be some of the best gambles in MLS.

FCC’s desire to part ways with him has been obvious for months, and even the sting of having to underwrite most of his reported $1.96 million salary (according to The Athletic) while he plays for their in-state rivals won’t change that – but the problems in Cincy ran much deeper than their disappointing Designated Player.

Even after a winding pro journey from rural Nigeria to frosty Slovakia and on to Ukraine, Denmark and finally MLS, Adi is still just 29 years old and frontrunners with his toolkit simply don’t grow on trees. In fact, there’s a plausible argument to be made that he’s a more well-rounded striker than the man ahead of him on Crew SC’s depth chart, Gyasi Zardes.

As I learned when I profiled him back in 2017, the big man has faced tougher challenges than this one, from his unlikely climb out of Lagos’ dirt fields to having bananas and monkey noises hurled at him by racist fans in Eastern Europe. Porter and the Crew have given him a lifeline – now the onus is on him to seize it.