Fanendo Adi's Odyssey: From barefoot soccer to Portland Timbers goal king

Editor's Note

This feature, which originally ran March 31, details the journey of forward Fanendo Adi, who was then on the verge of becoming the Portland Timbers all-time leading scorer. With an 88th-minute penalty kick against the Philadelphia Union on Saturday, Adi scored his 46th goal, passing Timbers legend John Bain to grasp the top spot for his own.
—Ben Couch, Senior Editor (April 8, 2017)

Original Text

Gavin Wilkinson was not sure just what to make of Fanendo Adi.

The Portland Timbers’ GM and president of soccer had arrived in Denmark in May 2014, one day before the close of the MLS primary transfer window, in hot pursuit of a striker. Wilkinson had learned of a promising Nigerian No. 9 who had been relegated to a reserve role at FC Copenhagen. But Wilkinson had barely 24 hours to meet the player, convince him to give Portland a try and complete negotiations with his club.

Wilkinson invited Adi to dinner. After laying out his pitch for the Timbers and MLS, the executive tried to get his target to open up a bit.

“I said, ‘Adi, you’re not very talkative.’ He goes, ‘I’m just evaluating you,’” Wilkinson recalled with a laugh this week. “Coming out of that meeting, I couldn’t get a good read on him, I’ll be honest. I joked with Adi, too – I said, ‘It’s impossible to get a read on you.’ He goes, ‘Yes, I like it like that.’”

“He’s an interesting, complex individual.”

Adi’s recollection of the evening plays out a bit differently.

“I was in Copenhagen and of course I wasn’t playing much then,” he told this week. “I knew nothing about MLS. I always wanted to see the United States and visit New York and some other nice cities one day on vacation, but I had never given an idea to coming to play in MLS.

“If I wanted, it was in my court to make it happen. And of course when I sat down with Gavin and had a chat, it was a pretty interesting one … So it was an opportunity that came at the right time, and I had no doubts about taking it after speaking with Gavin. I took the opportunity and today here I am.”

Initially arriving on loan, Adi notched an assist in his Timbers debut, a 7-minute cameo off the bench. Then, he scored two goals in his first start and bagged another brace in his second. And by and large, he hasn’t stopped scoring since, attracting interest from Liga MX, the EPL and Belgium, even as the Timbers extended his contract last year.

At some point in the next few weeks – quite possibly on Sunday night when the New England Revolution visit Providence Park (9 pm ET | ESPN2; MLS LIVE in Canada) – the 26-year-old forward will score his fifth goal of the 2017 MLS season and 46th overall. He will become the all-time leading scorer in the Timbers’ 42-year history, passing John Bain, the Scottish playmaker who starred in the club’s NASL days and today coaches at PTFC youth affiliate club Westside Timbers.

The milestone will be a sweet one for all involved, a chance to celebrate a proud club’s history and hail its newest icon. It’s not certain whether Adi will retain possession of the record, but that in itself is a sign of the Timbers’ hale health: His teammate Diego Valeri sits just a few goals back at 41, and will almost certainly pass Bain, too.

“I’m kind of looking forward to it, actually,” Bain told this week. “It’s just rewarding and satisfying that the Timbers have 40 years of history and there’s some recognition of the history that’s happened through the NASL [era] and all the players that have participated.

“He holds the ball up really well, his all-around work rate is good and once he gets the ball inside the box, he scores a lot of quality goals with his feet and he’s also good in the air,” added Bain of Adi. “He’s really the whole package … I really think he’s capable of scoring 15 to 25 goals every year if he keeps healthy and he keeps getting the service he’s getting.”

Adi has traveled a long way to earn his place in Portland lore. It wasn’t that long ago that he was a gangly, nervous teenager stepping off a plane that took him from his native Nigeria into the bone-chilling winter air of Slovakia, his first destination as a professional.

“I remember it was very cold and I think I wore enough sweaters to keep me warm,” he recalled with a chuckle.

Adi had arrived for a trial at AS Trenčín, where it took just half an hour for the then-second-division club to decide to offer him a contract.

He’d already beaten the odds by rising from the street soccer of a small rural village in Benue State, Nigeria to a soccer academy in the crowded coastal metropolis of Lagos. Next, he would encounter the infamous racism that plagues Eastern European soccer.

“In Slovakia, I experienced about two, three times where they called me a monkey, they threw bananas at me,” Adi said. “But I was of a mind to play my game, do what I had to do ... So when they threw the bananas at me, I actually took a banana, peeled it up and ate the whole banana. So it was a funny situation and my teammates and I just laughed about it.

“It’s one of [my] experiences in football in the Eastern European countries,” he added. “They try so hard to steer racism out of the game, but it’s just an experience and I am happy to have [learned from] all these experiences.”

Adi would move on to Ukraine, then Denmark and there was also a trial at Ajax in the mix. But it took the guidance of head coach Caleb Porter and his staff to unlock the rich potential within Adi's 6-foot-4 frame.

“We took a bit of a gamble on Adi just from the standpoint of, he still needed some polishing as a lone striker, believe it or not,” Porter said. “When he first came, he was a guy that didn’t play as big as he was. But we got him to learn to embrace how big and strong he can be.”

Adi’s imposing physical gifts are apparent. But his soft feet and nose for space have helped make him an MLS champion as well as one of the league's elite forwards. He credits those qualities to countless hours of barefoot soccer in his childhood, much of which was played while he was supposed to be running errands for his mother.

“Nigerians are a little bit like Brazilians – we play street football a lot. In street football you just learn from nature because there’s nobody coaching you, so you do crazy things with the ball,” he said. “You use your imagination.”

The MLS learning curve has bedeviled many overseas arrivals over the years. But it was light work compared to what Adi had already overcome. He has also fit into the Portland locker room about as well as he has fit on the field, with Porter saying that Adi is “probably one of the most-liked guys on the team.” 

Adi and his wife Becky have settled into life in the Rose City and, even though he hates flying, he has enjoyed visiting numerous North American cities. And with trophy-hunting at club level and hopes of earning further opportunities with the Nigerian national team, there’s plenty for the ambitious striker to chase on the field.

Porter and his staff believe their targetman deserves further accolades across the league than he has received to date, and aim for the team’s 2017 exploits to provide that platform. Nonetheless, Adi has already woven himself into the fabric of the Portland Timbers.

“It’s a great milestone for the club, certainly for him,” said Porter of Adi’s impending scoring mark. “He still has a lot of years to bag goals here and hopefully win trophies for our club. But at the end of the day, he’ll go down as one of the best players that has worn the uniform.”

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