The under-appreciated brilliance of a focused Fanendo Adi
Most all-time records are punctuated with a period. They’re statements of near-finality, tributes to longevity and staying power. If you aren’t at the very end yet, you’re certainly getting there.
Fanendo Adi’s career Portland Timbers scoring record, clinched this past weekend in Philadelphia, instead felt more like an em dash – accentuating potential accomplishments still to come rather than what he’s already done.
He has everything. Even as a big guy, he’s not afraid to hit you with a move and create space for himself. He’s a complete player and he’s a handful.
When Adi, on Saturday, knocked a 87th-minute penalty kick down the middle to net his 46th Timbers goal, he broke a record that had stood since 1982 and the era of the original North American Soccer League.
He’s still just 26 years old, and, playing with a fearsome consistency that has proven elusive in the past, there’s a strong case to be made that Adi’s best days are still ahead of him. Nor is it outlandish to suggest that the Nigerian forward is among the most underappreciated talents in Major League Soccer, perhaps even the most underrated of them all.
Shining from others’ shadows
He’s often overshadowed by teammate Diego Valeri, a perennial MVP candidate who is Portland’s heartbeat and most beloved social media presence.
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Plenty more attention is lavished upon Darlington Nagbe and how he could transform the U.S. national team if only he can further tap into his potential. Sebastian Blanco is the club’s highest-profile new signing, and David Guzman has proven a key addition in defensive midfield.
But while all of those Timbers fill important roles, Portland’s fortunes ebb and flow with Adi’s moods more than any other player’s. See: August 21 of last year.
Having requested a transfer earlier in the summer and had his representatives publicly push for a move to a stronger league, Adi missed the team flight to its late-August rivalry match in Seattle and was scratched from the starting lineup.
With rumors swirling about the forward’s long-term commitment to the club, replacement Jack McInerney blew a series of early chances before the rival Sounders ran away with a 3-1 win that helped spark their MLS Cup run.
While his numbers have stayed consistent over the years, including 16 goals in each of the past two seasons, the same cannot always be said about Adi’s dedication to the cause.
And yet when he is both invested and playing well, he gives the Timbers an extra gear. He might not be Portland’s best player, but he’s its most irreplaceable. Few players in the entire league can match his combination of size and savvy.
Facing up to Fanendo
Veteran Sounders center back Chad Marshall has battled one-on-one with just about every MLS striker of note over the past decade, and when asked what makes Adi such a tough matchup, he ticks off a long list of boxes: the strength and physicality of his 6-foot-4 frame the timing of his runs; the “little bit of Wondolowski” about his positioning near goal.
Adi can strike the ball with both feet, and he’s not afraid to run at opposing defenders with the ball.
“He has everything,” Marshall said. “Even as a big guy, he’s not afraid to hit you with a move and create space for himself. He’s a complete player and he’s a handful.”
The two goals Adi scored against Minnesota on opening night showcased two attributes he isn’t always given enough credit for.
Prior to the first, he dribbled around United’s goalkeeper and took an extra touch to throw off a pair of retreating defenders, showing off finesse uncommon for such a muscular forward. To set up the second goal, he carried the ball almost from the midfield stripe all the way into the box at a long-limbed gallop that obscures his breakaway speed.
The facet of his game that has probably most improved since he joined the Timbers in 2014 is his hold-up play. Adi has learned how to use his bulky frame as a shield, and his passing ability has gotten better, too. Especially as Portland has become more of a counterattacking team, that ability to retain possession up top until reinforcements arrive is invaluable.
If that sounds like a lot of onus to heap upon one player’s (albeit broad) shoulders, it is. And Portland isn’t relying only on Adi to lead the line from the front of coach Caleb Porter’s 4-2-3-1 formation. It leans heavily on him for production, too: No Timber other than Adi and Valeri scored a single goal over the final two months of last season as Portland fell one win shy of the playoffs.
Whether he remains committed to the Timbers in the long run is a trickier and open question.
Keeping Adi in Portland
Adi signed a three-year contract extension last spring that carries through the 2018 MLS season. And he has said all the right things during the first few months of this campaign.
The inking of that new deal, however, predated his unsubtle angling for a move during last summer’s transfer window. If he keeps up his current pace, he will have no shortage of suitors with deeper pockets than Portland’s. And if you’re tempted to write him off as a mercenary, getting on the radar of the Nigerian national team was one of the reasons given for why he wanted to jump to a bigger league.
The retention or loss of Adi will not make or break the Timbers. They’re a likely playoff team even without him. What he does, however, is complete them, and turn a contender into a legitimate Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup frontrunner.
Netting 46 goals in three-plus seasons is no small feat, and hopefully, the milestone will inspire greater appreciation for what Adi has already accomplished in Major League Soccer.
Where he goes from here could be even more interesting – and could shift the competitive balance of the Western Conference for years to come.