Nazmi Albadawi: The NASL's not-so-hidden gem who is catching the eyes of MLS scouts

Photo Credit: Rob Kinnan

Making the jump from the second division is tough, but this midfielder looks ready to do so.

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Make sure to remember the name Nazmi (‘Naz’) Albadawi. Currently 25, he’s the captain and central-midfield focal point of NASL side North Carolina FC and he’s gaining significant attention from MLS scouts. You may soon be hearing his name called at the next level.

He’s your vintage No. 10, really. He does both sides of the game.

- NASL midfielder Richie Ryan

The youngest of three siblings, Albadawi grew up in North Carolina. He stayed there every step of the way in his career so far, eventually landing with the Carolina RailHawks in 2014. Since then, he’s been the face of the franchise, earning a 2016 NASL Best XI nod. The central midfielder is able to send in a lethal free kick from anywhere within 30 yards of goal. With an expiring contract this winter and MLS teams scouting him already, get to know him before he makes the jump.

WHY YOU NEED TO KNOW HIM

Simply put, Albadawi is possibly the best American talent in the U.S. lower divisions. Players like Christian Ramirez, Brent Kallman and Aaron Long have all impressed in their MLS debuts in 2017. None of the three had top-flight experience on their resumes going into March, but they have become key pieces for Minnesota and New York Red Bulls, respectively.

A few teams have already identified Albadawi as the next hidden NASL gem. Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake have scouts regularly attending North Carolina FC matches, and there are talks that the Columbus Crew, Minnesota United and Toronto FC have the midfielder on their radars. It’s very likely he ends up in Major League Soccer next year – more a matter of where, not if.

As far as MLS player comparisons, he profiles very similarly to Marky Delgado of Toronto FC. Both are quite creative with the ball and are showing improved defensive instincts. Their tireless motors and ability on the ball set their teammates up in good positions. He also has versatility similar to Baggio Husidic of Los Angeles Galaxy, having spent time on the wings in his career.

STRENGTHS

There are few players in the NASL who are better on the ball than Albadawi...and that shortlist may only include Joe Cole. In his first three NASL seasons, Albadawi added 13 goals and 14 assists, becoming the focal point of the team’s attack. His 10-assist campaign in 2016 turned heads across the second division, setting up teammates like Omar Bravo and Matt Fondy.

Still, the midfielder’s best attributes may be the intangibles. He has long been a leader, and his tireless motor has aided him in playing every minute this season. Both of these traits bode well for the next level.

WEAKNESSES

While Albadawi played most as a No. 10 and inverted on the wing in his first three years, he has shifted to become a box-to-box midfielder this season. That has brought an understandable decline in his counting stats, but this move has also shown that, if he wants to stay as a No. 8, he’ll need to bulk up. His stamina fits the position, but bigger players in the league can muscle him off the ball.

He’ll also need to improve his tackling and winning 50/50 chances. MLS is a league that loves two-way midfielders. If he can improve his defense over what may be his last NASL season, he’ll be primed to compete for a starting role in MLS.

THEY SAID…

Photo Credit: Rob Kinnan

Photo Credit: Rob Kinnan

“He’s your vintage No. 10, really,” perennial NASL Best XI midfielder Richie Ryan said. “He does both sides of the game. When you’re trying to defend him, he picks up good areas that create problems… This season, you’re seeing him talking a lot more on the field and organizing, encouraging his teammates. He does a captain’s job well. Credit goes to (North Carolina coach) Colin Clarke for giving him the armband.”

“With time and space facing goal, he will pick you apart,” according to Jeb Brovsky, a midfielder with over 100 MLS appearances to his name who faced Albadawi in 2016. “He does well if he can get in that pocket between the outside back and center back and get half-turned on the ball. All Nazmi needs is a coach to take a chance on him and help him grow. I think he can be very good in MLS.”

DID YOU KNOW…

Taking the winding path from lower-division to MLS is far from the first hurdle in his development. Despite finishing his high school career with 35 goals and 50 assists, he failed to get a single offer from a college upon graduation. He walked on with ACC school NC State after a year at community college. From there, he joined the then-RailHawks’ NPSL side, playing during his college offseason. He then joined the RailHawks (now North Carolina FC) in 2014, and the rest is history.

WHAT NEXT?

Albadawi and North Carolina FC are seven games into their 2017 NASL campaign. Currently in fourth, NCFC figure to be a postseason contender this year. It’s most likely he’ll finish out the year in The Triangle and hit free agency when his contract expires in December. From there, the will-be 26-year-old figures to be ready to make a leap to MLS if he leaves his hometown club. Whether RSL, SKC, or another suitor wins his signature is anybody’s guess at this stage.

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