TUCSON, Ariz. – It’s been over six months since forward Fanendo Adi last played a competitive soccer match, far too long for a recovery that was originally described in weeks. Hamstrings, though, are notoriously tricky things, and when setback after setback pushed the return from Adi’s Aug. 8 tweak past 2017’s last game, what was once a twinge had morphed into a season-ending blow.
“When you know you need just two weeks to come back,” Adi remembers, “and then you do something very little and it reoccurs, it was quite frustrating. And knowing I’m a person the team relies on to get goals, and not being there for the team, it was very frustrating.”
The 27-year-old Nigerian has been the Portland Timbers’ most consistent scoring threat since he arrived three-and-a-half years ago, and although Diego Valeri led the team in goals last season, Adi’s loss was a debilitating blow. Combined with other injuries in the squad, like that to midfielder Diego Chara, Adi’s absence helped leave a top-seeded team short-handed, unable to avoid an upset to the Houston Dynamo in the Audi 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs.
Previously, the absence could have been a point of lingering frustration, but now 27 and entering his 10th year as a professional, Adi has become more centered. He’s more aware of where he’s at in his career, and what he has to do to maintain his course. That includes his place as one of the team’s veteran presences, and while missing his team’s chance to claim a second MLS Cup would normally qualify as a low, the Lagos-born striker sees that as part and parcel with life as a professional.
“In as much as [the injury] was a bad thing, it happened for a reason.” Adi believes. “I’m the kind of person that thinks everything is supposed to happen, so I take what seems to be the negative and make it a positive.
“Probably, it was the time for me to be out and reflect on being here. Injuries happen, but mine was happening in a different way, where very minor things kept reoccurring.”
It forced Adi reconsider his approach; reconsider his habits; reconsider where he was in his career. Sidelined in October, when he turned 27, Adi was forced to recognize he was no longer young, in professional athlete terms. The sense of invulnerability athletes carry through their youth was starting to wane, and unable to recover as quickly as he expected, Adi began reevaluating his part. Could he being do more to stay on the field?
“It’s a shift in routine, as well the shift in the mental outlook of everything,” Adi says, when asked how his new outlook on injury prevention has changed his approach. “I was 24, I was 21, now I’m going to be older. There’s definitely a way to do things now …
“There’s been a shift in mental focus just to be ready. Just doing the exercises – I was doing it before, but maybe I wasn’t doing it right. Now I’ve got a whole view, a whole knowledge of how to do it right. It’s a huge difference.”
It’s part of a whole new outlook on life in soccer, one that also influences Adi’s role in the squad. When he arrived in the summer of 2014, the then-23-year-old was ascending into his professional prime. Like most athletes at that stage, part of his mind was in the future: What kind of player he could become; what it would take to get there.
Improvement remains a priority for Adi, but older and more focused on the present, he is more tuned-in to the environment around him. Suddenly, he's one of the more veteran presences in the Timbers’ squad.
“I put laughter in the locker room,” says Adi, who at times serves as part of the squad’s entertainment coordinator when the team is on the road. “I want to make sure everybody’s fine. I try to be inclusive with everybody. Even when I can’t speak Spanish, I try to speak one or two words in Spanish just to get everybody going.”
Adi’s picked out one of the squad’s Spanish speakers as a project, of sorts – a target of constant contact.
“Dairon Asprilla, I speak to him all the time, because I think that he has great potential...” Adi admits. “All the time, I try to push him. I say, ‘Don’t worry. Just do the right thing.’ After trainings, I’ll tell one or two others, ‘Come on, and do this.’”
He doesn’t shy from the veteran buzzword: leadership. He knows, particularly with a squad that’s becoming younger, that leadership is part of the job description, and while in the past he was rarely thought of as a guide amid veterans like Nat Borchers, Jack Jewbury and Will Johnson, the context around Adi has changed. Those veteran presences he used to revere? They have been swapped for players he’s here to guide, talents like Asprilla, Alvas Powell and Jeremy Ebobisse.
“The leadership role, of course, is there,” Adi admits, with a comfort and confidence that undermines any reluctance. “My role in the team now is to help the younger guys coming up. Especially [Ebobisse], I talk to him a lot. I direct him. I tell him this way, how to do that. I just try to do this and see maybe he’ll change something.
“When he gets it, that’s nice – that’s my role, is to help the boys; make sure everybody is happy, comfortable. Even when you don’t play, you are very important to the team.”
This preseason, not playing has been a thing of the past. Working with the Timbers’ first team throughout February, Adi is more than ready to resume his career’s course. With a new zen that recognizes his place in team, place and time, Adi plans on taking his game to a new level, beginning with the Timbers' season-opener on Mar.4 against the LA Galaxy (7pm PT, FS1).
“I’m hoping to outdo whatever I’ve done for this team,” he says. “I’m working so hard on my fitness, having been out for so long. Now that I have a few more things that I know how to do right, I’ll be better in the long run.”