The second half of the 2017 Major League Soccer season has begun and with the race for the playoffs about to kick into high gear, KweséESPN sat down with Portland Timbers and Nigeria striker Fanendo Adi to discuss his thoughts on the league, winning the MLS championship, and getting a call-up to play for Nigeria.
KweséESPN: Who were your favorite players while you were growing up in Nigeria?
Adi: I was an Arsenal fan, so I loved Kanu and I loved Thierry Henry. Henry was the guy I looked up to. I watched a lot of videos and highlights. I got to play against him and that was an exciting moment as well.
KweséESPN: You had a call-up to the Nigeria national team for two qualifiers versus Egypt back in 2016. What was the experience like for you?
Adi: To be able to represent your country is always good. To get invited is a good thing. The bad thing is to fly all the way from America, 32 hours to go there and back and not even be on the bench or on the 18/19 (list). It's not a good moment or not a good thing, so for me that was very disappointing. I knew I could contribute but you just have to respect the coaches and do what they want to do, go with the flow. But also it looks bad that I flew all the way for 32 hours without being in the 19-man list. It was a sweet and sour moment.
KweséESPN: How was the training experience itself? Training and being in a national team camp with other Nigerian players from around the world?
Adi: It was good. Some guys play in the [English] Premiership so It was good to see them play, along with Mikel (Obi). It was a good feeling, a good experience. You learn from everything, the good, the bad. It's just a learning process. It was nice to be there to train with them.
KweséESPN: Would you be open to a future call-up by the national team manager or is that door shut? If open to it, what would you provide to the Nigerian team as a centre forward?
Adi: We're all different players. I'd just do what I'm known for. I would try to help the team with my physical play, with my ball control, keeping the ball up for the players. And scoring goals for the team, helping the team create and as well score goals.
After I experienced the first call up, I said I'm not gonna fly out there [for nothing]. If they invite me, I'm just gonna ask the coach, 'Am I gonna be in the 19 man (list)?'
I'm not ready to fly 32 hours and just stay on the trip and watch the game and not play. I'm not ready to go and just sit, that's not what I want; but it's always a great honor to represent your nation and if I'm called up that will be a very good thing for me and I will be very happy to represent my country.
KweséESPN: How did your move to MLS come about? Did you know anything about the league before making the move to North America?
Adi: I knew nothing about the league. I had never watched the league or highlights but the coach was there to talk to me about it and he explained pretty well how it works and how they wanted me. I was lucky enough to make the right decision.
KweséESPN: What were your initial thoughts on the level of play in the league?
Adi: I can't say I really had expectations, coming to a league that you know nothing about. Of course, you take whatever you see. I just took it as I saw it. When I first came in it was extremely physical and so much running that I couldn't adjust quickly. The physicality of the league is just unbelievably high and it took me a while to adjust to that with the help of my coaches, so right now I'm just into the system.
KweséESPN: Are there any aspects of MLS that you think need some more improvement?
Adi: It's a big country, and I don't think my opinion matters to anyone, but if I were the head of the league I'd stop signing old players and giving them millions of dollars, because you have a lot of young good players in the league... Extremely good players in the league that need that money. So if you go and bring old players just because of the name and put them in MLS All-Stars, give them in the best contracts, I don't think that's helping the league. I'd rather put the investment in the youth and make it possible for the youth to develop and become something tomorrow, for the States and for the league itself.
In terms of travelling, it's a massive place. If we would have chartered flights to the very distant locations that would be better, unlike we having sometimes to get connecting flights to a location (prior to a match). Those are just some areas of improvement. Once everything is put in place I think the league will be improved but it has more to do with the youth. The older guys can help but I don't see how much more after all they've already given of themselves in Europe, but that's just my opinion.
KweséESPN: You helped the Timbers win the MLS Championship in 2015. It was your first major trophy. How was that for you?
Adi: That was a great feeling. We had ups and downs but to come up at the end of the league, winning the entire championship, was just amazing for everyone. That was my first championship so it was a very good moment for me and exciting for the club. To be with the club at that time and give the club what they had been waiting (to get) for over 45 years... It was just amazing for all the players, the fans, the management and the coaches. We always tell people the story of how we won in 2015. It was a great time.
KweséESPN: You became the Timbers all-time goalscoring leader, with 46 goals then, back in April. Did you have any plans on getting that record when you signed with the team and is that something you think ever reflect on?
Adi: I didn't know anything about the record with the team or who had the record [John Bain]. I was just playing year after year, but when it got closer to breaking the record I heard about it. I'm grateful to God to be able to break that record that has been there for years, and to have a group of guys that really helped me to be in that situation and moment is just amazing. Today I don't remember the record but I have the record ball in my house so every time I'm watching the TV, it's in front of me so when I see the ball I remember that; but outside of my house I don't even know that I'm the record holder. I'm just humbled and privileged to be here and keep doing well for the team.
KweséESPN: The Timbers are currently fifth in the Western Conference. What do you, as a team, need to do in order to get back to the playoffs and make another run for the championship?
Adi: We just need to defend well, play well, try to score goals and just know that from now on we have to win. If you win you're getting points and if you don't win points are slipping off your foot. It's a case of seeing what we did the last two years, how we managed to come up on top and win nine straight games and go straight to the championship and win it.
So we have to go watch the videos, talk to each other, and know that it's defending first, and every other thing comes afterwards, because if we don't concede goals then hopefully we're gonna score goals. If we stay and concede goals then that will be a tough situation for us. So we just need to defend well, play well, play as a team and try to win games.
KweséESPN: The MLS All-Star game was held recently. What are your thoughts on the selection process for players to the All-Star game?
Adi: The way it's voted, or whoever chooses the player, it's (up) to the league and how they do it but that's not something that really interests me. It's good for the players that get to go there but for the league I don't see any way it helps the league develop. That's just my opinion about it. The league is the league and I just have to respect whatever they put there.
KweséESPN: As a player in MLS, do you feel validated or recognized by selection to the All-Star game or is that something you would rather prefer to get from teammates and your home fans?
Adi: I'm not a player that fights for recognition or anything of that nature. I don't want to get into the voting or how they choose players to go for that but it can never be 100% correct. For me, it's just something I overlook and I play my game and try to help my team and try to do things to help the club that I'm playing for. Recognition? I'm happy the club and the fans recognize me.
KweséESPN: How would you describe your playing style, for fans in Africa who haven't had the opportunity to watch you play?
Adi: It's better for coaches and other players to describe, but all I can say is I just try to help the team, try to do what I have to do. I'm a big guy so I can say I'm a target forward. I don't drift much to the left or right, I try to [stay in the] center as much as possible. I'm a player that anyone can play off. I'm a box player, and a player that holds the ball up.