You don’t have to follow college soccer at all to know the impact the University of Akron has had in Major League Soccer in recent years.
Just rattling off a short list of names you’d recognize will tell you everything you need to know. Names like DeAndre Yedlin, Darlington Nagbe, Wil Trapp, Scott Caldwell, Darren Mattocks, Zarek Valentin and Kofi Sarkodie, who have all found success since entering the league dating back to 2010.
The latest name to add to that list could very well be the Philadelphia Union’s new signing, Adam Najem.
“For us he was a very technical and creative player,” Akron head coach Jared Embick said of his now former star. “You look at his numbers over the four years and they match up with our other great midfielders we've produced.”
Embick, who has been the head coach at Akron since 2013, but served as an assistant under Caleb Porter six seasons prior, went as far as to say he’d rank Najem in the top five of players he’s coached “in terms of game intelligence and overall understanding of the game.”
The 22-year-old Clifton, N.J. native, who seemed destined to start his career with the club he grew up playing for, was always expected to make it to the next level, just with the New York Red Bulls instead of the Philadelphia Union. But after twice failing to reach an agreement on a contract over the course of two winters, the Red Bulls traded his rights to the Union for a second round pick in the 2018 MLS SuperDraft.
The move seems like a steal for the Union, which didn’t have a first round pick in the 2017 SuperDraft but still find themselves with a player TopDrawerSoccer.com editor Travis Clark called “one of the best college soccer players over the past four seasons.”
Still, whether he’ll rise above being a key contributor and squad player to a headline performer like so many former Zips in the league have will depend on how well he is able to overcome some of his perceived weaknesses.
“His ceiling and success in MLS will likely depend on his ability to adjust to the physical demands of a higher level, as the one knock on his game is a lack of high-end athleticism that coaches in MLS covet,” Clark said. “Provided he adjusts to the speed of play quickly, Najem could be a sneaky good contributor this season and expand on that role in the future."
Embick has high hopes for Najem, whom he said was at his “scariest” for opponents when playing at the 10 because of his ability to make the pass and create scoring opportunities for his teammates. Najem saw his offensive production slip in his final season in part because he played a deeper, more defensive role.
“I think he's going to be even better at the next level,” he said. “He's just got to be given an opportunity. He's really smart and really skillful and I think he'll do really well.”
Though he’s not as athletic, flashy or physically intimidating as some of his highly-rated peers entering the league from the college ranks, Embick said Najem’s humble approach and knowledge of the game are what will make him a dangerous weapon for the Union attack.
“He does a lot with thought process more than pace and power,” Embick said. “He's very good at connecting with teammates and reading a defense to find the weaknesses and takes advantage of it.”