by JAKE NUTTING
After going the last few months without a club, Adam Najem is relieved to have found a chance to get back on the field with the Tampa Bay Rowdies.
The creative midfielder has joined the Rowdies with 11 matches remaining in their regular season schedule. With the addition, the Rowdies roster now stands at 22 players. Any added depth will be beneficial the rest of the way and especially over the next week as the Rowdies face three matches in a short stretch.
Najem, 25, posted four goals and three assists for Memphis 901 FC in the USL Championship’s Eastern Conference last year. Prior Memphis, he spent two years on loan to Bethlehem Steel FC (now Philadelphia Union II) while under contract with Major League Soccer’s Philadelphia Union. He made a handful of appearance for the Union in MLS but earned the bullk of his appearances in the USL.
Yes, there is a relation to former Rowdies player David Najem, who moved to the league’s Western Conference with New Mexico United this year. Adam is David’s younger brother. The siblings even played together on Afghanistan’s national team last year.
“He was really excited,” Najem said of his older brother’s reaction. “He only had great things to say about this organization and the staff and the players. I’ve spent time in Tampa Bay with him before and I’ve gotten to know some of the guys before. It makes for an easy transition.”
The younger Najem started out the year by inking a contract with Wigry Suwałki in Poland’s second division. Like the USL, though, that league shut down just a couple weeks into its season when the threat of the coronavirus became too overwhelming to ignore.
“I was really excited to go out there and experience it and get my feet wet in Europe and see what the level was like,” Najem said. “Everything was going well. I made my way into the team, into the starting group. I had the confidence of the staff and then things kinda got shut down very quickly. But for me it was just another way to test myself. That was the point of going for this European experience for me. Obviously I wish it lasted longer but circumstances happen and that’s life. I still take away a lot from it. Hopefully I can bring that to Tampa Bay.”
Najem spent about a month in Poland with no games to play, participating in individual and small-group training sessions. However, as Wigry Suwałki’s situation remained unclear, he was ready to return home to New Jersey and regroup.
A ride home presented itself through a U.S. embassy flight from Poland back to America. Najem managed to catch the final flight out after getting out of his contract two days prior. Since then he’s done his best to maintain his fitness and, like a lot of people during the pandemic, assess his options.
“I was kind of taking it like an offseason for me. Kinda with that same structure, but with more caution,” he said. “I feel fit, I feel sharp. (The Rowdies) are at a high level right now. I just want to make my best impression and fit in with the group and help in any way that I can at this stage of the season.”
He considered returning overseas to resume playing but ultimately decided that remaining close to home was the better route to go considering the uncertainty and restrictions around international travel at the moment. It’d be hard for any American to get permission to travel to most countries in Europe with how serious and widespread the pandemic has been here.
Seeing the USL and other American leagues get back to action in July really ignited Najem’s desire to get back on the field.
“It was just about getting games again and getting into playing,” he said. “It’s a lonely thing training on your own and seeing the league start back up here. That competitive nature kicks in. I was just like ‘Wow, I really want to play again. I really want to make a difference in a team and be in the team environment.’ It means everything.”
The Rowdies worked to get Najem down to Tampa Bay as soon as possible. With all the health and safety protocols in place, it takes a while to safely integrate a new player into the group, so Najem was on a flight to Florida last Wednesday, only three days after initially hearing of the Rowdies’ interest.
Najem was tested for coronavirus when he arrived in Tampa Bay and has since been tested two more times. He’s been living in the hotel across the street from Al Lang and was limited to individual training in the last week. His first training session with his new teammates after clearing through all the protocols was Wednesday morning.
While he’s only been permitted to participate in full training once since joining, Najem believes his ties to the club will help accelerate his integration into the squad. Rowdies keeper Evan Louro and Najem played together as kids in the New York Red Bulls academy and he’s already friendly with a handful of Rowdies players through his brother David.
“Evan and I kinda grew up together in the Red Bull academy. So it’s nice to have a familiar face,” Najem noted. “Leo, Seba, Max and some of these guys that have been around a couple years, I’ve been able to meet through my brother. It’s an easy transition knowing guys and even the new guys have been welcoming. That just makes the process that much easier.”
After watching the Rowdies best the Charleston Battery in person last week, Najem is encouraged by the club’s chances at making a deep run for the USL Cup.
“This is a great group. From everything I’ve seen in the past with the USL and what I’ve seen with the guys on the field, I think it’s a group that can go super far. I’m not even being biased, I think this team can compete for a championship. I’m excited about that. I’m excited to play my part.”