There’s a sense of authenticity about Tobi Adewole from the minute you meet him. In our contemporary instagram culture of physical perfection, he greets you with a gap-tooth smile that might remind some of a young David Letterman. In a sporting world consumed with being flashy and catching your eye, he has always played probably the most thankless position on the pitch – that of a centerback – despite having been one of his teams most talented players since an early age.
On a Riverhounds team loaded with compelling, ready-made newspaper-friendly stories – the ‘local-boy-makes-good’ narrative of Robbie Mertz; the ‘Naval-Academy-American-hero’ tale of Joe Greenspan; the Kevin Kerr ‘veteran-leader-with-his-eyes-
But he’s utterly essential to the success of this ballclub, all the same.
Adewole has been with the Pittsburgh Riverhounds for the past three years. His coach for the past two seasons, Bob Lilley, sees Tobi as a critical piece to the success of his ball club, even if the bulk of attention falls upon Tobi’s fellow central defenders, Joe Greenspan and Thomas Vancaeyezelle “He’s one of the better centerbacks in our league, but he gets overshadowed at times because of Joe’s presence, and Thomas’s abilities. A lot of times Tobi doesn’t get the recognition he deserves.”
Seven different Riverhounds have been named to the USL ‘Team of the Week’ – Tobi is not one of them.
Since joining the Hounds in 2017 after graduating from George Washington University, Tobi has been a humble if overlooked part of one of the best backlines in the USL. In 2019, the Riverhounds had the third-best defense in all of the USL Championship – a coast-to-coast league with 36 clubs – as the Riverhounds allowed just 30 goals in 34 games. In 2018 with Adewole starting nearly every game, the Hounds had the best defense in all the league.
Lilley believes that a significant part of his success today is simply due to his great physical gifts. “He’s blocking shots and making a play, getting up, and making another play. He’s so athletic. He’s brave. He’s strong. He’s fast.”
But there’s lots of physically gifted players in USL. Tobi brings unique gifts to the Riverhounds beyond his exceptional athletic ability.
His attitude, for one, is exemplary. Upon being told he had an interview request, Adewole came bounding up with a beaming smile and puppy-dog enthusiasm. This, despite the fact that he had just completed a rigorous training, complete with a chewing-out from the head coach for a sloppy turnover at an inopportune moment. Everybody we spoke with told us that Tobi’s warmth and joy helps balance out a locker room that might otherwise carry a great deal of competitive intensity.
Lilley told us “His teammates love him. He’s just a happy-go-lucky guy. He’s always got a smile. Some guys you get on ‘em, and they sulk. Tobi rolls with stuff. He’s easygoing. He competes every day, but his attitude is good. He has fun. You need players like that in the locker room.”
Oluwatobiloba A. Adewole, or Tobi for short, was born in Cheverly, Maryland; a suburb just east of Washington DC, the third of four children. His parents, Wilson and Adetoun, came to DC from Nigeria, where they worked as an IT technician and a nurse, respectively. In between work, there was most definitely a lot of driving kids around to sports practices, and phenomenal athleticism is a hallmark of the entire Adewole clan. Tobi’s oldest brother, Tomi, played NCAA Division I soccer at Villanova; his sister Teju was a sprinter at Princeton, and his youngest brother Toni is currently playing his soccer at the Naval Academy.
The nickname ‘Tobi’ developed quickly and by necessity – his full name was torturous for the occasional substitute teacher or youth soccer referee that was asked to record attendance. His full name translates in Yoruba to ‘God is great.’
He never quite settled on one youth club, playing for local Maryland clubs like Olney BGC, Bethesda SC, and Potomac SC. When it came time to go to college, Tobi stayed local and went to George Washington University, a medium-sized D-I college with a solid-but-unspectacular soccer program. There, he was the team’s most talented player and started nearly every match of his four-year career. He also scored 5 goals for the Colonials in his time in Foggy Bottom. He wasn’t enough of a standout, though, to get drafted by Major League Soccer or catch the eye of a scout for a pro team in Europe.
He came to the Riverhounds in 2017 on an open trial, where head coach at-the-time Dave Brandt liked his potential. Hounds Assistant Dan Visser said “We had invited him to an open trial, we knew about him. What we saw was his athleticism. He was also a good passer and good on the ball.” It was clearly a decision that has been proven a good one, three years on.
He and his fellow backline teammates Vancaeyezeele and Greenspan have developed the kind of symbiotic mindreading ability that translates to a stalwart defensive corps that makes opponents scorelines resemble binary code tracing across a compiling computer at Carnegie Melon: 0-0-0-0-0-0-0-1-1-0-0-0. Your computer isn’t broken – that’s actually the scoreline of each of the Hounds opponents over their last 12 straight matches. Pittsburgh is undefeated over that stretch.
Adewole explains, “I’ve been with Joe for three years now. I have the chemistry that you will have if you play with someone for three years. We know each other’s strengths, We know each other’s weaknesses. We know we have the same goal in mind and push each other to be the best – hold each other accountable.”
Adewole will likely have a long soccer career, but the 24-year-old is well-positioned for a career after sport, having received a degree in Economics from GW. “I want to use my degree in something soccer-related” he tells me, but whether that might be in scouting, front-office management, or as an agent, Tobi doesn’t know.
For now, he’s more than happy helping propel the Riverhounds to new heights and new success in the USL Championship postseason. The Hounds top-of-the-East finish has fans expecting big things as the playoffs roll on. The Riverhounds hadn’t won two playoff games in the same post-season since 2004, and they’ve never won a trophy of any kind in club history.
Perhaps, with the help of the genuine and jovial centerback from Metro DC, all that will change for 2019. Maybe then, he’ll get the recognition he deserves, but Tobi will likely have a giant grin on his face, recognition or no.