Training camp starts tomorrow in Jacksonville, Fla., but that didn’t stop New York City from adding yet another player to their midfield ranks. Earlier today, the team announced their acquisition of Ghanaian midfielder Kwadwo Poku from the NASL’s Atlanta Silverbacks. They acquired his discovery rights from the Seattle Sounders in exchange for a conditional draft pick in 2017. He becomes the sixth international player on NYCFC's roster.
The 22-year-old played 25 games last season for the Silverbacks, scoring two goals. One of those came against Jason Kreis’ old Real Salt Lake team, whom the Silverbacks played in the fourth round of the U.S. Open Cup. Poku’s goal was the deciding goal in a wild 4-3 victory. All in all, he played a total of 1,781 minutes for Atlanta, mostly as an attacking midfielder or forward.
Kreis was enthusiastic about the signing; in the statement announcing the signing he noted:
"In Poku, we are getting a fantastic young player at the perfect stage of his career. He can help strengthen our squad immediately, and at only 22, we know he will develop into an even more important player in the future."
For his part, Poku sounded hopeful:
"Joining New York City FC is an amazing opportunity to take my career to the next level in the MLS. I know that being part of an ambitious club like New York City FC will help me keep improving at this important stage of my career."
Born in Kumasi, Ghana, Poku began his soccer career in the youth system of his hometown club, Asante Kotoko SC. Asante Kotoko is Ghana’s most successful club, with 22 league titles and 2 continental titles to their credit. What’s interesting is that while at Asante Kotoko, Poku was considered a holding midfielder; he didn’t start consistently playing further forward until he arrived in the United States five years ago, in 2010. He spent three years playing for the Georgia Revolution of the NPSL, during which time Poku became noted for his strength and finishing ability in front of the net. He led the NPSL team in scoring in his last two seasons with them, and showed creativity as well, leading the team with seven assists.
According to Kristian Heneage on Twitter, Poku idolizes Yaya Toure, and has clear technical gifts. Given his size — 6-2, 185 pounds — it’s easy to see why. From everything I’ve seen — and it’s not much, mostly NASL games in addition to the highlight video above — I can confirm that he’s very good from a technical perspective. That said, despite his size, Poku didn’t really seem to dominate games in the manner you’d expect a guy with his physical gifts to do so. That could have been a result of the Silverbacks’ general difficulties in scoring, and the absence of another good striker for him to combine with.
With Poku’s addition to the roster, New York City now have eight midfielders, pending the addition of Frank Lampard in midseason. Where does he fit in the roster?
He’s mostly played as an attacking midfielder or forward in the United States, but right now, both of those areas seem fairly stocked; with Khiry Shelton, New York City have three quality forwards, four if you count Tony Taylor; they also have three quality attacking midfielders — McNamara, Velasquez, and Diskerud. While Poku could play in either of those slots, he’d be facing a lot of competition.
New York City’s biggest need in the midfield is at defensive or holding midfielder; Matthew Dunn, whom New York City acquired from Chivas USA in the dispersal draft, has played in that position, but he’s by no means a lock. As I wrote earlier, Poku started out as a holding midfielder in Ghana; his idol, Yaya Toure, plays mostly as a box-to-box midfielder, and even played center-back for Barcelona. My hunch is that Kreis will probably have him competing with Dunn to be the holding midfielders for the team, using the training camp to really explore that option.
It makes sense for him to hold down that position. With his offensive experience, Poku could resemble someone like Xabi Alonso, of whom the writer Jonathan Wilson once said, "although capable of making tackles, [he] focused on keeping the ball moving, occasionally raking long passes out to the flanks to change the angle of attack." Kreis does have a fair amount of experience in developing young players acquired from lower-division American teams.
With his youth and technical ability, if Kreis can develop Poku into an Alonso-like midfielder, New York City would be in excellent shape going into the season.