He was the teenage prodigy of Major League Soccer, once linked with Manchester United and Inter Milan. Now, Freddy Adu is a 24-year-old journeyman. But is his career a failure… or a cautionary tale of hype?
On 3 April 2004, Freddy Adu made his professional debut for DC United, coming on as a substitute. He was 14 years old.
By that day, the hype machine had kicked into overdrive. A year earlier, whilst playing with the US under-17 national team, his coach John Ellinger had spoken of a player yet to shave as “good enough to play Major League Soccer right now”. While for many outside the US that might have raised a snort or two over the League’s standards, it was a statement borne from the media firestorm surrounding the teenager. His meteoric rise was a version of sorts of the American Dream – only at superspeed, with less toil and more talent.
Just five years earlier, the boy named Fredua had arrived in the United States after his mother won the Green Card Lottery. Settling in Potomac, Maryland, her son continued where he had left off from his days growing up in the port city of Tema, Ghana where he played against men three times his age.
Speed became an element both of Adu’s play on the pitch and his life away from it. Within 48 hours of being brought along by a friend to his first game of organised soccer in the US, he was picked up by a youth team, the Potomac Cougars. Soon afterwards, he was invited to Italy by the US Olympic Development Program, where serious people began to take notice of the ten-year-old. A meeting was organised by the Cougars coach Arnold Tarzy between Adu’s mother and representatives from Inter Milan but Emelia, protective of what she saw as people trying to take her son away from the education she wanted for him, said no. “He’s just a young boy,” she protested.
She did, however, concede to allowing Adu to take the next step in his footballing education by enrolling with the IMG Academy in Florida, with the proviso that her son would complete his high school education, albeit a faster pace. There, Adu trained with like-minded American soccer talent, winning praise from coaches and peers alike for his maturity and skill level.Adu-mania was at its peak when, inevitably, dissenting voices began to raise questions. How could a boy barely out of puberty be terrifying grown men with such pace, balance and surefootedness? Suspicions were voiced that Adu was older than in fact he purported to be. Rumblings inside US soccer were that certain officials wanted to see bone scans and birth certificates, but the suspicions produced zero evidence.
Meanwhile at IMG, Adu, still a child by a considerable margin, was being pressured to act like the man his coaches wanted him to be – and that American soccer needed him to be. An insight into the expectations put upon the teenager is provided by IMG’s ‘mental conditioning’ coach Trevor Moawod from a Sports Illustrated feature in 2003. “Every week [Adu] watches a 15- to 20-minute video of himself,” Moawad said, “so that he can watch himself get upset. And we ask him: Is that the message you want to send?”
Whether a 13-year-old by should be sat down to watch a video of his own flaws and be questioned as to the “message” he’s sending to the public is perhaps an issue open for question. A picture emerges of a player, though evidently blessed with considerable talent, being expected of a greatness for which he was not ready. Adu, by his own admission, was not mature enough to argue otherwise.
“In the beginning, early on in my career, I cared a lot about pleasing other people and what other people thought,” Adu told the BBC in April of this year. “But now I care more about meeting the goals that I set for myself.”
By the time Adu had made his MLS debut for DC United after being drafted 1st overall in 2004, his desire to live up to expectations began to manifest itself in frustration. Adu was suspended by his club after voicing his unhappiness over the lack of minutes. “It’s frustrating at times when you think you’ve earned a chance to play and you’re over there sitting on the bench,” he said at the time.
After being told as a child that he was the ‘next Pele’, Adu could be forgiven for thinking he might be entitled to a little more than he perhaps was. But DC United’s coach, Peter Nowak, was far from impressed. “Nobody is going to be above this team,” he said. Adu was being torn down just as quickly as he had been built up.
Before the beginning of the 2006-07 MLS season, whilst still with DC United, Adu was invited by Manchester United to undergo a two-week trial with their youth academy. Sir Alex Ferguson, football’s master of youth development and nurturing, was polite in his praise for Adu’s talent, but little more. Nevertheless, upon his return to DC, Adu saw more playing time and was selected for the MLS all-star team. In December 2006 and yet to turn 18, Adu was traded to Real Salt Lake, scoring one goal in eleven league appearances.
Within a year, the break that the ambitious Adu was hoping for came as he was signed by Benfica for $2 million. The Portuguese club was seen by Adu as a stepping stone on his way to greater things. “I felt Benfica was the right place for me to be when I was 18, as my first step to Europe,” said Adu. “I didn’t want to go to England or Spain… I felt like I needed a place where I had the chance to develop as a player.”
After scoring just 7 goals in 35 league games for the Union, Adu moved to Brazil in April of this year and now plies his trade with Bahia, where he has struggled to find regular playing time, but has contributed when called upon.
Ambition has never been a quality lacking in Adu, who has spoken of his desire to “make my way slowly up the ladder again.” Unfortunately, he was pushed up the ladder too early in his career before he was even able to climb, thrown into the company of men whilst still just a boy. During his early development, US coach Bruce Arena was one of very few to sound a note of caution. “Freddy’s without a doubt the most talented kid we’ve ever seen at that age,” he said. “But who knows where he’ll be two years down the road?”
The reality is that Adu was viewed as a Major League level prodigy, but whether he was ever a world-class one is open to debate. He was, through no fault of his own, the hailed saviour and promise of a country that at the time was still forging a soccer-based identity for itself, and mistook Adu for the Messiah who was going to take them to the next level. Adu was never that man – he was simply an extremely talented youngster pushed into scenarios and environments for which he was not physically or mentally mature enough to cope with.
It is a lesson for Major League Soccer, which has grown in quality and stature considerably since Adu’s emergence, but not because of it. It is more than tempting to wonder if, had he been treated with more patience and less constant adulation, the boy from Ghana might be playing for the European giants he still dreams about.