In 2004 I was a wide-eyed 22-year-old, stumbling my way through the beginnings of my adult life. I was also in university, slugging my way through a degree that I had become disillusioned with obtaining.
That summer, like many Americans fascinated by sports, I was greatly interested in a young American that had just been thrust into the celebrity limelight. And like many, I watched that summer as Freddy Adu became the biggest thing for American soccer since Pele in the 1970s and David Beckham would become three years later.
Looking back over the last 11 years, it’s easy to see where it all went pear-shaped for Adu; seemingly with many things not being his fault directly.
Adu was a 14-year-old soccer prodigy, at least that’s what people said at the time. Looking back, no fan really saw Adu until he was put on the field as a full professional and then it was hard to judge him against grown men. Against kids of his age, of course he was a prodigy at 14.
Adu became the youngest professional soccer player to ever play the game when he debuted for American team DC United in April 2004.
By all accounts he was a genius with a soccer ball at his feet, the ‘next Pele’ so many headlines said. But really in 2004, just eight years after Major League Soccer’s debut in the US, it showed that those professing Adu as a prodigy didn’t have the youngster in mind when making decisions about his career or future. How great so many kids look amongst other kids, but in truth, thrown into a world of men and that kid looks less a prodigy and more a… kid.
American players like Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, both of whom are considered two of the best US players of all-time, had the time to develop, neither was rushed. In truth both needed time to become great. Something Adu could have used as well.
Despite being over his head, that first season was quite successful for Adu as DC United won Major League Soccer’s MLS Cup and the teenager contributed five goals and three assists in 30 games.
At the time, Adu seemed unable to do any harm as MLS marketed him as the next big American sports start. He was on magazine covers and TV talk shows re-introducing a game to America that had been forgotten after the North American Soccer League went bust and the end of the 1994 World Cup.
Adu was the league’s way to show America that their was professional soccer in the country, it mattered and this “phenomenon” was the face of it. But those times seemed to fade rather quickly. And in 2015 are a lifetime away.
Adu lasted another two seasons in Washington playing for DC United before being traded to Utah’s Real Salt Lake (RSL). In 57 games he only tallied 6 goals, but did add 14 assists.
In 2006, when I heard Adu had been traded, I couldn’t believe it. This was the guy everyone had said was “it”. Why was he being sent to one of the league’s worst teams? I felt like I had been lied to by the league and media hype-machine.
The Utah-based team were far from the team that they are currently. When Adu arrived at the club, RSL played at Utah University’s American football stadium. The pitch was not conducive to soccer with its rock-hard astroturf field and American football lines. Not surprisingly Adu was unexceptional during his 11 game stint with RSL, scoring once and assisting two goals.
A high-profile move to Portugal was then followed by a move to France, both times looking likely that Adu would fulfil the hype that was birthed on his debut in 2004.
But Adu stuck with neither move and spent three more loan-spells in Portugal, Greece and Turkey playing the odd game here and there for clubs that found him quite underwhelming.
Finally, Adu returned to the US in 2011 with the Philadelphia Union, but that lasted less than two years. A sudden move to Brazil was then followed by a move to Serbia where he was released by FK Jagodina last autumn. Though Adu professed via Twitter it was mutual. The fact is, Adu has played two competitive matches since 2013.
Even before going to Serbia, Adu had underwhelmed former US National Team coach Bob Bradley, now coach of Norweigian club Staebak, who had originally invited the American for a trial; in hopes of resurrecting the American’s career.
After his release from Jagodina it was reported by BBC World Football and numerous other outlets that Adu was working as a night club promoter. However, Adu has refuted those claims, stating that he “isn’t working” in a night club. Adu clarified the statement by saying he is “hosting events” at a night club. Semantics aside, it seems that they’re pretty similar.
Adu’s career is like a car wreck, you can’t help but continually look at it. I’m sure in a few years ESPN will produce another of its fantastic 30 for 30 documentaries, but with Adu as the subject. I look forward to that.
I am now 33, Adu is 25. It’s amazing what happens in a decade. I have gone to university, travelled, worked and built a life.
Adu has stumbled through a pro soccer career that he probably has no desire to continue; and may have stopped desiring it a long time ago. He is only in his mid-20s, a time when many high-profile soccer players are hitting their stride.
But Adu never had the chance to grow up like so many teens. Adu grew up in the spotlight when soccer was re-emerging in the US and being used as the face of American soccer didn’t help.
Now days, it seems these mistakes would be avoided in US soccer. But of course, they would’t be if we didn’t have someone to make them in the first place. Those ‘next Pele’ headlines that once celebrated Adu are now just ways of mocking America’s former great soccer hope.