In the same week that Julian Green agreed to train with the U.S. national team, Freddy Adu reminded us of what can happen when we put too much pressure on young players.
The 18-year-old Green is the hottest topic in American Soccer for many of the same reasons Adu once occupied the same position. The promise of greatness and the potential for being the kind of player who could finally give American fans someone they could call their own among the world's best players have U.S. fans salivating. Green is nowhere close to being such a player yet - much like Adu was never close - but promise and potential can blind you when you've been looking for greatness for so long.
A decade ago, it was Adu who was capturing the imaginations of American fans who were being fed a load of marketing spin calling Adu an heir to Pele's throne and the best 14-year old on the planet. Adu was presented as the future and told he was a star before he collected his first pro paycheck. The unrealistic expectations served to stunt his development and skew his perspective. Above all, those unrealistic expectations set him up to fail, because unless he actually blossomed into the next Pele, or something close, Adu was going to be seen as a disappointment.
Green can count himself lucky that he's not sitting in the center of the media storm Adu found himself in a decade ago. As much as American fans are buzzing by the thousands about the possibility the U.S. national team could have a Bayern Munich player on the squad, Green himself isn't really feeling the expectations. He is being protected by the Bayern Munich cocoon, and Pep Guardiola's watchful eye. Nobody at Bayern is calling Green the next anybody, nor are there marketing campaigns being drawn up to make him larger than life. No, Green is free to focus on improving as a soccer player, and even if there is building hype about him among U.S. fans, Green is an ocean away from it.
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Playing those what-ifs is futile now. We are instead left with the reality of the present and Adu's own tenuous career standing a decade after turning pro. Adu's recent video interview at Blackpool felt strange and unsettling to watch. As much as Adu was a pleasant interviewee, and he was clearly willing to open up and bare his soul, you came away wondering just why it was even happening. Why a player who was just training at Blackpool, not even really on trial, would agree to such an interview, and why the club would be so eager not only to do the interview, but to promote it aggressively as the most interesting thing to come out of Blackpool since, well, you get the idea.
The interview showed us an Adu who hasn't given up hope. An Adu who believes the World Cup isn't out of the question and who believes he still has opportunities in his future despite having played for 10 clubs in 10 years. The reaction in some circles was predictably negative. After all, how dare a young 24-year-old player at the crossroads of his career have hope? How dare he set goals, albeit arguably unrealistic goals, as he tries to climb out of the rut he finds himself in now, one which finds him without a club?
Should Adu really be even talking about the World Cup? Not really, but asking someone to give up on a life-long dream is easier said than done. We are talking about a player in Adu who turned down more lucrative contract offers to leave MLS for Brazil a year ago just for the possibility it could improve his World Cup chances. He could have taken more cash and gone to Australia or South Korea, but he believe that a good run in Brazil could impress U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann enough to take a look at him.
The theory made total sense, but in practice it just didn't pan out. The coach who signed him to join Brazilian club Bahia was fired almost immediately, and Adu was on his third coach at Bahia before he could blink. Suddenly, a move with so much promise turned into a dead end at a time when he really needed it to be a long road.
As disappointing as his career has been, Adu still has more fans than people realize. Fans who have come to appreciate the skill he has shown, and the special moments he has been able to deliver, albeit inconsistently. Moments like the hat trick in the 2007 Under-20 World Cup, his head-turning 45 minutes against Spain in 2008, his impressive showing in the 2011 Gold Cup Final, or the 2012 Olympic Qualifying loss to El Salvador.
Will we see moments of brilliance from Adu again? A decade of watching him bounce from club to club makes it seem less and less likely, and maybe what Adu needs is for people to stop having expectations for him. Perhaps it isn't a surprise that his time in the Turkish second division in 2011, when nobody in America could watch his games and he was off the U.S. radar, was by all accounts the best stretch of his club career. He became a bit of a forgotten man in the U.S., and Adu was able to just buckle down and play. The result was an impressive-enough run to earn himself a place on the 2011 U.S. Gold Cup squad, an invitation few could see coming.
Adu made the most of that opportunity, playing well in the Gold Cup semifinal and final, which he parlayed into a multi-million dollar contract with MLS.
Things have gone downhill in the two and a half years since then and Adu now finds himself facing an uncertain future. He has some potential options in Europe, and while he isn't ready to return to America, that is still an option for him if he changes his mind. The clock is ticking though, and the longer he goes without a team the tougher it will become for him to resurrect his career yet again.
Which brings us back to Julian Green, who has developed an army of American fans despite the fact many haven't seen him play before. It's only natural to get excited about the "next big thing in American soccer", but we should consider the lesson Adu's career has provided us, which is that sometimes placing unrealistic expectations on young players makes it that much tougher for them to become the players we are hoping they can become.
We shouldn't be so quick to anoint Green as a future U.S. national team savior, nor should we be so quick to write off Adu at the ripe old age of 24. Both still have chapters of their career to write, and we are better off experiencing them as they happen rather than trying so hard to assume how those chapters will wind up.