Freddy Adu started as close to the top as a 13-year-old can get in American soccer. He wasn't just the Next Big Thing, like so many North American sports stars are, a new Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzky or Joe Montana. He was supposed to be American soccer's First Big Thing, a trailblazer, a colossus, the true marriage of the world's game and American marketing power.
He was going to be that kid who proved a sort of consumerist E Pluribus Unum - that out of the many, we could produce The One.
At 13, Adu had the million dollar Nike deal. He had a huge offer to join the Inter academy. He had better magazine coverage than anyone else in the sport. He was the darling of the U.S. youth system, running rings around kids several years older than him and flashing an aw, shucks grin like their mischievous little brother who just happened to have a six-zero contract.
A decade on, you can pencil in the Philadelphia Union under the names D.C. United, Real Salt Lake, Benfica, AS Monaco, Os Belenenses, Aris Thessalonika, and Caykur Rizespor on the already lengthy list of Freddy Adu's former clubs.
Adu is now persona non grata at a Major League Soccer side that couldn't make the playoffs last season, a team that wants nothing more to do with the oversize contract of a troublesome player drifting ever further away from his teenage years, and rapidly burning through the last vestiges of his once-huge potential.
"We presented Freddy with a couple scenarios that we would feel comfortable with bringing him back, under certain conditions," Union head coach John Hackworth told reporters on Monday. "Freddy came back and said, 'Hey, I'm gonna stick with my current situation.' We made it very clear if that was his choice, and he has the option, he's under contract to us, but if he made that choice, he wasn't going to be coming back as part of the team."
Freddy Adu has always seen himself as the hub of an attack, a central playmaker given the freedom to do what he wants, allowed to move and drift and exploit gaps to create chances for himself and his teammates. In youth national teams, often cobbled together from young players all over the country, coaches were often more than happy to hand over the reigns to their most talented player and let him have at opposing defenses.
In the 2007 U-20 World Cup, Adu and fellow youth phenoms Jozy Altidore and Danny Szetela helped the baby Yanks run the table in Group D, each scoring three goals as the U.S. drew 1-1 with South Korea, routed Poland 6-1, and out-Brazil-ed Brazil to win 2-1.
In a club environment, that's a riskier proposition for a coach, to tell a group of veterans that an untested teenager is going to come in and supplant them as the main attacking outlet. When Adu joined D.C. United and MLS in 2004, he found himself in a side containing a number of solid-to-good midfield and attacking players, including Jaime Moreno, Alecko Eskandarian, Ben Olsen, Earnie Stewart and Christian Gomez.
Adu was relegated to a supplementary role, on the wing and often off the bench. For most teenagers, that's a huge achievement. For the kid who did a commercial with Pele, it wasn't enough. Before he was old enough to drive, Adu was feuding with United head coach Peter Nowak about his position and playing time.
"It's frustrating at times when you think you've earned a chance to play on the field and you're over there sitting on the bench," he groused in 2005. "That's not the kind of player I am. I'm the kind of player who wants to be out there on the field and needs to contribute every minute of every game. I'm not saying I should play 90 minutes every single game, but I am saying that I should definitely play a lot more than I've gotten to play."
Nowak, as has always been his wont, shipped Adu out when he got fed up.
"Freddy desired to play a different role than the one we offered here at D.C.," Nowak said when he traded the then-17-year-old to Real Salt Lake in 2006. "So we hope this move can aid that wish."
Freddy has always wanted to play, and play centrally. Hackworth and the Union, seeing little return on their initial 2011 investment, were hesitant to give yet another shot to the inconsistent and, according to some reports, disruptive Adu, especially since he was taking home the team's highest salary by far; Adu made over half a million dollars in guaranteed compensation in 2012.
"We said, 'If you're willing to renegotiate, and come back under some different guidelines, we'll be happy to talk,'" Hackworth said. "'If you don't want to do that, we very clearly want to make sure you understand that you won't be back with us next year,' and he knew that.
"When it comes to the contractual part, it's pretty much just financial. But, a lot of it had to do with the role that Freddy would play in our team, especially when you compare him and his stature within our locker room relative to guys that were in there."
Despite his humble, team-first positive public persona (and Adu is a very intelligent, articulate young man), rumors of an unprofessional attitude dogged his time at Philadelphia. The night before Philadelphia's July 21 clash last season against its biggest rival, the New York Red Bulls, Adu was spotted out late at a bar. He was not included in the team's match day squad, and team officials would only refer to his omission as "an internal matter."
"He thinks he's God's gift to soccer," a former U.S. youth international told Goal.com on condition of anonymity.
On Monday, Hackworth referenced "things that need to be kept within the locker room."
Just before fielding questions about Adu, Hackworth announced to the assembled media that Brian Carroll, Adu's teammate on the 2004 D.C. United team that won the MLS Cup, would be the new team captain.
"Brian has certainly earned the opportunity through his actions and his character, and the way he exemplified a fantastic leader last year," Hackworth said. "Things happened in our locker room, which obviously people aren't privy to, and we want to keep it that way, but Brian was a very important leader in our locker room last year."
Carroll is a soft-spoken, hard-working, selfless kind of player, a loyal team guy, averse to self-promotion, the kind of player who lets his work on the field do the talking for him. Though his captaincy is certainly warranted, Hackworth's comments about Carroll, in such close proximity in his words about Adu, seemed like more than just encouraging words in praise of a veteran leader. One inference is obvious: While Freddy may have all that talent, he's not a team player like Brian is.
"He might have wanted a different role, you'll have to ask him, but he was given plenty of opportunities to play, and play a significant role for us, and be the player that we expected him to be when we signed him," Hackworth said. "That didn't happen.
"He didn't meet the very lofty expectations that were placed on him."
That's kind of always been the thing about Freddy Adu.
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