Freddy Adu isn't done yet!
Ives Galarcep speaks exclusively to the ex-wonderkid, who says he "never came close to retiring” despite being a free agent for the last year
Freddy Adu has been in the spotlight since he turned pro at age 14. Fourteen years later, after several failed moves, he's hoping to revive his career in 2018
D.C. United fans who attended their team’s final match at RFK Stadium last October were treated to a legends game featuring a who’s-who of the club’s greatest former players. There was star power thanks to Hristo Stoichkov, and plenty of gray hair and extra pounds to go around.
For a brief moment, fans might have felt like they had gone back in time as they watched Adu jogging down the middle of the field and receiving a pass at the top of the penalty area before guiding a beautiful left-footed shot into the net. It was that sort of skill that made supporters fall in love with Adu when he turned pro at the age of 14 and carried the label of soccer’s next big thing.
This wasn’t 2004 though. It was 2017, and Adu hadn’t played a professional match in more than a year. But it was this legends game, and that goal, that reminded the now-28-year-old Adu how much he misses the game, and how eager he still was to get back on the field and play again.
“That was a fantastic feeling, man, just being with all those legends and just playing in that game,” Adu told Goal. “That made me miss soccer even more, but that helped me out a lot because getting out there and playing, that’s when it hit me that I missed soccer. From then on I just worked even harder to get back and get in as good a shape as I possibly can and get ready for this year.”
No, Adu hasn’t retired, which was the assumption when he went more than a year without playing professionally. In fact, he has entered 2018 determined to resurrect a career that has appeared to stall on multiple occasions, a career he firmly believes still has life.
"I’ve never, ever come close to thinking about retiring. I can’t see my life without soccer and my eyes were wide open this year while I wasn’t playing. It’s so a part of me that when it’s not there, there’s a big hole. I love it so much, I want to get back to it, but I want to do it the right way."
For Adu, the right way means not letting clubs turn his potential interest, or even arrival, into a sideshow. The reality is Adu’s name still generates interest around the world, even with the struggles he has endured. Adu inspired a generation of youngsters to dream big more than a dozen years ago, and many of those same fans he made then still keep tabs on his every move.
For that reason, Adu remains an attention magnet, and is still one of the most recognizable American soccer players on the planet. It is that fame that still has led team after team to try and bring in Adu with the hope of generating some attention rather than in a real effort to sign Adu the player.
“Everywhere that I’ve tried to go to, it seems like in the last two years has made this big hoopla about me potentially coming there or me coming there,” Adu said. “It’s something that I really wish wouldn’t be the case. I really wish I could fly under the radar, which I’m probably deluded thinking that way.
“For whatever reason, when it comes to stuff about me people like to leak stuff and make it a big thing,” Adu added.
“I wish everything could just fly under the radar, and if something concrete really comes up then let the news come out.”
His last attempt to revive his career saw him go to Poland for what he thought was a real opportunity with first-division side Sandecja Nowy Sacz. The only problem was the team’s sporting director didn’t bother to clear the move with his head coach, who wanted no part of signing Adu. That didn’t stop the club from trying to turn Adu’s arrival into a media circus.
Adu chose to stay home in Maryland and regroup rather than rushing into another bad move after his failed foray in Poland. He let out a big laugh when asked about rumors of retirement, and of financial troubles, pointing to the real estate business he has started.
“The last year I’ve been trying to just stay low key, spend time with my family, and train to get back playing,” Adu said. “I obviously want to get back into playing because that’s what I love to do. And being away from soccer so long, I miss it man. I miss it more than anything else in the world. I’m 28, I’ve got plenty of career left in me, and plenty of soccer left in me, so I’m trying to make the right decision.”
Rumors popped up recently in Sweden linking him to a second-division club in one of the few countries he hasn’t played in previously. Adu told Goal that there is nothing concrete yet in Sweden as far as a move, only that there is some interest from clubs there.
At this point, any career revival will require Adu to play in a lower division. That’s something that might have bothered Adu in the past, but at this point he is ready to play at whatever level he needs to in order to get back on the field and play regularly.
“I’m not worried about what anyone thinks,” Adu said.
“Wherever I’m going to go, whether it’s third division, second division, it doesn’t matter to me anymore because all I care about is getting my career back on track and I have to start somewhere, especially after not playing for a whole year. It just has to be the right situation and the right environment that’s going to help me.
“I just want to play soccer again. I miss it. I want to be around the guys, going to training every morning, being back on the field.”
Interest from clubs could be hard to come by given how long it has been since he last played, though it was just a year ago when the Portland Timbers gave Adu a look during the MLS preseason. The consensus in Timbers circles back then was that he was well off the pace to be a contributor in the North American league. Adu has fully grasped that he will have to start on a lower level potentially than he has ever played before in order to revive his career.
The time away could wind up being a career killer, but Adu believes it has helped him.
“Having a year out, I’ve learned a lot,” Adu said. “I’ve learned what not to do anymore, what to take seriously, the attitude I’m supposed to have when I show up every day. I took a lot of things for granted in the past, but that’s not going to happen anymore because I learned the very, very hard way not to take things for granted.”
As for whether the long layoff could make it tough for him to regain the skills that made him a fan favorite as a teenager? ...
“Sure, there might be a little bit of rust for the first couple of weeks, but after that I think I’ll be right back to normal,” Adu said.
Is Adu being realistic, or is he being delusional? Is he onto something when he points out that he doesn’t have many miles in his body for someone who has been a pro for half his life? Or should we look at the reality that he hasn’t shown that difference-making ability since 2012 with the Philadelphia Union?
The reality is that the number of people still expecting an Adu renaissance has shrunken more and more each year, while the number of skeptics who are expecting him to fail has grown exponentially in recent years.
“A lot of people have stopped believing in me. I get it, I understand,” Adu said. “People set expectations and when you don’t meet it they say you suck, you’re not that good, you’re overhyped. At the end of the day, I’ve always believed in myself and never wavered.”
Adu still has faith in his ability to revive his career, but what he needs now is an opportunity. It seems more likely that he will make a return to Europe, hoping that it works out better than recent stints in Serbia and Finland. It is a far cry from his days at Benfica, AS Monaco, or even D.C. United, but he insists he doesn’t mind going to a small club, or small league, to resurrect the career he misses so badly.
“I feel like I started on top of the mountain and I had nowhere to go but down,” Adu said. “When I look back at it, that’s how I feel. Right now, it’s like you’re starting from the bottom and slowly going up, and that’s how it should have been in the beginning.”