Freddy Adu was supposed to be Lionel Messi before there was a Lionel Messi.
That’s the best way to describe the level of ridiculous hype that surrounded Adu when he began his professional career a dozen years ago at the age of 14. An MLS-driven marketing machine proclaimed him a soccer savior, and the magazine covers and TV commercials alongside Pele helped make him a household name before he ever became a professional starter.
Fast forward to 2016 and rather than savior, Adu is seen as a cautionary tale. And he knows all too well what his name has become in the world of soccer, if not all sports. It has become synonymous with failure and unrealized potential. You seemingly can’t go a few months without someone trotting out Adu’s name when discussing sports busts and unmet expectations.
“I’m not going to lie, that stuff bothers me. It hurts, “ Adu told Goal USA in an exclusive interview. “I’m only 26. Yes, I’ve had some tough times in my career. I’ve had some great times as well. In the end, I can’t control what people say. It wasn’t my choice or decision to be compared to Pele when I came into the league.”
Don’t go feeling sorry for Adu just yet, though. While he never asked to be compared to the Brazilian legend, what Adu can do is finally accept the blame for how he has handled his career.
“Everything that I’ve been through and everything that hurt my career, I brought it on myself because I didn’t dedicate enough time to it,” Adu said. “You can say, ‘Oh, I had a lot too early,’ or say whatever you want. But at the end of the day we all need to grow up at some point, and that has just all hit me this offseason. It really did.”
Adu didn’t pull any punches when discussing the past few years of his career, which saw him leave MLS for a second time and bounce around leagues in Brazil, Finland and Serbia.
“I’ve looked back on these past few years and I’ve wasted a lot of time, wasted years of my career, just not dedicating the time I should have to the sport,” Adu said. “That’s time wasted. Lucky for me, I started so early that time wasted doesn’t mean I’m 33 or 34 and it’s too late for me. I’m only 26 and I can change and correct the things I’ve done wrong, and that’s what I’m focused on right now.”
Adu is preparing for his 13th professional year and second season with North American Soccer League club Tampa Bay Rowdies. He overcame a rough start to his time in Tampa Bay, which saw him suffer an injury and the coach who brought him in — Thomas Rongen — fired in surprising fashion.
Those events threatened to turn his move to NASL into his latest failed search for stability, but Adu stayed focused and eventually turned his time with the Rowdies into a positive experience. He established himself as a starter and effective playmaker, even if by his own admission he still wasn’t at his best.
“It’s been absolutely fantastic here in Tampa Bay. They’ve given me every opportunity to be successful here," he said. "They’ve given me a lot of attention and made sure that I got my body right in every way. When I had my chance to play I played well. I know I can play much, much better.”
Rowdies coach Stuart Campbell took over for Rongen in August and worked with Adu to help establish a plan to ensure he would be fully ready to contribute after recovering from a left Achilles injury.
“As a former player I know how frustrating it can be to come to a new club and pick up an injury,” Campbell told Goal USA. “So he was obviously anxious to get back right away, but we wanted him to get to a certain level of fitness. He worked hard and when he was ready he started playing on a regular basis, probably more than he had in two or three years.”
This offseason marks the first time since 2012 that Adu is returning to the same team for a second campaign. His career has seen him play for more than a dozen clubs, with few of those moves yielding success. It has been that inconsistency that has added to the perception that Adu’s career has been a failure.
“That’s something that I don’t want to become what my career is remembered for,” Adu said. “I don’t want to look back on it and feel like I didn’t do everything I could to get the most out of my talent.
“What has happened is I’ve gotten to the point where I’m basically scared of failure right now. That’s the honest truth. If I don’t change something, or change everything really about how I approach my career and this game, then that’s what’s going to happen. It’s been trending that way for a while and I’ve had to make a lot of changes, starting with the decision to sign with the Tampa Bay Rowdies."
Trevor Moawad, Adu’s longtime adviser and sports psychology coach, believes the midfielder "recognizes that his back is against the wall" more now than in the past.
“When Freddy has a sense of urgency, with the gifts that he has, he can accomplish a lot more than most people can under the same circumstances," Moawad told Goal USA. "It’s just a matter of him choosing to do it and being honest with himself.
“Freddy’s a real paradox in the sense that when you look at athletes, a lot of times the people that don’t make it don’t understand what it takes to succeed,” he added. “That’s where Freddy’s different. He knows what it takes to succeed. He knows the formula, he knows what works for him. I think the difference is what’s going to incentivize Freddy to do those things?"
The realization that this is probably his last chance to turn his career around sounds like incentive enough to make Adu make changes. So too has his appreciation for the opportunity he has found playing for the Rowdies, in a league he had previously considered beneath him before giving it a chance last year.
“NASL’s level was much higher than I thought it was going to be — I was pleasantly surprised,” Adu said. “That’s why I decided to stay with Tampa Bay for this year as well, because finally I’ve found a place where things were working out and going in an upward trajectory and I want to keep it that way.”
Adu insists he won’t take his opportunity in Tampa Bay for granted, acknowledging he had done so with some chances earlier in his career — the most recent being his time with the Philadelphia Union, which came after he resurrected his career with an impressive stint with the U.S. national team at the 2011 Gold Cup.
At that time, Adu had just spent half a season playing for Turkish second-division side Rizespor, which helped him earn his way into Bob Bradley’s plans for the Gold Cup. Adu didn’t play until the semifinals, but he wound up making an impact in the semis and final, which eventually helped him earn a large contract with MLS to join the Union.
“I did take it for granted. At that point I had a four-year deal with MLS, and it was guaranteed and everything was fine. I let myself relax, and it was just immaturity,” Adu said. “When I was playing in Turkey, in a little village where there wasn’t much else to do, you were dedicated. You weren’t distracted about going out or partying. I just wanted to play soccer and be out on the field training. I was happy going to training every day, it was something fun to do and I didn’t need anything else.”
Peter Nowak’s firing as Union coach helped expedite Adu’s departure from Philadelphia as new coach John Hackworth grew tired of the player’s lack of focus and his penchant for partying, which the club felt was having a negative effect on a young squad.
“With me not performing to the level expected of someone making designated player money in Philly, coupled with the fact I had the young guys looking up to me on that team, in (Hackworth’s) eyes maybe I wasn’t setting a good enough example for those young guys on the team,” Adu said.
“Looking back on it, he was right. I can’t even be mad at Hackworth for pushing me out of Philly. At the end of the day, you have to take some responsibility for yourself. You have to put yourself in the best situation to succeed, on the field or off the field, and at that time I wasn’t performing great on the field or off the field.”
The Union shipped Adu to Brazilian side Bahia, which led to more instability as the club went through three coaches during Adu’s season there. He struggled to find playing time and eventually turned his attention back to Europe, where he previously endured a string of loan moves during a disappointing stint with Benfica, which bought him from Real Salt Lake in 2007.
Adu’s second crack at Europe was a brutal run of disappointment as he ventured to a pair of obscure leagues in Serbia and Finland in puzzling moves that seemed to defy explanation. Adu’s motivation for those moves was simple enough, though flawed.
“I was chasing something,” Adu said. “It had always been my dream to make it in Europe. I thought going to these obscure European cities and towns, and playing there and maybe doing well, was going to give me an opportunity in bigger leagues, but the whole experience and my idea of making it in Europe wasn’t that.
“My dream was to make it back to play in the Champions League and play with a big team, which I got a chance to do with Benfica. That’s addictive, and in my mind I just felt like European coaches didn’t respect MLS. In my mind, maybe going to Europe and proving I could survive — even in a smaller league — was worth more than being in MLS, and I was just flat-out wrong."
Adu says he still hasn't been paid by Jagodina in Serbia and Bahia still owes him money.
“These things weigh you down as a player. When you go to places and teams aren’t paying players on time, these things sort of kill your spirit and that’s what I had to go through," he said.
“Looking at it now, to me MLS is one of the most respected leagues in the world right now. It’s leaps and bounds better than when I came into the league. NASL is leaps and bounds better than what I knew NASL to be before. I needed to start fresh and change everything, change all my habits and give everything to being a professional soccer player, and that’s what I’m doing right now.”
Adu is saying all the right things now, and he fully acknowledges that his words won’t matter much if he doesn’t deliver on the field. The Rowdies have done well to set him up for a successful second season, having made some strong additions to the attack that could only help Adu set up more scoring opportunities.
“He jumped in during the year last year, which is never easy, so I think having a preseason with the team is going to be great for Freddy,” Campbell said. “We have added some good pieces, and there will be a good competition for places. We feel good about this group.”
Everything is in place for Adu to keep his career heading in the right direction, toward redemption and away from what had for a long time seemed like an inevitable failure. It will be up to Adu to make the most of this chance, which is likely his last opportunity to build a career he can feel good about.
“The burden of Freddy’s future falls on Freddy now, not on other people,” Moawad said. “Not on teams, not on organizations, sports psychologists, nutritionists or strength coaches. All of us can help him like we’ve been able to help him, but if he’s going to make it he’s got to own it.”
Photos: Getty Images and Tampa Bay Rowdies/Matt May