No doubt if terms are successfully negotiated and he signs a deal with Benfica or another team, one of his first statements will pertain to being shackled and stifled in MLS, his creativity smothered, his talents squandered. Such a perception is perfectly understandable from a spoon-fed prodigy handed a half-million-dollar salary and lucrative endorsements at age 14, and anointed as great by those people who represent him and the league that embraced him. The perception is also perfectly wrong.
Adu has advanced as far as he has because of, not in spite of, MLS, which despite its deficiencies has been graced by some outstanding playmakers: Carlos Valderrama, Marco Etcheverry, Peter Nowak, Dwayne DeRosario, Preki, Amado Guevara and Christian Gomez, to name a few. Has at any point in his career Adu come close to the performances of those men? The emphasis is on men, for what he's done against teenagers in FIFA world championships isn't the same thing.
Adu believes MLS has held him back, first with D.C. United and then with Real Salt Lake, by snubbing his desire to play the central midfield maestro position he dearly covets and which he filled so well for the USA in the 2007 FIFA U-20 World Cup. The fact is, compared to most MLS starters in the attacking and playmaking positions, Adu hasn't been good enough, regardless of position.
At the start of the season, some D.C. fans may have taken Freddy over Fred. How about now? As poor as RSL has been this season, is there any reason to believe Adu could make it much better?
Some very good players haven't been named to the all-star teams or Best XI since Adu entered the league in 2004. Adu's performances haven't surpassed more than one or two of them, if that many. He's done really well, exceptionally well, for a kid thrown into a tough, competitive league, and it's admirable for him to believe in a different position he'd have excelled. Admirable, but not realistic.
In some sense, he might be a better player had he gone overseas earlier. His skills would be sharper, his fundamentals sounder, his tactical acumen more attuned, if he and two dozen other promising youngsters were berated and cajoled daily by coaches smoothing away rough spots. And he'd have spent most of his time with players of his own age, an aspect of growing up and maturing he has regretfully missed in the predominantly adult world of MLS.
But those young players wouldn't have been his peers, guys like Danny Szetela and others with whom he lived at Bradenton and was reunited at the U-20 World Cup. By opting for MLS, Adu chose to take the play and the pay, up front.
With a half-million per year and the prospect of regular playing time in MLS on the table, would Adu really have preferred to spend four years in Europe on youth and reserve teams, dueling every day against other aspirants for the No. 10 shirt, fending off hard cases eager to test the overhyped American, waiting for the 18th birthday -- an eternity away at age 14! -- that would make him eligible for first-team selection?
Adu is a rare talent, no question, and a move to Europe should enhance his innate abilities. Yet with a big club on the big stage, practical and pragmatic aspects of professional play must also be served. Much of what he still must learn stems from melding glamor with grit, and serving club as well as self.