[MY VIEW] A couple of years before YouTube, when watching a video on one's computer was a new experience, a highlight clip of Freddy Adu hit the Internet and presented a fuzzy image of what looked like a little Pele in a U.S. youth national team jersey delightfully tricking his way past opponents and scoring goals. Fast-forward eight years: the player who became a millionaire at age 13 has left us wondering what went wrong.
Adu turned 21 this summer and recently had an unsuccessful trial with FC Sion, a Swiss club that averages smaller crowds than MLS teams.
Those early images of Adu’s brilliant skills had American fans hopeful that he would become a true U.S. soccer superstar. Certainly MLS embraced the notion, making him the league’s highest-paid player when he signed in 2004 at age 14.
MLS -- then with only 10 teams -- hyped up Adu when it desperately needed attention and the boy was a media hit, appearing in commercials (with Pele, no less), on MTV, on the “Late Show With David Letterman.”
His MLS colleagues bitterly resented the fame and fortune the boy had achieved before proving himself on the field. And although Freddymania drew crowds for a while, Adu's play would fall well short of expectations.
In 98 games, he scored 12 goals and made 19 assists in three and a half MLS seasons. He played a small role in D.C. United’s 2004 title win. He moved to Real Salt Lake in 2007 but left halfway through the season for Portugal’s Benfica, which paid MLS a $2 million transfer fee.
Adu played 11 games for Benfica, which then loaned him out to Monaco (9 games), Belenenses (3) and Aris (9). Adu scored three league goals in those three years. He's still under contract with Benfica, but not wanted there.
The good fortune that smiled upon Adu for so long has faded.
Born in Ghana, he came the USA thanks to his family’s luck in the Diversity Immigrant Visa Lottery Program, which randomly picks winners of 50,000 green cards (permanent residence visas) every year from about 10 million applicants.
Adu’s family settled in Maryland, and for the first time in his life he played soccer with cleats on. The skills he acquired playing barefoot pickup games in Africa were witnessed by the area’s youth soccer coaches – leading to the youth national team program and big money from a shoe company.
Adu’s greatest performances came at the youth world championships for the USA. He played in five: one U-17, three U-20s, and the U-23 Olympic tournament.
At the 2007 U-20 World Cup, he scored a hat trick against Poland and assisted in a 2-1 win over Brazil. His performance at that tournament is what attracted Benfica and reignited hopes that Adu was on the verge of breaking through.
When his playing time in Europe diminished, the national team stopped calling. Adu wasn’t even close to being a candidate for the USA’s 2010 World Cup team. And now he's searching for a club.
Was early fame and fortune detrimental to Adu’s development? Is MLS to blame for using a boy to market its league?
Did all the coaches, journalists and fans who hailed him misjudge Adu’s talent?
No, it’s not really so complicated nor surprising that Adu hasn’t met the expectations.
There just isn’t a science to predicting how a young player will progress from the teen years to professional soccer. Some prodigies keep improving and are able to excel at the highest level. Many more don’t and they quietly fade away, forgotten before they were well known.
But it’s impossible to forget the excitement of those early glimpses of Adu and what we thought it would mean for American soccer if he could perform such skills in MLS and for the full U.S. national team.
So we keep watching Adu, still thinking maybe his next move will work out. He’s too young to give up on. Getting another shot in MLS isn’t too much to ask for.