The latest episode of the soap opera that is Freddy Adu presented itself this week, with details of a bus-ride conversation between Philadelphia coach John Hackworth and his young attacker emerging.
Adu, puzzled as to why he was yanked in the 70th minute and thus failed to finish out a 1-1 tie with D.C. United Sunday at RFK Stadium, thought he'd done enough to stay on the field. Hackworth disagreed. His substitution marked the 11th time this season in 16 starts he'd failed to play 90 minutes.
Bottom line: Adu needs to be more consistent.
Of course. Same as it ever was. Nothing new here. He's been hearing the same things from coaches in several countries for a few years now, but his overall average-ness persists.
The one-time boy wonder of American soccer, Adu is still grappling with the demands of professional play, an arena in which a slick stepover or two and the occasional nice cross isn't enough to merit ever-present status. His fans remember the rare magical moments, his growing legion of critics cite long periods of ineffectual play. He's still young, just 23, but in the year since he rejoined MLS he hasn't shown much progress.
Hackworth, who has worked with young players throughout his career and coached the USA at two Under-17 World Cups before signing on as a Union assistant, is holding Adu to a tough, but real standard: do what we tell you and produce, or we get someone else. A soccer player can't always be evaluated by statistics, and so with three goals and one assist in 17 games Adu is suspended in that nether region of not bad but hardly impressive, which isn't where he was supposed to be eight years after signing his first pro contract.
The fact is, for a kid in his teens playing pro ball against men, Adu did well. United rode the momentum while trying to downplay expectations, but when "Good Morning America" asks for an appearance and has to take a number, the world gets real crazy. If he could have found his feet in Europe after signing with Benfica in 2007 he might still be overseas, knocking down a huge salary and flying across the Atlantic to play regularly with the U.S. national team. Instead, after a series of loans that ended in Turkish obscurity with Rizespor (that's a soccer club, not a disco), he came home to great fanfare a year ago.
Since then, he's not been much to get excited about. Talking to players, coaches and agents, the standard line of "he's still a young player" got a lot of play then and now. One agent questioned why the league would be so eager to get him back and pay a big salary ($400,000 this season) for a player who had run out of overseas alternatives: "Why is he being rewarded so handsomely for failing overseas?"
There's certainly been some jealousy and resentment swirling around Adu within MLS. The astounding salary -- by league standards -- of his deal at age 14 and the blizzard of interviews, TV features, and hyper-coverage accompanying the early days of his career rubbed some people raw. There has been some payoff: He played every game in his rookie season with D.C. United as he helped it win its fourth MLS Cup, and bumped up crowds around the league (though more than a few fans came away wondering what all the fuss was about.) He's played some excellent games for club and country, most notably at the 2008 Olympic Games, but he also turned in clunkers wearing the USA jersey and as far as MLS is concerned, he didn't play in the All-Star Game staged in his home stadium last month for good reason.
Commissioner Don Garber could have used a selection on Adu, but chose instead Union teammate Carlos Valdes. That's reason enough to believe that as far as the league office is concerned, the Adu Era is long gone.
He still has a few years to go before reaching those late 20s during which most players hit their peak. And one could argue that Adu has indeed been consistent, but in a negative sense: consistently not good enough to merit regular starts for one of the league's weaker teams. Yet so powerful is his past allure that some fans insist he's just the element Jurgen Klinsmann needs to spice up the national team, and one or two decent games spread over a month or six weeks is ample proof. No, it isn't.
On Saturday Philly plays at Real Salt Lake, where Adu closed out the first phase of his MLS career before heading off to Europe, five long years ago. It would seem an ideal setting for a definitive performance, a pressure game against one of the league's top teams.
The central theme of this saga recurs time and time again: He hears the harsh reality and vows to do whatever it takes. The song remains the same.
Though it wasn't made public, Hackworth probably responded along these lines: Don't tell us, Freddy. Show us.