U.S. soccer fans knew Freddy Adu before he was ever a professional. He was in Sports Illustrated before he'd ever signed a contract that paid him to play the game.
Maybe that was the problem.
With inquiries coming in from big European clubs, his family approached MLS about joining the league for the 2003 season. MLS said no.
But a year later, the possible publicity coup was too much for a still-fledgling league to ignore. Adu hadn't changed, but the league's willingness to exploit the teenager had.
That's when it all started to fall apart.
On some level, Adu thought it was going to be easy. He was consistently impressing as a member of the U.S. youth national teams. Why would the professional game be any different?
In March 2003, Grant Wahl quoted Adu in Sports Illustrated:
I think I’m ready. I’ve played against MLS teams and done the same things to them that I do in every other game. If I go to another country, I’ll play with their youth team for a year and then maybe jump into a professional setting.
That's the sound of a kid buying his own hype.
We'll never know what would have happened if Adu had disappeared into the youth academy of Inter Milan or Manchester United, where European Union rules would have kept him developing firmly out of sight until his 18th birthday.
What we got instead was a 14-year-old drafted into MLS by D.C. United.
What we got instead was league deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis (currently chief executive at Arsenal) telling Sports Illustrated: "Freddy is a supremely talented young player, probably the best young player in the world.''
That's the sound of a kid being weighed down by expectations.
Freddy's First Trip Through MLS
To a viewing public fed the "American Pelé" line so consistently, Adu's rookie season could have only been a success if he had led the league in scoring and was named MVP. Instead, he scored five goals and provided three assists as a part-time starter.
Despite his decent, not great, rookie season, the publicity machine at MLS headquarters sent him to the All-Star game as a "Commissioner's Pick."
The following year, the still-not-old-enough-to-drive Adu clashed with manager Peter Nowak because of his continuing role as a part-time starter.
From the kid's point of view, he was the highest-paid player in MLS and everyone said how great he was, so why wasn't he starting every game?
From the coach's point of view, the kid was very good but still had a ton to learn. Adu also wasn't a perfect fit for the team's playing style.
One Adu outburst in the press later and Nowak suspended him for a game.
That was probably the point at which the teenager began making his way toward the MLS door.
He finished his second season with four goals and six assists. This time the commissioner didn't bother sending him to the All-Star game.
Adu's final season at D.C. United went a bit differently. The still-teenaged player established himself as a starter. He scored less, but provided more.
Two goals, eight assists and his first legitimate All-Star selection served as Adu's adieu to the capital city.
And Then He Was Gone
Adu's star was again on the rise when he left D.C. United for Real Salt Lake in 2007. He wasn't Pelé, but he was growing into a very good professional.
But then a starring performance at the U-20 World Cup brought Portuguese club Benfica calling on MLS with a check for $2 million.
Everyone was excited. Adu made his Benfica debut in a Champions League qualifier. He received his first start for the senior national team in November. He was on his way.
And then it all fell apart.
You see, Adu didn't exactly take European football by storm.
He played just 11 times for Benfica before the club decided to send him out on loan. Over the next three seasons, Adu spent uniformly unimpressive spells with Monaco (France), Belenenses (Portugal) and Aris (Greece).
Each time, he was looking for a new start. Each time, he failed to establish himself and left without fanfare.
And the national team became a distant memory.
Redemption in Turkey
Sometimes you just have to hit rock-bottom before you can start coming back. Adu's rock-bottom came in the form of a loan to Turkish second-division team Caykur Rizespor.
Playing for a team no one had ever heard of in a division no one cared about, the one-time phenom finally got some room to shine.
He found a consistent starting place. He scored four goals in 13 appearances. And Bob Bradley called the prodigal son back to the national team for the first time in two years ahead of the 2011 Gold Cup.
Adu started the tournament on the bench, but turned in a pair of performances during the semifinal and final that put him cautiously back in the reckoning of U.S. soccer fans.
Back on the Scene
Adu took the opportunity to come back home after the Gold Cup, signing with the Philadelphia Union on a free transfer in August 2011.
Ironically, the same coach he left in D.C, (Peter Nowak) was waiting for him in Philly.
The now 21-year-old made 11 appearances in the 2011 season while being hampered by an ankle injury.
Adu didn't return as a conquering hero. He wasn't phenomenal. He started some games. He came off the bench in some games. But he was finally getting on the field and wasn't making waves. It was a good beginning.
Freddy's Coming-Out Party
For the majority of the U.S. U-23 squad, this year's Olympic qualifying tournament was a disaster. For Adu, it was a reintroduction.
Named team captain, Adu led the group through good and bad. He was easily the best player on the field for the U.S. And despite missing out on the Olympics, the tournament showed Americans that Adu wasn't exactly washed up.
In many ways, Adu is right back where he was as a 14-year-old rookie. People are talking about him. People are expecting things from him. People are even rooting for him.
He's on the edge of Jurgen Klinsmann's national team as the United States approaches the beginning of World Cup qualifying. A great next month at Philadelphia could push him onto the squad.
Can He Be The Star We All Thought He Was?
Adu is a few things these days. He is magnificent on the ball in the same way he was when we first heard his name. He appears much more humble. And he's newly hungry in a way it's not possible to be when you're 14 and Nike just handed you a $1 million check.
It was clear during Olympic qualifying in Nashville, Tenn., that Adu is the most creative player in the U.S. youth system at the moment. It seems an odd thing to say about someone who's been a professional for nearly a decade. But it's still true.
And he's still only 22.
At the moment, he's starting and playing well for Philadelphia. As long as his expectations don't run away from him again, he's only going to improve there.
It's likely Adu will get a look-in at the national team for qualifying. Klinsmann is too enamored with an attacking style for a player of Adu's technical quality to be completely ignored.
Right now, the future is again in Adu's hands. He's got a new buzz. He's got once-burned fans tentatively hoping despite themselves.
He might not be America's Pelé, but he doesn't have to be.
Philadelphia, Jurgen Klinsmann and U.S. supporters would be perfectly happy if Adu can manage to consistently be the composed, mature and tricky playmaker we met again for the first time a month ago in Nashville.
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