Greg Lalas
Monday October 15th, 2007

Welcome Back, Freddy.

There are still questions for me about whether Bob Bradley is the right man to lead the U.S. national team -- let's be honest, he has one important win under his belt -- but one thing I have no reservations about is his willingness to let youth be served.

The biggest consequence of the federation's removal of "temporary" from Bradley's job title has been to free up the boss to experiment a little. Now that he's not singing for his supper anymore, he doesn't have to bring in the big boys and play for a result every time out. He can tinker, take the long perspective, and hand out a few interesting call-ups.

Which is exactly what he did for the Copa América, and what he's extended for the friendly with Switzerland on Wednesday.

The U.S. squad training right now in Basel has only five players, out of 23, who were born in the 1970s, and only two, Marcus Hahnemann and Eddie Lewis, who are in their 30s. Eleven players on the roster are 23 years old or younger, including such stars from this past summer's Under-20 World Cup as Danny Szetela, Sal Zizzo and Michael Bradley.

But Bob Bradley's biggest tinker of all has to be Freddy Adu.

Welcome back, Freddy. Don't screw it up.

A little harsh? Sure. But this is what Adu, who has only one cap to his name, has been clamoring for since he made the move to Benfica in August. As he told me right before he left for Lisbon: "The other guys that have gone to Europe seem to have gotten more looks. Hopefully, I get a call up for some of the games coming up."

Well, Freddy, you've gotten your wish. Now what are you going to do with it?

Let's be honest. Fairly or not, Adu has been everyone's favorite punching bag from the moment he arrived on the U.S. scene. He's our very own case study in Schadenfreude, with fans, players, coaches, and journos alike practically high-fiving every time the loudmouth whippersnapper took a tackle from behind from some grizzled thug or whined to the media about playing time. We questioned his age and mocked his Sierra Mist ads, wondering why the whole commercial wasn't just Freddy spit-shining Pelé's boots.

Not that Freddy did much to help himself. His brash talk and his overdesire to be liked by everyone (this alone should've answered questions about his age) turned a lot of us off. He further disappointed us with his constant disrespect and bickering with then-D.C. United coach Peter Nowak, who kept saying Freddy wasn't ready -- which, I'll point out, is exactly what the people at Benfica are also saying, but for some reason Adu doesn't complain.

But now it's time to give the kid a little credit. He's stayed in the picture. And a few smart people, most notably U.S. Under-20 coach Thomas Rongen, have kept the faith. Not long after the U-20 World Cup, Rongen told me he truly believes that Freddy has it. "If he was from Brazil or Argentina," Rongen said, "he would've sold for at least $10 million after this summer."

Rongen, I'm sure, has urged Bradley to bring Adu in. If only as a bit of encouragement to a kid who has taken more than his fair share of lumps over the years. A pat on the back to reward Freddy's unwavering ambition to improve and chase his dream of international success.

If you really look at Adu's performance on the field -- forget the bickering with Nowak, forget the trade to Salt Lake -- you'd be hard pressed not to say he has progressed a great deal over the past four years (from 14 to 18 years old). Now, after his move to Benfica, he has reached a point in his career when it's time for him to make the next leap, to graduate from "phenom" to "legitimate." He needs to get into the midfield and play with confidence, not arrogance. Take defenders on to create numbers-up situations. Look for the seams and openings for magical through passes. And equally important, pull his weight on defense.

But even more important is for everyone to remember the larger picture. This week's call up gives Freddy the opportunity to impress not only Bob Bradley, but also Nowak.

Oh, the irony. It's thick as thieves in the small U.S. soccer world. Remember: Adu's old D.C. United nemesis, Nowak, is Bradley's first assistant with the national team. He is also the U.S. Under-23 coach, and he's developing ideas about who to call in for the upcoming Olympic qualifying rounds.

Therefore, more than anything, this friendly in Switzerland is an Olympic team audition for the young players. And the centerpiece is once again Adu, the very player Nowak insisted -- correctly so, it turns out -- was not ready a few years ago.

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