Bob Bradley isn't known for throwing curve balls. The U.S. national team coach is pretty much a fire 'em down the middle type guy. Too much so for some supporters.
But this Freddy Adu matter -- now that was one wicked curve ball. Heck, even Bradley said so. As the coach discussed his Gold Cup roster last week, someone asked what he considered the biggest shocker. Even Bradley seemed amused, laughing a little and immediately naming Adu's selection. You'd swear the man surprised even himself.
For most of us, adding the young and wandering attacker to the summer mix creates one more fascinating subplot for the upcomingfriendly with Spain and for the Gold Cup. For Bradley, of course, it's a lot more than manufacturing theater. Clearly, the U.S. coach needs some creative influences and further attacking diversity -- so much so that he's willing to throw a little something against the wall here, just to see if it sticks. That's why we're talking about the prematurely anointed wunderkind today.
Never mind that we probably aren't having this conversation if Stuart Holden had been available, as the injured Bolton man might have provided just enough zip, zing and drive to the attack that a creator might not have been needed.
But Holden remains on the shelf. And now, apparently, Benny Feilhaber is, too. He went down late in New England's match against Los Angeles on Saturday, removing another creative type on Bradley's Gold Cup roster.
That's why we're talking about Adu, who had become a forgotten man around the national team. It says a lot about a stunningly premature career arch when you've apparently had your heyday and already reached "forgotten man" status at age 21. (Adu turns 22 this week.)
He wasn't just absent from last year's World Cup, he never made a single U.S. appearance in 2010. The polarizing midfielder's career had wandered so far off track that he spent much of the winter training on his own in Florida, then taking an offer to play in the Turkish second division. (Quick, name all the teams for which Adu has played since leaving Real Salt Lake on a $2 million transfer in 2007? Hint: there are five. Second hint: you probably never heard of three of them.)
Yes, he's now a man of the Turkish second division. It came to that. That's like a chef at some Five Star restaurant in New York who falls from grace and, a couple years later, finds himself slapping patties at a Bronx burger joint. Proving the world does indeed work in funny ways, Bradley even mentioned Adu's humbling choice to accept a spot at Turkey's Rizespor among the reasons for his selection.
"He's a player that certainly we all know at different times has shown some soccer abilities that are special," Bradley said. "He hasn't always been able to make them count in different situations at different levels but we respect the fact that he made this move to go to a smaller club because he had to show people he was willing to do whatever to keep going."
Who knows? Maybe Adu just needed the money. Either way, he humbled his way back into national team consideration, against stacked odds. The official U.S. yearbook doesn't even include an Adu bio. It might sound highly unscientific as a method of assessing place in the pool, but it's generally a pretty reliable barometer of where things stand.
So why does Bradley need Adu so much, or someone like him?
The team is well-stocked on two-way midfielders who lean toward the defensive end in Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones and Maurice Edu. Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey can certainly create, but mostly in their own ways. Classic playmakers, they aren't.
Not that everyone has a classic No. 10 to pull the offensive strings. But every team requires something other than meat and potatoes, something to properly spice the soup. Juan Agudelo can run at defenders, but the commitment to bring the young striker along slowly remains strong in the U.S. camp. Besides, he's not even starting much for the Red Bulls, so he can't be expected to carry a big summer load.
Good wingers can surely enliven an offense. In some teams, wing play might even be the primary attacking propellant. But since Robbie Rogers is the closest thing to a classic winger on Bradley's 23-man squad, we can scratch that notion. Rogers was never a heavy weapon in the national team arsenal, and he isn't having much of a season in Columbus. In fact, if Adu weren't on the roster, all the head-scratching energy would surely be devoted to Rogers' selection. (Well, that and this curious Timmy Chandler situation.)
As for the Adu story: This is clearly just a weigh station for Adu, more "stopover" than "destination." It's a whopper of an opportunity to show that he's matured, gaining the essential understanding of roles and fitting in. What he does over the coming weeks, not just in Gold Cup matches but in daily training sessions, will say whether Adu reappears once World Cup qualifying begins, or whether he becomes persona non grata around the national team yet again.
"As a coaching staff we've discussed it and we're looking forward to seeing when he's in camp, how he's handling things, a maturity, a way that tells us how experiences along the way have been measured and he understands that all of it needs to come together to continue to move on," Bradley said.
National team rosters aren't just about form; if that were so, Rogers would be still be in Columbus rather than in the U.S. camp. There is clearly some balance between specific need, form, personal preferences for coaches, etc. Adu always came with some baggage, and Bradley through the years rarely believed the mercurial midfielder's plusses mitigated his minuses. These things are sliding scales, of course. Teammates and coaches will put up with attitudes and self-centered ways to a point. Any player in the U.S. pool who could dribble like Leo Messi and pass like Andres Iniesta could cheat in the team card games and spike the punch all he wants, and everybody would laugh right along. Clearly, however, Adu isn't that guy. Nor is anyone else on the team -- although Tim Howard and Landon Donovan could probably fudge a smidgen in the team poker tourney without repercussion.
Adu was never a hellbent hard-charger off the ball. He's neither big nor particularly fast over distances. His tactical acumen was never much to shout about.
Adu himself claims he's worked hard to rectify that. "There were a lot of things missing in my game personally a couple of years ago and I've been trying to work on that," said Adu to the Sporting News.
On the other hand, his ability to dribble, his quick feet in tight spaces and his penchant for improvisation hold a certain value -- especially when the U.S. national team pool lacks all of this generally. He's a decent option for set-piece strikes. Plus, Bradley's desire to experiment over the last few months with a 4-2-3-1 formation has reaped little reward, and the lack of an offensive spark atop of the central midfield triangle has been a major reason why. So, by virtue of the rule of sliding scales, Bradley hung the "Welcome, Freddy" sign for his camp.
Can Adu, the former wonder kid, once kissed on the head by Pele himself, be that player, even for the final 15-20 minutes of a match? That's what Bradley and his staff must decide over the next few weeks. Who knows? It's already been a "summer" of surprises, and summer hasn't technically even started.