Freddy Adu's move to the NASL's Tampa Bay Rowdies, announced Tuesday after leaving Finnish club Kuopion Palloseura (KuPS) in early July, offers the latest chance for career redemption for a player who has had plenty of them in recent years. However, a reunion with one of his former youth national team managers could offer Adu’s best chance at a revival yet.
Thomas Rongen, now the Rowdies manager, coached Adu at the 2007 FIFA Under-20 World Cup, where the now-26-year-old Ghanaian-born attacker captained the United States. Under Rongen’s attack-minded philosophy, he played well enough at the tournament to secure a $2-million transfer to Benfica.
“The No. 1 reason [for joining the Rowdies] was Thomas being here,” Adu said in a conference call with reporters on Wednesday. “I played my best soccer under him at the U-20 World Cup. … I know he’s going to help me get back to, really, my top form.”
As soon as Adu left home, though, he embarked on a series of sojourns across the world. Benfica loaned him to Monaco, as well as another club in Portugal and ones in Greece and Turkey.
A two-year stay back in MLS with the Philadelphia Union followed, as did a few months each in Brazil, Serbia and Finland before landing in Tampa Bay.
“It’s just a different feel to it [in Tampa Bay],” Adu said. “It feels right. He has confidence in me. Even some of the other coaches that I’ve played under with my recent struggles would maybe think twice before bringing me on.”
Adu joins a club in Tampa Bay leading the NASL in the full-season table by one point over the New York Cosmos, just after the fall season kicked off. In the past, he rebuffed interest from NASL clubs, including the Atlanta Silverbacks in 2014.
“My view of this league has changed tremendously. I mean, this league has gotten much, much better,” Adu said. “I would say I’m surprised by how receptive everybody’s been to this move. I’ve taken a lot of shtick in the past for some of the moves I’ve made, but at the end of the day, I felt like this … is the right thing for my career right now.”
Whether on loan or as a permanent signing, Adu has now comprised part of 13 clubs since joining D.C. United at age 14. Now, Adu wants to put that behind him and just get back to playing regular soccer in a place where he’s appreciated for his talent, not his marketability.
“I didn’t want to consider Europe; I wanted to come back to America and play here, whether it be NASL or MLS,” he said. “It’s been a long time since I’ve played consistent games, and that’s what I need the most.”
Elsewhere, clubs made a big deal about signing Adu, who was hailed as the next Pelé and even appeared with the Brazilian legend in a commercial early in his career, as a potential way to tap into the American market. KuPS launched an English-language Twitter account just before his signing and quickly announced when Adu’s jersey would go on sale.
He even fielded a question about the Pelé comparison in his introductory press conference.
“Let’s just put that to bed,” he said tersely in response. “Nobody’s Pelé. I'm no Pelé.”
Adu said he hopes to find some grounding in the U.S. after a time in his career and life that was marked with chaos.
“Going to Finland, that was basically my … last sort of hurrah in Europe,” he said. “I decided to come back to the States to literally just find a home, be at a place where you’re comfortable.”
Both Adu and Rongen said the player is nearly fit enough to play 90 minutes already, although he probably could use another week of training to complete his integration with the team. In fact, Rongen said he was surprised at some recent reports that Adu was unfit.
“He’s coming in in incredible shape,” Rongen said. “All the reports of him being overweight, I don’t know where they came from.”
Rongen said he plans to use Adu as a central attacking presence just underneath the center forward in a 4-3-3. He said Tampa Bay would work hard to get his international clearance in time for Saturday’s home match against FC Edmonton, but it might be difficult to obtain before next week.
The most striking aspect of Adu and Rongen’s talk with the media was in its levity. Part of that came from Rongen’s loose personality and sense of humor, but it felt a lot like friends trading stories at a high school reunion than a stuffy press conference to announce a player signing.
“I saw today in just one practice that he still has some very unique skills that not too many players have,” Rongen said. “I’m happy he’s here. I believe in him. He believes in me. He’s got to prove himself, but he knows that. I think it’s somewhat of a marriage made in heaven. My wife might not like that I would say that, but I love you, Freddy. It’s a bit of a lovefest right now.”