Adu still struggling to establish himself as a starter in Europe
They are a constant backdrop to Adu's own fight for survival in the Darwinian world of European soccer. Six years after making his professional debut at age 14 with MLS's D.C. United, Adu is still trying to find consistent playing time with the Greek club Aris, his fourth European team in three years. He lives a dual existence. To mainstream U.S. sports fans he remains one of this country's best-known soccer players. Adu has nearly 350,000 Twitter followers (more than any other soccer star in the world except Brazil's
Yet barring a major surprise, Adu, now 20, will not be on the U.S.'s 23-man World Cup roster in South Africa. With unproductive stops in Portugal and France before Greece, he has strayed from the path that he and so many others had envisioned when he signed a $1 million Nike deal in 2003 and became the highest-paid player in MLS before he had ever kicked a ball in the league. As a rookie Adu appeared with
There are so many questions. What happened? Why has Adu shown promise in major competitions at the youth level but failed to establish himself professionally in Europe? Does he have a future with the national team? And how many more opportunities will Adu get overseas? "I believe in him. That's why we signed him," says
Yet if this sounds like a sad story, then why does U.S. goalkeeper
Game time in Thessaloníki. It's a glorious spring night, perfect weather for the crosstown rivalry between Aris and PAOK, and Aris's Super 3 fan club is leaving nothing to chance. As the players march onto the field, the hard-cores in the east stands ignite a fireworks display that makes it look as though the entire section has been napalmed. Nothing in the U.S. -- or in the rest of Europe, for that matter -- is quite like it. "It's crazy here, man," says Adu. No kidding. Since Adu and fellow American
Aris, in fifth place in the Greek league, defeats PAOK 2-0, sending the Super 3 into flare-burning, rocket-launching ecstasy. But for the third straight game Adu stays rooted to the bench. After starting four times on the left wing and scoring two goals in February, Adu has played twice in the last eight games through Sunday. The prevailing view among Greek journalists and fans is that Adu has good technical skills, especially with his favored left foot, but he plays "too young," with an underdeveloped awareness for tactics, defensive duties and knowing when less is more on offense.
The scouting report among coaches is that Adu is capable of a dangerous pass or shot but that he's not fast and doesn't have much of an engine for the modern game. The Aris coach,
Adu showed promise for U.S. youth teams, notably during the Under-20 World Cup in 2007 (where he captained the team and led an upset of Brazil) and the '08 Olympics (particularly in a 2-2 tie against the Netherlands). So the question persists, Why hasn't that success carried over to his pro career? "I watch video of me playing well in the Under-20 World Cup or the Olympics, and I'm like, Man, how can I not be playing here?" Adu says. "It's taken me the last year and a half to figure it out. I was always satisfied with making one or two plays during training and thinking I had a good practice. There's so much more to it than that. Coaches see the times you cut off passing lanes or got behind the ball. Those are things that tell them they can count on you for 90 minutes."
Until Adu finds regular playing time at the club level, it's hard to envision that he'll get called back to the national team. He was on the U.S. roster for last year's Confederations Cup but didn't see the field, and he hasn't been in a U.S. camp since struggling with the B team at last July's Gold Cup and barely playing at the club level last fall. "It's a case of a young player who has aspirations but still hasn't been able to establish himself," says U.S. coach
Now that he's 20, it's easier for Adu to interact with his teammates off the field, and Aris players say they enjoy sharing a coffee or going to dinner with him. It was more challenging for Adu as a 14-year-old at D.C. United, where he says he "only felt comfortable with a couple of people. There were some guys who never warmed up to you because of everything you had." Adu showed only flashes of his potential in MLS, scoring 12 goals in 3½ seasons with D.C. United and Real Salt Lake, and he joined Portugal's Benfica on a $2 million transfer in 2007. At first he saw occasional action there, scoring two goals in 11 appearances, but Benfica went through three coaches in 2007-08, and the last of them (
Things really went downhill when Benfica loaned Adu to Monaco of the French league for 2008--09.
While Adu was not an automatic starter during his MLS days, the league's small rosters could never replicate the constant battle for playing time on European teams with no roster limits. As U.S. Under-20 coach
Last fall Adu went out on loan again from Benfica, this time to Belenenses, a team at the bottom of the Portuguese first division. It was a hastily arranged deal that came together on the last day before the transfer deadline. "I didn't even have a chance to talk to the coach before I went there," says Adu, who started just once and soon began seeking a way out. In January he joined Aris on an 18-month loan. Adu now has until the end of the 2010-11 season, when his contract runs out, to prove himself in European soccer. "It's like they gave you a lifeline," Adu says. "I started four games in a row, which is the most I have since MLS. I feel like a new person, and I'm happy again." It wasn't the only change Adu made; he also dumped his agent, IMG's
If Adu can't make an impact as a pro in Europe over the next year, he will most likely return to MLS. The question these days is how to view him: as a sixth-year pro who hasn't lived up to the hype or as a 20-year-old who still has potential? De Bontin hopes Adu can be another
It is an odd twist, the hope that an athlete who turned pro at 13 could become, in the end, a late bloomer. But if Freddy Adu is going to make it, that's how it will have to be.