Show me." ¬∂ Giggling like a teenager, his old-school fade cut
glistening in the Tampa sun, Pele--global soccer ambassador,
three-time world champion, ageless Viagra pitchman--lobs a pass
onto Freddy Adu's left foot. It's a perfectly weighted ball, as
light as a baby's kiss, and yet it also embodies an anvil of
expectations. ¬∂ Show me. ¬∂ They've only just met, the 63-year-old
icon and the 14-year-old phenom, the best of all time and the
prodigy whose besotted admirers--from red-ink-stained MLS
executives to corporate sponsors to wishful U.S. futbol
fans--envision him leading soccer's long-awaited charge into
the American sports mainstream. On this sun-drenched day a few
weeks before Freddy's April 3 debut for D.C. United on ABC,
Pele's request, playful as it may seem, echoes the demands of
soccer observers from Maryland to Madrid.
Freddy smiles and springs into action. Pop-pop-pop. Just like
that, the anvil melts. It's all there: left foot, right foot,
instep, outstep, a quick header and then another pop back to the
master. "His left foot is fantastic," Pele says, marveling at a
precociousness that reminds him of his own. "It's like Mozart,"
he says. "Mozart started when he was five years old. If you are
good, you are good. God gave Freddy the gift to play soccer. If
he is prepared mentally and physically, nobody will stop him."
When Adu takes the field against the San Jose Earthquakes next
week at Washington's RFK Stadium, he will do so as the youngest
athlete in U.S. professional team sports in more than a century.
A naturalized American citizen by way of Ghana (SI, March 3,
2003), he is fast becoming the first male U.S. player with
crossover appeal. Some 2,000 Freddy!-screaming fans greeted the
arrival of D.C.'s bus for his first exhibition last month in
Tampa, where an overflow crowd climbed trees and fences to watch
him perform. More than a dozen football stars, including Heisman
Trophy finalist Eli Manning and Dallas Cowboys safety Roy
Williams, have requested ADU jerseys after seeing him play on the
IMG Academies campus in Bradenton, Fla., where for the last two
years he has lived and pursued his high school studies as part of
the U.S. Soccer Federation's residency program. Already MLS's
highest paid player (a $500,000 salary for each of the next four
years, guaranteed), Freddy has been interviewed for 60 Minutes,
chatted with Letterman and done that emblem of teeny-bopper cool,
MTV's Total Request Live.
To say that advertisers are excited by Freddy's potential,
charisma and Magic Johnson smile would be an understatement. It's
why Pepsi paid beaucoup bucks to bring Adu and Pele together for
a Sierra Mist commercial, and why Nike chairman Phil Knight, who
signed Freddy to a $1 million endorsement deal last year,
believes Adu could accomplish more in some respects than (take a
deep breath) the Mount Swooshmore of Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods
and LeBron James. "They have done great things within what you
would call established American sports," Knight says. "Freddy has
the potential to bring soccer almost for the first time into the
public's consciousness. Soccer in the United States isn't really
part of the culture. What it needs, I think, is a superhero, and
he clearly could be it. Now, that's putting a lot of pressure on
him, but the kid's got all the potential to do that."
When the head of a multibillion-dollar corporation speaks of you
in such outsized terms, the message is exhilarating--and a little
terrifying. "It's pretty hard not to get caught up in it," Freddy
admits. "Sometimes I have off days when I get too caught up in
it. But that's why I have my family and my friends and my agent,
to remind me of that." If that isn't enough, Adu's accelerated
high school program set up by IMG, the Edison Academic
Center--through which he will earn his diploma next month--has
included community service at a child-care center, which requires
another form of superhero work: taking three-year-olds to the
We've grown accustomed to crowning teenage sports royalty in the
21st century, as if the instant success of our Chosen
Ones--19-year-old James, 14-year-old Michelle Wie, 19-year-old
Carmelo Anthony--was somehow preordained. It's not. Former
Olympic track champion Michael Johnson, who now works as a sports
consultant, has met with Freddy several times to discuss the
coming storm. "If you're a big star in a small sport in America,
then you're going to be even more the center of attention,"
Johnson says. "I've tried to explain to Freddy that there's a lot
of good but also a lot of bad that can go along with the position
he's in. He has the opportunity to do what he loves and create a
good future for himself and his family. But at 14 years old he's
got more responsibility than most adults have. The odds are
against anyone in that position, to be honest."
In Tampa, meanwhile, Pele (who made his World Cup debut at 17)
offered Freddy more advice. "Listen, you have become well-known
all over the world," he said. "Now things will become more
difficult. People will start looking at you. Coaches will look at
you. The crowd will ask for more. You'll get a good contract and
do commercials, and the people will start to press. So now is the
time to be careful."
For all the hoopla, in fact, nobody is sure how good Freddy will
be this season. Youth need not be an obstacle to soccer success;
Pele, Ronaldo and Diego Maradona, to name three superstars, were
all thriving pros by age 17. (Closer to home, 22-year-old Landon
Donovan has led the Earthquakes to two of the past three MLS
crowns.) Adu certainly backed up his rep at last year's under-17
and under-20 world championships--dangerous on the ball, he was
the youngest player in both--and U.S. coach Bruce Arena said
Freddy "didn't look out of place" when he trained with the senior
national team for the first time last month.
Questions abound, however. Can Freddy's 5'7", 148-pound frame
withstand challenges from defenders more than twice his age? Will
the publicity onslaught turn into an unbearable burden? And will
fans, no doubt spoiled by LeBron, Carmelo and Michelle, turn on
Adu should he struggle as a rookie?
"I think I could be an impact player this season," says Freddy,
who has trained with United occasionally over the past two years.
"When I'm out on the field, I'm not scared of anyone. I'm just
going to move the ball--boom-boom, one-touch, two-touch--and when
the right time comes and I've got somebody one-on-one, I'll take
him. But I'm not always going to have the greatest game of my
life. There's going to be games when I absolutely suck. That
happens to everybody. So it'll be up to me to regroup and try to
find a way to bounce back."
Early indications from D.C. United's preseason training were
encouraging. Like any rookie, Freddy carried the ball bags and
the water jugs without being told. He said all the right things
about needing to earn his playing time and his teammates'
respect. His only misstep came when he failed to persuade
second-year striker Alecko Eskandarian to surrender his number 11
uniform. "Alecko's been wearing number 11 his whole life," says
Adu, who will wear number 9 instead. "Everything's cool. If you
want something, you have to work hard for it." It's worth noting,
however, that Freddy still signs his autographs with the tagline
For the time being, Adu must perform a tricky balancing act,
practicing humility on the sideline and go-for-it bravado on the
ball. "As much as it has to be a team on the field, it has to be
you somewhat," Freddy says. "Because you want to crack the
starting lineup, you want to be on the field when April 3 comes."
That prospect seems assured. Adu has started every preseason game
for which he has dressed, alternating between the withdrawn
forward and slashing right-sided midfield positions.
First-year United coach Peter Nowak, a former Chicago Fire star
who began his pro career in Poland at age 15, seems ideally cast
for overseeing Adu's development. "Freddy's first two weeks were
great," Nowak says. "He understands that the team comes first,
and that everyone who deserves to be in the lineup will be on the
field." If Nowak has a concern these days, it's that Adu has
spent too much time in the weight room--he has added 10 pounds of
muscle in recent months. "We need Freddy to be Freddy, to be
untouchable for defenders," Nowak says. "If he's built up like
Arnold Schwarzenegger, he'll lose his speed and defenders will
hit him anyway. He needs to grow naturally."
As for Adu's teammates, the adjustment to Freddy Mania has gone
as smoothly as they could have hoped. "His ability on the ball is
incredible," says 35-year-old veteran Earnie Stewart. "He's a
great kid, too. I just hope he still gets to be a kid." Adds
26-year-old United midfielder Ben Olsen, "I wouldn't say he's
taking over games, but he's done things that have blown some
Now that Adu has earned the confidence of his team, he can focus
on a more imposing challenge: his opponents, many of them
veterans earning five-figure salaries, who may resent his
newfound wealth and attention. "I'm going to have a big X on my
back now, because some of these guys have been in the league a
long time, and here comes this 14-year-old kid making this amount
of money," Adu says. "But I didn't think it was going to be easy
when I made this decision, and I'm ready for it. There's going to
be a lot of mouthing off at me and a lot of hacking. That's part
of the game."
In some ways, though, Freddy's new environment will make his life
easier. For the last two years he has been away from his mother,
Emelia, and 12-year-old brother, Fro, who remained in Potomac,
Md., when he headed to Florida. Soon all three Adus (they
immigrated to the U.S. in 1997 with Freddy's father, Maxwell, who
no longer lives with them) will move into a new house in suburban
Rockville, Md. The five-bedroom spread includes an opulent
kitchen--the better for Emelia to make Freddy's favorite jollof
rice, a Ghanaian stew made with meat and tomatoes--and a basement
rec room replete with a pool table and enough speakers to turn
the place into a 106th & Park set. "That's the coolest part,"
Freddy says. "I can hang out with my friends, play pool, listen
to music and dance. It's going to be awesome, man."
Well, most of the time. Emelia, who won't shrink from assigning
Freddy household chores, is setting a midnight curfew. No
"And ... action!"
Back in Tampa, Adu and Pele are winding up the nine-hour-long
commercial shoot, bopping a ball back and forth, showing off all
their tricks. Watching them juggle together is a wonder, like
seeing two concert pianists playing the scales--until Pele gamely
flubs an easy one. It's part of the script. Adu tears off
screaming in triumph, as if he's scored the winning goal in the
World Cup final. His seventh take is as energetic as his first.
Talk about a natural.
The resemblance between Adu and the teenage Pele is almost eerie,
from their open, innocent faces, unmarked by time, to their
low-to-the-ground playing styles. That's not all. Like Adu, whose
June 2, 1989, birth date has been questioned (no evidence to the
contrary was found in a 2003 SI investigation), Pele once endured
the same accusations. "When I was on the national team at 17,
nobody trusted us," Pele says. "He's not 17. But what are you
going to do? In Europe they argue about Freddy's age, but he has
Not long ago Adu watched a retrospective on Pele's career that
included footage from the 1958 and 1970 World Cups. "The
highlights are just ridiculous," Adu says, eyes wide with
excitement. "He made everything look easy." Yet in the long run,
none of Pele's performances may be more important than the one
Adu saw today: the hugs for strangers, the easygoing manner, the
smiles-for-all diplomacy. "He treats everyone the same way,"
Freddy says. "That just tells you that you're never too big for
the sport. He's the greatest ever to touch a soccer ball, yet
he's so down to earth. To see him do that is unbelievable."
Indeed, the tables have been turned. Who could have known that
Adu would leave their encounter thinking: This Pele guy, he
showed me something.
More coverage of both U.S. and world soccer, including analysis
from Grant Wahl and Gabriele Marcotti, at si.com/soccer.
Mount Swooshmore of Michael, Tiger and LeBron.
"When I'm on the field, I'm not scared of anyone."