Freddy Adu has been called many things: Prodigy. Phenom. Cautionary tale.
But rarely have the words “age appropriate” been attached to him.
Blessed with talent beyond his years, he joined Major League Soccer in 2004 as a 14-year-old, the youngest to sign a professional contract in 100 years. But his development as a player came in fits and starts as he worked against players sometimes twice his age in what can be a demanding, physical league.
He made a big-money move to Europe and then struggled for the playing time that would make him better, bouncing between Portugal, France, Greece and Turkey, and playing just 50 times in four years. He returned to MLS in August, and got a team that not only wanted him but also gave him consistent playing time.
Still young at 22 and still developing as a player, he’s ready to star for the United States. No matter his club situation, every time he returned to the U.S. youth national teams, he shined. As part of the Under-17 and Under-20 teams, he scored more than 30 goals including hat tricks in two different youth World Cups.
Ask him about his grizzled veteran status after a decade of starring for youth teams, and he laughs. He’s still adjusting to being the one who others look to on an Under-23 team preparing to qualify for the Olympics with three matches at LP Field over the next eight days.
“It’s actually kinda weird. I’m not used to it yet. I’ve always been one of the youngest guys on the team,” Adu says. “Now this is my age group. My birth year is the cutoff year. I am one of the oldest guys, so I have to bring that leadership.”
He’s the same well-mannered kid he’s always been, but there’s a glint of confidence. Maybe it’s the giant diamond stud in his ear. Maybe it’s the faux-hawk hairstyle he’s starting to grow. This is a guy who looks like he’s coming into his own.
“I’m not the guy that just walks up to people and tells them what to do. I’m usually the smallest guy on the field so they might beat me up,” he says, chuckling. “I try to help them by leading by example. And that’s something I’ve gotten much better at over the last couple of years. I wasn’t always great at that.”
And he clearly relishes playing in U.S. coach Caleb Porter’s attacking system. Playing as an attacking winger at the top of a 4-3-3 formation, he is being given free rein to create.
“He really does give us that freedom to be flexible and not just restrict us to one side of the field or whatever,” Adu says. “He likes us moving around and finding spaces here and there. He wants us to play. And as soccer players, everybody loves it. It’s really fun to play for him and be part of that.”
National teams are almost, by definition, all-star teams. So when they assemble it’s a crash course in chemistry. The camp for these matches is a relatively long eight days before their first game on Thursday night. But even with an extra few days, nothing can replace the day-in-day-out bond that a good club team establishes.
“When you’re with your club team, you’re around these guys every single day, and you establish a lot of chemistry,” Adu said. “And once you leave and join the national team, you don’t have a lot of time to train together, so everything has to come together quickly. Coming in, you have to be ready. Your mind’s gotta be sharp. You have to be mentally prepared to get to know your teammates quickly. It’s not always the same guys coming in all the time, so you’ve gotta be ready for that. And the hardest part is always scoring goals. You need a lot of chemistry to do that — movement off the ball, timing and everything.”
The U.S. will expect to win its group and qualify for London — they’ve qualified for every games but one since 1976. And Adu realizes that performing well could put him in the mix for the senior national team that begins qualifying for the 2014 World Cup this year.
“Obviously, if you do well and the team does well, it increases your chances of being with the men’s team and hopefully getting a chance to play in a World Cup,” he said. “Right now, I’m focused on the Olympics and I know that [U.S. men’s coach] Jurgen [Klinnsman] is watching. He’s going to be watching the games, and he’s going to be getting feedback from here as well. We all gotta come in here and really work. But first things first, man. Gotta get out there on the field and play, and everything will take care of itself.”
No longer the prodigy — with all of the baggage that entails — Adu can simply be described as “talented.”
And just the right age.