Pretend for a second that by the time you turned 25 years old, you had accomplished the following:
• Played for your country at every youth level and were captain of one of the most successful squads in recent memory.
• Appeared nearly 20 times for your country’s senior national team.
• Made millions of dollars — more money than the vast majority of your countrymen who play your chosen sport.
• Had your relationship with a pop star covered by Ryan Seacrest.
Without a doubt, the general public would consider you, my friend, a success.
Unless, of course, your name happens to be Freddy Adu. Then, you’d be an immense and overwhelming failure, and we’d be debating whether your career had sunk so low that you were moving from the business of footballing to the business of nightclub ownership. Adu is not making any such career pivot, but as the league he famously began his career with as a 14-year-old is set to begin its 20th season tomorrow, he’s currently teamless, adrift in the wide world of international club soccer after an unsuccessful six-month stint with FK Jagodina in the Serbian SuperLiga.1
He made one substitute appearance for the club.
The Turkeys2 were Adu’s 10th team since being drafted no. 1 by D.C. United in the 2004 MLS SuperDraft, and his eighth squad since 2009, a six-year span over which he’s played fewer than 70 games. That’s not good, but it’s hardly the end of the world as some American soccer fans make it out to be. It’s a low point for sure, but there have been some impressive highs and, perhaps, even more to come.
Photo by Paul Hawthorne/MLSNETImages
After scoring four goals as a 14-year-old at the 2003 FIFA U-17 World Championship, Adu — by then already anointed the “Next Pelé” — tallied 11 goals and 17 assists in MLS between 2004 and 2006. He was 16; that is nuts. Then, at the 2007 FIFA U-20 World Cup, Adu captained a U.S. group that included Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore. They beat a Brazil team with Marcelo and Willian in the group stage and a Uruguay side led by Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani in the round of 16 before falling to Austria in extra time in the quarterfinals. Adu scored a hat trick against Poland in the group stages and frequently did things like this:
“He was probably better than [Bradley and Altidore],” said then-U-20 coach Thomas Rongen, who also had Adu on earlier U-20 teams along with Clint Dempsey, Eddie Johnson, and teenage star Bobby Convey. “He was coachable. He was a good kid. He had a great sense of humor. He was driven at that time to succeed in the right ways.”
Following that tournament, Adu, who declined an interview request through his agent, signed with Portugal’s Benfica on a $2 million transfer and began his still-unfinished journey to find a stable home. If you believe the standard Adu narrative, this was the beginning of The Great Unraveling.
“I don’t think he had an understanding to know what it was like in the locker room at the next level with the older guys and to live up to earning that kind of money,” Rongen said. “It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, and players aren’t necessarily very nice when a guy who hasn’t kicked a ball walks in and is earning more than the other guy in the locker room.”
Adu ended up playing just 11 games for the Lisbon power while going on four loan stints between 2008 and 2011. He earned some caps for the U.S. senior team during that period — including nine in 2008 — but struggled for consistent time at any stop.
Each new team followed a predictable pattern: excitement from the American fan base, the slow realization that playing time wasn’t going to magically appear, a handful of articles that he failed again, silence, then the end of the loan and the search for a new club. Adu quickly tumbled down the UEFA league coefficient chart: AS Monaco (France’s Ligue 1), Belenenses (Portugal’s Primeira Liga), Aris (Greece’s second division), then finally Caykur Rizespor (Turkey’s second division).
He wasn’t the same player, either: That trademark (and marketable) megawatt smile was gone. “I think somewhere between [U-17] residency and when he and I parted ways [in Philly], his main priority in life wasn’t solely ‘How can I be the best footballer I can be?’” said John Hackworth, who coached Adu while he was an assistant at the U-17 level, an assistant with the senior team, and again when Adu returned to the Philadelphia Union between 2011 and 2013. Adu visited Hackworth’s house enough during his U-17 years that the coach says his kids fell in love with the budding superstar.
Hackworth remembers a teenager who could dazzle, the creativity and imagination married to his first touch something rare. The coach saw it at the U-17 level, with the Union, and on the senior team, where Adu would turn defenders inside out and then deliver the perfect ball. To me, the sweeping, left-footed pass Adu hit in the 76th minute of a 0-0 tie against Panama in the 2011 Gold Cup semifinals epitomizes what he — and not many others who’ve worn the U.S. shirt — could do:
If the U-20 World Cup in 2007 was the peak of Adu’s career, the 2011 Gold Cup is a close second. He didn’t figure in the first four matches but played an integral role in winning the semifinal, then tore up Mexico in the final — setting up the second goal and nearly scoring on a 25-yard free kick — before the entire U.S. team collapsed under El Tri’s withering pressure. That game marked the end of Bob Bradley’s tenure and also the last time Adu wore the red, white, and blue.
It was clear he still had the physical talent, but, according to Rongen, the mental side didn’t match: “The one area that separates him and a Michael Bradley is that Michael had a mental edge that is still stronger than Freddy’s.”
But he probably never had a chance. As Adu told the BBC a few years ago:
My family was really poor. My mum was working two or three jobs to take care of my brother and me. So if Nike come to you and say they want to give you a million-dollar contract and the MLS wants to make you the highest-paid player at 14, you can’t say no. You just can’t. I said yes to everything that was asked of me and ended up doing a lot of appearances, a lot of promotion, a lot of interviews, and it took away from the football on the field. People saw me more as a marketing tool.
A marketing tool who was also supposed to save soccer in the U.S., who had breathless features written about him at 14, who was “the savior” when he was too young to drive (even though he didn’t want to be), whose two-week training stint at Manchester United was covered even though he had no chance to sign, who was getting kissed by Pelé at every turn. Considering all of that, what did we expect to happen?
Adu played a part in his own downfall, as his hunger for celebrity outweighed his desire on the field, but he was pushed down that path. The American fan base was desperate for a soccer star — causing Adu to be anointed too young — and desperate for someone to blame once things went wrong. He served that dual role perfectly. Google “Freddy Adu lazy” and you’ll find diatribes based, at best, on anecdotal observation and little actual fact. More than a decade later, we’re still ravenous for updates about America’s failed hero, even when there’s nothing to report:
Fortunately, if you get started earlier than everyone else, you remain in your potential prime for a long time. At 25, Adu, who is supposedly now in talks with two Swedish teams, has a chance to be an impactful player for someone for a sustained period of time. “He’s still young enough that he could be a good footballer and still have a long and healthy career,” Hackworth said.
Rongen, who burned out on high-level soccer only to refind his love while coaching American Samoa, 3 sees a parallel with where Adu is in his career: “He needs to play, enjoy the game, and smile, which he used to do when he played. I’ll take him tomorrow at the [Tampa Bay] Rowdies [where Rongen is the head coach]. Maybe he’ll look at it like a step down, but if he does well with the right coach, he can flourish and still make a second career on a high level.'”
The excellent Next Goal Wins chronicles this journey.
Adu will always be a strange contradiction, a reservoir of potential only partially tapped, a player who has done more than most but never enough. He might have burned out, but he’s refused to fade away as hard as we’ve refused to let him. Here’s an article about Adu headlined “One Last Chance at Glory?”
It was published on January 4, 2010, six months before he turned 21.