If you go back to the year 2004 and search the magazines or newspapers for the next big thing in football, the answer wouldn’t have been Theo Walcott or Gareth Bale, in fact it wasn’t even anyone from these shores. Or for that matter, mainland Europe. Nope, football’s next Pele or Zidane apparently plied his trade in the land where the game is called ‘soccer’ and players are ‘drafted’ instead of transferred.
14-year-old Freddy Adu was included in the 2004 MLS Superdraft and allocated first pick, which in non-American terms means he was the best aspiring athlete of that year. He was picked up by DC United and made his debut against the San Jose Earthquakes, making him the youngest professional American sportsman since 1887. He followed this up with a goal against the MetroStars, becoming the youngest player in MLS history to find the back of the net. Some pressure.
Adu had actually been noticed by Europe’s top scouts before his MLS debut, playing in a US Olympics development squad in tournaments against strong sides like Lazio and Juventus. Inter Milan reportedly made a six figure offer for his services, a ridiculous concept considering Adu had only lived in the States for a matter of months after his mother won the Green Card Lottery, allowing the family to move there from their native Ghana.
His career at DC United didn’t go too badly considering the hype surrounding his precocious talent, he made 87 appearances for the club, scoring 11 goals. He won the MLS Cup in his first season as a professional and made it into the MLS all-star team as well. He moved (or should I say traded) to Real Salt Lake in 2006 and continued his impressive development there, captaining the US U20 side in the 2007 Fifa U20 World Cup. By now, the European vultures were swirling, Manchester United had already had a look, handing the player a two week trial at Old Trafford, but he didn’t do enough to earn a full time deal. They must have known something we didn’t.
Adu ended up sealing a move to Portugal after Benfica bought the player’s rights off the MLS for $2 million. Not content to work his way into the first team slowly, Adu swiftly made his debut in a Champions League clash with FC Copenhagen. However, he made only a further 10 appearances for the club before they decided enough was enough and shipped him out to Monaco on loan with the view of making it permanent. By now it seemed as if the fame had gone to Adu’s head and he was no longer the potential superstar that the world had once expected. After just nine appearances in Ligue One, Monaco decided he wasn’t up to scratch for the French top flight. This started his nomadic travels across some of Europe’s less glamorous divisions, with spells on loan at Belenenses in Portugal, Aris in Greece and finally Turkish second division side Çaykur Rizespor. His European dream in tatters, Philadelphia Union ended Adu’s misery and brought him back to the MLS with his tail firmly between his legs.
To his credit, his career representing the Stars and Stripes hasn’t been all bad, he featured in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and impressed in the 2011 Gold Cup after being a surprise selection in Bob Bradley’s squad. Rubbing shoulders with the likes of Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan certainly helped his game and since his international debut in 2006, Adu has won 17 caps for his country.
For most players, representing their country on 17 occasions would be a significant achievement, but for Adu you just can’t help but wonder what happened. He seemed to have the world at his feet as a 14-year-old, but instead provided the perfect example of what can happen to someone when the pressure is piled on from a young age. Maybe Adu didn’t ever possess the talent required to compete at the top level and didn’t develop physically or maybe he didn’t have the right attitude to succeed. His case though, is a lesson for clubs pushing through young players who are potentially superstars.
It’s not all over for Adu yet, he’s still only 23 and has made 24 appearances for Philadelphia since signing in 2011, suggesting he still has a decent career left in the MLS. However, the 2004 American Dream of him being the greatest footballer of all time suddenly seems a million miles away.