Freddy Adu. This name is known to football fans all over the world. And yet very few have seen him play. A professional at 14, an international player at 17, in Europe at 18, his career has progressed in a dazzling way! Perhaps a little too much for him…
Promised a bright future from an early age, his career did not go at all according to plan! At the age of 30, the attacking midfielder will have played for 12 different clubs since leaving his DC United training club in MLS, piling up more chess than goals. So how do you explain this failure, which has now become a benchmark when we’re talking about youngsters ready to shine but whose potential is yet to be confirmed? Explanations!
A future all mapped out…
Having trained at the IMG Bradenton Academy, which saw some fine names emerge from his training, including Michael Bradley, Landon Donovan, Kyle Beckerman and Michael Parkhurst, young Adu was soon spotted by DC United, who signed him at the age of fourteen! For the Ghanaian-born boy, it was another stroke of fate. Indeed, six years earlier, he had left his hometown of Tema because his mother won an immigration lottery that brought him and his family to Maryland in the United States.
He had always been a balloon enthusiast, so he exported his talent to the other side of the Atlantic, where his qualities caught the eye of the most connoisseurs. Thanks to that, he even received offers of between $15,000 and $150,000 from Inter Milan after a youth tournament in Italy to sign him. But his mother, who was working two full-time jobs to get by, turned down all offers, finding her son far too young.
She then brought him into the Bradenton program in 2002. He was then thirteen years old but played with the under seventeen year olds. A beginning of precocity that his mother preferred to preserve.
Favoured by King Pele (no less), his name is known among the world’s greatest hopefuls such as Lionel Messi, Wayne Rooney, Rafael Van der Vaart… Physically ahead of the youngsters of his age, we must not forget that, as young as he is, his weakness remains his mind! His emergence as a player has been boosted by the recent MLS commissioner Don Garber, who has done his utmost to make this his first big move for his league. What pressure!
Freddy Adu was then selected as the first choice in the 2004 draft by DC United, the club from the American capital. His dazzling dribbling technique and skill in front of goal made him the “next Pele”, the “Mozart of football” as they say! At the age of 14, he was earning $500,000 a month, making him the highest paid player in the league… at just 14! In sporting terms, he scored 11 goals in his first three professional seasons in Major League Soccer, not exceptional but very promising. These good performances have even caused some experts to doubt that he is too developed and athletic for his age.
In 2007, he made his first transfer but remained in Major League Soccer and it was Real Salt Lake – after being turned away from Manchester United’s training centre due to a lack of work permits – who took him back with Nick Rimando. The reason for his departure? He wanted a bigger role than the one he had been given at DC United, much to the delight of the Utah club. The least we can say is that in the end, the arrival of the American goalkeeper, ten years his senior, will have been a much better success!
Finally, after eleven games played, with only one goal scored for no win when he was on the field, his transfer proved to be a flop. Add to that his desire to discover Europe, and the young new international was on the move. The first European club to cast their sights on Uncle Sam’s (for the time being) prodigy will be Benfica Lisbon in Portugal.
But there it is, again, the same failure. Unable to make a name for himself in a club that knows how to polish youngsters, he was loaned out to Monaco in Ligue 1, where he played in mid-table. His arrival was no coincidence, as the club’s new president was none other than Jérôme De Bontin (a Franco-American businessman), who had heard of the “Adu phenomenon” and wanted to make it his big coup for the club too. Thinking he would win in terms of playing time, the young American played only nine short matches without ever being a first-teamer, his purchase option was not exercised and he thus returned to the NOS Liga. It was the beginning of his long descent into the underworld…
From 2009 to 2011, he will discover three other clubs in three different countries (Portugal, Greece and Turkey) without ever staying more than six months. At the end of his contract with Benfica, he returned home to sign French striker Sebastien Le Toux at Philadelphia Union. And then, incredibly, he started playing regularly again, even scoring! Enough to give him back his confidence and after a season and a half in MLS, he tried to go abroad again: to Bahia in Brazil. At the age of 23, it was a gamble that he made, knowing his misadventures abroad. Failure.
After numerous unsuccessful attempts at Stabaek (Norway), Blackpool (England) and AZ Alkmaar (Netherlands), he landed in Serbia, where his cultural adaptation was just as complicated. Without playing for FK Jagodina in the league for a single minute, he flew off to discover a new country, Finland, where he was welcomed by Kuopion Palloseura (KuPS). Finally, after yet another miss, he returned to his adopted country but not to MLS, as yes, his talent is no longer recognised at all in the country and others have taken his place, such as Chelsea striker Christian Pulisic. He therefore alternates between unemployment and clubs in the lower divisions (Tampa Bay Rowdies in NASL and Las Vegas Lights FC in USL). Between those two spells at USL, he even became a vacuum cleaner salesman …
Statistically, the former U.S. international will only have “succeeded” in MLS at home.
So why the crash?
“At 14, 15, 16, you’re young, you’re immature. Fortunately, I had my family and friends around me to point me in the right direction. But maybe I didn’t train as hard as I should have. It hurt me, it probably hindered my development. But what most people don’t know is that I decided on my own to go pro at 14 because my family was poor. At that time, my mother was a single mother working two to three jobs. What should I have done? Say no to millions of dollars at that age when my family wasn’t doing well?”
These revelations by Freddy Adu speak volumes about his personal investment from the very beginning of his young career. At his age, young footballers think about school before football because none of them make a living from it. For him, it was the other way round.
So very early on he became a marketing product thanks to his fame. The first sponsor to hit the jackpot is Nike. As soccer is still unknown in the United States, the brand sees it as an opportunity to introduce it in a new country with potentially more than 300,000,000 licensees. Adu, who was just a teenager and the flag bearer of soccer in the USA, was the destiny Adu had been waiting for. Sponsors, advertising and fame mean money. And that’s what his family sorely needed. Things are moving too fast for him, too fast and the kid is lost. What was supposed to be a windfall ends up being a burden, and his million-dollar contract conditions his performance.
The price of football players has exploded, but not only…
Sportively, his mental fragility probably started after he was not selected for the 2006 World Cup with the United States in 2006. Bruce Arena, the coach at the time, preferred to rely on experienced players playing in Europe such as Brian McBride (Fulham FC), DaMarcus Beasley (PSV Eindhoven) or Claudio Reyna (Manchester City). Playing on the old continent could therefore become a goal, an obsession to demonstrate one’s full potential, so much so that the pressure was finally too great. Add to that the fact that his innate talent for the game didn’t need to be kept up to scratch (in training), but the high level caught up with him fairly quickly.
So in the end, was it a scam or a casting error? During his time at Benfica, however, Adu played alongside players as promising as he was, within a year or two of his time at the club, such as Fabio Coentrao and Angel Di Maria (who would go on to finish at Real Madrid) and David Luiz (who would later sign for Chelsea). He should have shown what he was capable of in a good environment. Only the tough competition and lack of work meant that the level of Major League Soccer (especially at the time) was far from that of the European championships. His talent could perhaps dazzle in the USA, but would be less impressive in top clubs. And what was to be a confirmation would therefore end in failure both statistically and mentally. And when such a mentally fragile player experiences failure, it is difficult to recover from it afterwards. Unfortunately, this is what happened to him afterwards, with a succession of loans, bad performances and loss of confidence (both personal and from his coaches). In reality, everything went too fast for him, the media exposure around him was too strong, he was just not ready.
Now in his thirties, he coaches youngsters after a last round in almost complete anonymity at the USL Championship in Las Vegas Lights, the city of money and ironic entertainment capital of the world?