Freddy Adu: Unfulfilled Talent

Aged just ten years old young Freddy Adu starred in an U-14 football tournament whilst playing for the U.S Olympic Development Programme. Adu finished the tournament as top scorer and was named MVP, playing against other youth sides such as Juventus and Lazio. Adu’s performances didn’t go unnoticed and Inter Milan reportedly tried to sign the player with the offer being turned down on the advice of agents.

Adu’s future looked bright, becoming the youngest American athlete in 100 years to sign professional terms after he joined DC United in 2004 aged just 14. Freddy Adu was the great hope of American football.  The early signs suggested Ellinger would be right with Adu showing prolific form at youth level scoring 16 in 15 for the USA U17 side and 16 in 33 for the U20’s. He was so highly rated that then Deputy MLS Commissioner Ivan Gazidis (now Arsenal Chief Executive) described Adu as ‘probably the best young player in the World.’

Even after signing for DC United there were a plethora of big European clubs interested in securing Adu’s signature with Manchester United once at the front of the queue after he joined them on a 2 week trial in 2006. The sky appeared to be the limit and Adu’s early talent was rewarded with major endorsement deals which reportedly earned him $3 million per year. However nothing ever materialized as United decided against following up their interest in the star. Chelsea also turned down the chance to sign Adu and n the end he surprisngly moving to fellow MLS side Real Salt Lake.

Unfulfilled Talent

After a somewhat disappointing spell with Salt Lake Adu finally made the big move across to Europe joining Portuguese side Benfica. However he failed to establish himself in the side making only 11 appearances for the club in 4 years and spending a considerable amount of that time away on loan at other clubs such as AS Monaco and Turkish second division side Caykur Rizespor.

On the 11th of August Freddy Adu ended an unsuccessful spell in Europe returning to the US with MLS side Philadelphia Union. By coming home like this it raises questions about Adu’s ability to make it at the top level. His failure to make it in Europe after such high expectations begs the question, what went wrong?

Freddy Adu was a top talent but perhaps the MLS wasn’t the perfect place for him to develop into a top star.  Despite getting far more first team football than he would have at say Manchester United the level of coaching and the standard of the league was vastly inferior to what he would have experienced in Europe. Feguson stated that United tried to sign Adu when he was 14 before he opted to sign for DC United.

In hindsight not moving to United was arguably a mistake. Especially looking at some of the fine young players United have brought through since Ferguson joined the club including future MLS star David Beckham. Had he gone to Europe he would also have been able to escape the huge expectations and media focus that was on him.

Due to the below par training techniques and coaching in the MLS Adu failed to adequately develop the tactical side of his game. Many of the coaches who have seen him play shared this concern. Jerome De Bontin the President of Monaco whilst Adu was there stated ‘Everybody had the same analysis. He had incredible talent, yet he was lacking standard tactical knowledge that most players his age had. It was tied to the fact that he became professional at 14 and in some ways stopped learning at 15.” Having been accelerated to the first team he wasn’t given the basic grounding that other young stars are given. In reality it was just too much too soon for Adu.

Adu just did not develop adaquetely whilst playing for DC United, the tactical and mental side of his game were not good enough, nor was his contribution to defending something that in Europe is demanded of all the top players. US U20 coach Thomas Rongen corroberates this view further stating .” The modern game values athleticism and requires even the best players to have some defensive responsibilities… that was an area where Freddy really needed to grow and become better.” In many respects Adu was seen as a luxury player during his time in Europe with his lack of defensive awareness and weak stature at just 5 ft8 he hadn’t grown since he was 13. (Something that led to speculation over his real age.)

He did not defend enough to be a winger and his preferred role as a number 10, or trequartista is a dying breed in Europe. Several Argentinians have failed in this vein, also hailed as wonder kids and dubbed ‘The New Maradonna’ , Riquelme, Aimar, Saviola and D’alessandro most notably, all failed to make the impact that was expected of them playing in the number 10 role for that very reason. The feeling with these players was that their contribution was limited if they weren’t scoring goals or getting assists on a regular basis, and for Adu he is in all honesty nowhere near as technically gifted as these players and thus Benfica or Monaco didn’t see it worthwhile building a team around him like Villarreal did around Riquelme.

Marketing Tool?

Before turning 16 Adu had signed a $1 million deal with Nike, appeared on Lettermen, was likened to Pele and had a shout out in a Jay-Z song. All of this most certainly put a huge amount of pressure on Adu who became the highest earning MLS player before he had even kicked a ball. All of this attention served to put incredible pressure on Adu from an early age.

On leaving DC Adu acknowledged this stating that there was ‘definitely’ too much pressure on him, “I had my own expectations, but everyone else had theirs… Every article written about me compared me to Pelé. It’s tough. I don’t think anyone could have lived up to that… I’m not Pelé. I want to be Freddy. That’s just how it is. I learned that you’re not going to be able to satisfy everyone.”

Looking back at the hype surrounding Freddy Adu when he was just 14 years old it seems quite clear that the MLS not just encouraged it but in some ways created it.The MLS back then was not in a particularly good way with only 10 tens they were short on cash and attendances were low. The MLS marketed Adu arguably at the expense of his own development in order to gain increased media coverage.

MLS Comissioner Don Garber goes some way towards corroborating this view stating “I’m not sure looking back on the whole Freddy Adu experience that we managed it as well as we could have… The league was very different then. Freddy was different then. He was a very young guy with a lot of attention on him and the league needed it. The sport needed it.”

Using Adu as a marketing tool certainly worked as attendances at DC United games were up by 20% and there were around 10,000 more fans at each of DC United’s away games. DC United’. Away teams actively used Adu in their marketing when DC were playing against them, New York for example spent roughly $20,000 marketing most matches but spent $80,000 when they played DC. Nobody can doubt that as a marketing tool for the MLS Adu was an overwhelming success.

Hopefully 4 years on now he has joined Union and the hype has died down he can be Freddy.  Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz has made the right noises stating. “We didn’t sign Freddy for marketing or ticket reasons… We signed Freddy because we think he can make our football team better.” If Union stay true to this perhaps it is the best place for Adu to try and rebuild his careeer, and at just 22 years old he certainly has plenty of time to do just that.


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