Freddy feeling right at home
Plain and simple, Freddy Adu made the right choice.
The 14-year-old prodigy could've gone to any team in the world. And he would have prospered as a player and as a person wherever he went, whether it was Manchester United, Real Madrid or Chelsea.
But, there's an element of protection in staying home and playing in Major League Soccer. Of course, that means living at home with his mom, Emelia, in Potomac, Md., yet it's more than that. Had Adu decided to go abroad to play for a high-powered club's youth side, he wouldn't exactly be welcomed with open arms by all his teammates.
Think about it: Do you think a top-notch, 17-year-old English player wants to see a much-younger American -- American! -- Golden Boy come waltzing through the door with all this fanfare, money in his pocket already from his million-dollar Nike deal, with the intent to rise up the ranks faster than himself?
Adu is one of the most endearing young men to come around in a long time. In any sport. He seems impossible not to like or get along with, and he's been impressive deflecting praise to others throughout the whirlwind of his life the past few years, ever since he headed off to residency with the U-17 National Team.
But what happens in a tough neighborhood when a new kid moves in down the block? He gets tested. No matter how big or how strong he is, he's the first one to be picked on. Fights ensue until the new kid's keep has been earned. Don't get me wrong, that will happen when Adu moves on in a few years. It's just better to have it be at 16 or 17 than at 14, no matter how mature he is as a person or how advanced his prowess is on the soccer field.
With D.C. United, he won't have that same sort of environment. He'll be surrounded by American players who wholeheartedly want him to succeed, and realize that his presence is better for all of them involved. It could mean bigger crowds, more media attention, higher TV ratings, and all the other factors that MLS is hoping to capitalize on with this signing.
Guys like Ben Olsen, who knows a little something about being the Next Great American Soccer Player, and Earnie Stewart will be there to act as surrogate big brothers, and are both people who have gone through the National Team system, played in Europe, and are the type of professionals you'd want someone like Adu to be around at this precious time in his life.
That's something that Adu's agent, Richard Motzkin, surely pointed out repeatedly to Freddy and his family throughout this process.
"D.C. United will be the perfect place for Freddy to begin his career," said American soccer's superagent. "They've done a tremendous job with young players like Bobby Convey and others and will certainly continue to help mold Freddy into, not only a great young player and a future star for D.C. United and the U.S. National Teams, but equally importantly as a fine young man, which, as you can see, he's well on his way to being."
Then again, no one should think for one second that his decision to stay home will make him soft, or that he'll be coddled in any way. He's not going to be eating orange wedges at halftime or have Ray Hudson driving him down the road to get ice cream after the games.
In fact, making his mark in MLS will be quite a challenge for Adu. He has the type of speed and deft moves that will help him get behind defenses, but his small frame (5-8, 140 pounds) will make it difficult to match up with several of the defenders out there. He'll be trying to get by MEN, who are bigger, stronger, smarter and more experienced.
The key for Ray Hudson will be to put Adu in situations where he can succeed. Start him off slowly. Ease his way into the league, no matter how much the networks or advertisers lean on the organization to get him out there. Find a way to keep his off-the-field schedule as low-key as humanly possible.
One of the other great reasons for Adu to stay home is for the added availability he'll have with the U-20, U-23, and eventually, full U.S. National Team.
He'll be able to be included in every camp now, which definitely would not have been the case had he ended up overseas. Liverpool has a hard time letting Zak Whitbread leave for U-20 matches, so how do you think Manchester United would be with Adu?
Being able to be seen in person on a regular basis by U-23 coach Mooch Myernick, Adu will have a much better chance of playing on the 2004 Olympic Team, as well as to impress U.S. National Team coach Bruce Arena, who lives in nearby Fairfax, Va., and will surely be tracking his process closely.
"I like to think of myself as having a pretty good chance of being on either of those teams but, I can't just be picked to be on those teams," said Adu at his press conference on Wednesday at Madison Square Garden. "I've got to earn the right to be on those teams. Playing with D.C. United will give me a very good opportunity to prove myself not necessarily for the 2004 Olympic Team but to Bruce Arena. Hopefully, I'll do some things on the field that will make him think about bringing me in and giving me a chance to play with the team."
Pending FIFA approval, playing for the U-20s starting Nov. 27 in the World Youth Championships in the United Arab Emirates will be the next step in his on-the-field maturation.
When he played for coach Thomas Rongen's side at a training camp last month at the Home Depot Center, Adu noticed the difference between the professional players and college athletes he was playing with and the competition he was used to at the U-17 level right away.
"These guys are much bigger and stronger," said Adu. "That's why I've got to take my game to another level. I can't get into a wrestling match with these guys. I've got to get away, get the ball, pass it, and when the right time comes, take somebody on. I just gotta be quick about it, and make decisions faster."
The same applies to next season. At home. In Major League Soccer.
Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.