Adu starts well out of the blocks
WASHINGTON -- With his team up two goals to one through 58 minutes of soccer, Peter Nowak made his way to the end of the D.C. United bench. There was no secret as to the purpose of his walk, as every person inside RFK Stadium knew exactly what the manager was doing, or more importantly, who he was summoning.
After Nowak put his left arm around the neck of his 14-year-old striker and whispered briefly into his ear about trying to hold the ball more since United was leading, Adu made his way to midfield, where he would be inserted into the match for Alecko Eskandarian a minute later.
Rather than be upset by the substitution, the league's No. 1 draft pick from a year ago came off the field wearing a huge smile, telling his much younger teammate that he loved him and to go have fun as he hugged him quickly before exiting the field.
Some of the sentiment from the ensuing ovation was for the player he was replacing, seeing that Eskandarian scored the go-ahead goal in D.C.'s 2-1 victory over the San Jose Earthquakes on a brilliant left-footed strike while on the run in the 39th minute. But for most of the 24,603 fans in attendance, the cheers were all for Adu, thus signaling a beginning of an era for D.C. United, MLS and soccer in the United States as a whole.
What might have been most impressive was Adu's demeanor on the field. He didn't make a lot of useless runs to unleash some nervous energy, nor did his head ever appear to be on a swivel stick in the manner of many rookies -- never mind a 14-year-old boy -- when inserted into their first professional match.
Yet, while the league's youngest player appeared the same way he always does -- cool, calm and collected -- that wasn't exactly what was going on in his head.
"You could see that he was very nervous," Nowak said.
Adu said his most nervous moments came while he was on the sideline, during the opening minutes of the match, but that it did take about 10 minutes to completely shake off any nerves. He said that having his team up by a goal helped his psyche.
"It took a lot of pressure off," said Adu. "All I had to do was help preserve the lead."
However, Adu did admit that he didn't feel like his explosive self during his 29 minutes of play.
"When I got out there," said Adu in his postgame press conference, "I just felt like I was a step slower than normal ... but that's probably because I didn't get a chance to play ninety minutes. I didn't get a lot of touches on the ball."
Playing in a withdrawn forward role behind Jaime Moreno, Adu looked for holes on both the right and left wings when his team gained possession of the ball.
For the final 10 minutes of the match, Adu dropped back into a central midfield role after Dema Kovalenko was sent off with a red card for elbowing Brian Mullan in the face during the 80th minute. It was during this time that Adu had his best chance on offense when he streaked up the left side of the field on a D.C. counterattack.
After receiving the ball from Convey, the 5-foot-8, 140-pound striker dribbled at San Jose captain Jeff Agoos at half-speed. When he finally made one of his patented feint right-dribble left moves with the outside of his left foot, the wily Agoos stepped in Adu's path -- practically expecting such a move -- to shield the ball and make a play. All Adu could do after running straight into the former U.S. National Team centerback was appeal to the official for a call, which was not made.
"He did a great job by just standing right in front of me," said Adu. "That was great defense. Next time, I know what I have to do. I have to do it a little quicker."
Adu's day ended with a grand total of 10 touches and no shots on goal. He was neither a factor, nor did he look out of place.
"What I saw was about what I expected," said U.S. National Team manager Bruce Arena. "We all have to be patient."
Opposing coach Dominic Kinnear said more of the same, explaining how he remembers Landon Donovan's start in MLS being a slow one back in 2001 when he was an 19-year-old rookie for the Earthquakes
"It took him, honestly, about eight to 10 games to get his feet wet," said Kinnear after coaching his first game as a head coach after three years of being an assistant to Frank Yallop.
Nowak said much the same thing after the match.
"For the first time, he did very well."
While Adu was careful with how he graded his performance, due to the length of time he played as well as the situation he was under, he appeared not to have a care in the world after the game.
He playfully jabbed at Eskandarian when the two were back at their lockers, and never seemed to stop smiling as he made his way out of the stadium, which included taking pictures with NFL draft prospect Ben Watson, as the University of Georgia tight end greeted him while wearing a skin-tight Adu jersey.
Getting that first game out of the way was a relief.
"I'm just glad it's over," said Adu. "I'm glad it's over."
One game down, and 29 more to go.
Or, more like:
One game down, and a lifetime to go.
-- Moreno's goal was the 70th of his career, which ranks fifth all-time and third amongst active players in MLS. The 30-year-old turned back the clock on Saturday, as one of the top players on the field throughout his 85 minutes of play.
"Jaime Moreno was a bit like the Jaime Moreno of old in the first half," said Kinnear, commenting on his goal and assist on Eskandarian's strike.
-- After Eskandarian scored his goal, he lifted up his jersey to expose a message written in marker on his white undershirt that read, "Nicole, we miss you." It was in honor of Nicole Megaloudis, who tragically died in a car crash in February. Megaloudis was a freshman soccer player at Virginia Commonwealth University as well as the stepdaughter of U-23 National Team coach Thomas Rongen.
"She was like a sister to me," said Eskandarian. "I just was hoping I would score to be able to do that for her."
-- Adu said he "slept great," without any restlessness, on the eve of his first match. He even slept in, only getting up three hours before having to be at the stadium.
-- Kinnear said his team's possession could have been a little bit better, and that too many balls were played over the top rather than on the ground to the feet of the strikers. He also mentioned the side's lack of balls down the flank -- a staple during their run to the MLS title in 2003 -- as a reason for the loss.
-- Nowak's answer to how his side can add more firepower up front: "I'm going to go out and buy Ronaldo."
-- Nowak was most stern when the subject of Kovalenko's elbowing of Mullan and resulting red card was brought up.
"It's not going to happen again," deadpanned Kovalenko's former central midfield partner while with the Chicago Fire.
-- Close to 250 media credentials were issued for the San Jose-D.C. match. Requests came in from places as far away as Poland and Japan to cover Adu's first professional match.
Marc Connolly covers American soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at: email@example.com.