At only 17 years of age, Freddy Adu is establishing himself as a legitimate force in Major League Soccer. The versatile midfielder/forward is maturing into the impact player the league dreamed he would be when he was signed as a 14-year-old. Along with his team-leading six assists, another sign of Adu's advance was being named to the All-Star team by coach Peter Nowak, who also coaches Adu with D.C. United.
"Adu's getting better every year," said Chris Albright, a fellow All-Star, national team defender and L.A. Galaxy player. "He's certainly a lot stronger. He was able to be knocked off the ball his first couple of years."
This year, Adu has earned a regular starting position, alongside other top MLS players such as Jaime Moreno, Christian Gomez and Ben Olsen.
"He's adapted to the speed and the strength of the MLS," said U-17 coach John Hackworth, who was an assistant when Adu was in attendance at U.S. Soccer's Bradenton residency program as a 13-year-old.
"One thing that I've worked on specifically is my defense," Adu said of his development.
"I'm a little bit more aware now of where to put myself defensively. I put myself in the right positions to help the team out. My touches and working in combination with my teammates has gotten a lot better. Once you've been with the same people for three years, it makes it a little bit easier, because you know their tendencies."
Albright noted that Adu seemed to be picking up improvements from his teammates: "He's playing with a lot of good offensive players in D.C., so I'm sure he's taken away a lot of things from Christian and Jaime."
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Adu certainly takes pride in what D.C. United has accomplished this year. The team leads the league in wins (13-1-6), with a chance to set the all-time record for wins in a single season (currently held by the 1998 season Galaxy and D.C. United teams with 24 wins).
"I really think that I am part of something special," Adu said. "It's been awesome, growing up with these guys. Hopefully, we'll keep it going. We're by no means satisfied. We just won a lot of regular season games. We want to keep it going and win the MLS Cup, because that's next."
Part of what pushed Adu from the start of this year was his call-up to a national team camp by then-coach Bruce Arena. He received an international cap when he came in as a sub in a friendly against Canada, but to his disappointment, the camp appearance did not lead to a spot on the World Cup roster.
"It was his first run at it," Albright said of Adu's camp stint. "I think it was a little bit of an awakening for him. It's a higher level than MLS. Things that fly in a league game don't fly there, and I think he learned that."
"If Freddy was on that [World Cup] roster, he would have gained a wealth of experience being in that atmosphere," Hackworth said. "At the same time, I think players grow when they have setbacks, when they are challenged by not making something, whether it's the starting roster, the top 18 or the selection for a national team. That's truly when a lot of personal growth occurs.
"Bruce not taking him may have done him as much good as anything. That's my hope, that maybe he got motivated and maybe he comes back and says, 'There's some things that I can do better.'"
It was hard for the talented youngster to watch other emerging stars at the World Cup, though. Especially ones like Lionel Messi, since Adu and his fellow U.S. players had beaten Argentina in group play at the last U-21 World Cup.
"It was frustrating," Adu admitted. "I played these guys. They're getting a chance with their national teams and I'm sitting at home watching the World Cup. It's tough. I didn't really enjoy that."
He did his best to take a positive lesson from the situation: "That's life. You've got to really work for what you want. It gives me the chance to work a little bit harder. I think, at the end of the day, I'll get there."
Whether he gets there with the United States, however, is another question. Adu reconsidered the possibility of playing for his birth country, Ghana.
"I just sat down and thought about it and was like, 'You know what? Although I want to play for the U.S. national team, that's not guaranteed. I want to be able to play in a World Cup.' So whoever gives me a chance to play in the World Cup, I will really think about it and then make a decision."
Older and wiser now, Adu realizes little can be counted on as far as the future goes, especially with the U.S. soccer federation looking in a new direction by dismissing Arena.
"You never know," Adu mused. "It's not a guarantee. Maybe a new [U.S] coach will come in who doesn't like my style of play. It doesn't fit in his plans, and what am I going to do? You don't want to burn bridges by shutting down Ghana, and then when you don't get a chance to play for the United States, you really have no national team. I don't want that to happen. I want to play in the World Cup, and I want to have that feeling of playing for a national team and that pride. So I hope I get that chance."
Watching both teams in World Cup play, Adu was torn between pride and disappointment.
"[Ghana] played really, really well. I, for one, was really happy to see them represent Africa in that way. They were really the only team to really do anything in the World Cup. On the other hand, I was saddened by how the U.S. got knocked out. Obviously, I expected a little bit more, and it was just unfortunate. I think the U.S. will bounce back."
Hackworth understands Adu's dilemma.
"Players in general have to weigh their opportunities and their choices," he said. "I'm sure that Freddy is going to look at it. Does he play for the U.S. or does he play for Ghana? If it truly comes down to it, I don't think there's going to be any question. I think Freddy will play for the United States. I know that's what he wants to do. That's where his heart lies. It's just a matter of when and what opportunities come first for him. That will be a decision for whoever is named the next full-team coach."
There is a possibility that the cap Adu earned with the U.S. versus Canada locks him into playing for the U.S., but he isn't sure of that.
"I've heard both ways," Adu said. "I think I'm still eligible to play for either team. We will see. I don't want to say, 'I won't play for this team, I'm going to play for that team.' I want the chance to play."
Adu confirmed that Hackworth's guess about his preference is valid: "If I'm going to make either team, I want to make the team of the United States."
Albright says Adu is well on his way. "I'm sure he'll get back in the national team pool and move forward in that regard," he said.
With the new coach of the U.S. as yet unnamed, Adu is concerned with who could help the team as a whole.
"I just hope it's somebody who can get the job done," he said. "That's what it comes down to --someone who can get the job done and get the U.S. doing well in the World Cup. Bruce did an unbelievable job, and I was sad to see Bruce go. But it's about continuing to get respect for American soccer. Hopefully, the next guy can do the same."
One candidate in particular has earned Adu's enthusiastic endorsement.
"[Nowak] has done such an amazing job transforming D.C. United," Adu said of his MLS coach. "Before he came here, before I came here, even with all the talent D.C. had, they just weren't playing well. They weren't playing up to their capabilities. He came in and just brought a whole different attitude. Now look at where D.C. is. We're getting wins. I think if he got the national job, he would have earned it for sure. ...
"Obviously that would be pretty cool, actually. I know Peter really well. I think that would give me a better shot at making the Cup."
Though his first two years weren't always easy, Adu's progress in MLS displays the ability of the league to develop players through regular game time.
"A lot of people felt he should have gone overseas with his talent, and now he's proven himself to be a better player," Albright said. "I think it speaks a lot for MLS."
With his MLS experience as a guide, Adu has certain priorities in mind as he considers his overseas options. When Adu turns 18, a transfer is highly likely, but only if the circumstances are right.
"The most important thing is that I want to be in a situation whereby I will play," Adu said. "I think you learn and you adapt quicker by playing. I don't want to [go to] a place where I have to be on the bench for two, three years. No way. I want to go to a place where I can play right away and learn and contribute right away. That's my ideal situation. I would like for it to be a very respectable club in Europe, but right now, my agent's dealing with that stuff."
Adu, meanwhile, is focusing on the All-Star game. He's not intimidated by English Premier League champion Chelsea FC, the All-Star team's opponent, especially since D.C. United played the team close in a friendly last year.
Adu's youthful enthusiasm is evident as he contemplates what the MLS All-Stars must do to win: "We really need to just dive in and take it to them. We can't sit back and wait. Because then they'll have an easy time. We need to get in their faces and give them no room -- and really just be buzzing around all over. We need to try and frustrate them, I guess. Then I think we'll have a good shot."
Adu was on the All-Star team once before, during his rookie season.
"It's definitely different than the first one, because this one I feel like I deserved it," Adu said. "The first time around, it was more for marketing and just getting buzz around the All-Star game and whatnot. This time, it was real, and it makes it a little bit more special.
"When I came in the league, it definitely wasn't an easy transition, but this says a lot. It says a lot about how hard I've worked and how far I've come. I just want to keep it going. I'm definitely not where I want to be at."
Hackworth said that the best of Adu is probably yet to come: "I still think there's a lot more that Freddy can give. In the next couple of years, I think everyone will see some of the special qualities in Freddy's game."
Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. She also writes for topdrawersoccer.com, lasoccernews.com and soccer365.com. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.