Manchester United are no strangers to soccer's most talked-about teenagers. In the 1950s, it was Duncan Edwards and the Busby Babes. In the 1960s, it was George Best. Rewind 15 years and it was Ryan Giggs. Now, for two weeks at the end of November in 2006, it was Freddy Adu.
The D.C. United player began his two-week trial at United's Carrington training ground with the two brightest stars in the club's current firmament in mind. 'To go to one of the world's biggest clubs and get a chance to train is an honor and a privilege. Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney are two of my favorite players,' Adu said. It will not have escaped Adu's attention that the Portuguese winger and the English striker both joined United at 18, the age he turns next year.
Rooney and Ronaldo were flagship signings, visible evidence of United's commitment to youth -- indeed, United's willingness to build a side around their youngest players -- whereas the aging teams of Real Madrid and AC Milan, populated by 30-somethings, are no place for a teenager.
Old Trafford has been a place where young talent has thrived. Of the generation that became known as Fergie's Fledglings, Giggs, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville remain. Including departed David Beckham, Phil Neville and Nicky Butt, those six players have made almost 3,000 appearances for United, and only Beckham did not come from the Manchester area.
Rooney and Ronaldo, from Merseyside and Madeira respectively, are indicative of a wider search for talent now. Adu aims to be part of United's next generation. 'Hopefully, this leads to an offer in January or in the summer transfer window next year. That would be awesome.'
However, his hopes have not been realized yet: United are not pursuing their interest in Adu at the moment, though they have not ruled out doing so next summer.
Manager Sir Alex Ferguson said: 'Freddy has done all right. He is a good talented young boy, but there is nothing we can do about him. What we did was to bring him here to give him an idea of what United was like so he could see the place and see how comfortable he was with it.
'He is a very confident and talented boy, but nothing can be done just yet.
He will go back to the United States, and we will keep a check on him. Then, when he is 18, we will have to assess what we can do next.'
That is a consequence of FIFA rules and, although Adu turns 18 in June, no deal has been put in place. If Ferguson's comments were encouraging, they were also noncommittal.
It appeared to start far more promisingly. At Carrington, Adu was soon caught on camera enjoying training with Rooney and Ronaldo. However, it was a stage-managed photo opportunity, and the reality was less glamorous: The American spent his early days with the club's Academy players.
In part, this was a consequence of the timing of his trial. Adu arrived in the busiest fortnight of Manchester United's season. After the Premiership game at Sheffield United, the first team flew to Scotland for the Champions League defeat to Celtic, then returned for the top-of-the-table meeting with Chelsea, followed by further league games against Everton and Middlesbrough.
Trialists are unable to play in the Premier League, and Adu's opportunity to impress was restricted by his ineligibility for Manchester United's reserve team.
That, however, is a depleted side, with Ferguson preferring to lend out the club's youngsters. Indeed, 15 players have been borrowed by other clubs this season. They include both its Americans, goalkeeper Tim Howard (Everton) and forward Giuseppe Rossi (Newcastle).
New Jersey-born Rossi's dispiriting loan spell at Newcastle highlights the problems for physically slight players in the competitive world of English soccer. And D.C. United technical coach Dave Kasper believes the emphasis on muscle in the Premier League would not suit Adu. 'Does Freddy want to have to go to Watford on a rainy Wednesday where he'll have 6-foot-4 goons on his back all night? The Dutch league is a very technical league, and he will be better suited for that at his age.'
Alexi Lalas, the L.A. Galaxy GM, also hinted to reporters that Manchester United might not be the best move for Adu. 'He is a wonderful talent, but I worry about his size,' Lalas said. 'He needs to go to the appropriate team. If he goes to the wrong team, he will get swallowed up on and off the pitch.'
Concerns in the U.S. were echoed in England, but for very different reasons.
John Richardson, chief football correspondent of the Sunday Express newspaper, said: 'What would Adu bring to United? Huge publicity but I imagine little else -- and don't rule out Chelsea for the same reason.'
If Manchester United are trying to play a waiting game with Adu, however, it will not be an indefinite delay. Warding off Chelsea has become an increasing issue for them. The Premier League champions' wealth makes it harder for United to sign players, and increases the importance of spotting them early. Many of Ferguson's transfer targets -- from experienced Michael Ballack to untried Mikel John Obi, Arjen Robben and Michael Essien -- have ended up at Stamford Bridge.
And just as Adu began his trial with United, their former chief executive Peter Kenyon stated he intended to make Chelsea, his current employers, the world's biggest club by 2014.
It is no coincidence that United became the world's richest club during Beckham's time on the team. Marquee players are essential to the global brand, and United have two, in Rooney and Ronaldo. The best players, however, are not always the most marketable.
And Richardson added: 'It is more commercially led than football driven because Adu is supposedly well short of the standards expected at Old Trafford although you are not likely to hear that.'
There is a precedent, too, of United trying to target a previously untapped market. Dong Fangzhou, the Chinese forward signed for £3.5 million ($6.5 million at the time), has spent three seasons on loan with Belgian side Royal Antwerp, partly because he does not yet qualify for a British work permit. But there is considerable doubt that he will ever become a first-team player for United.
So, many regard his recruitment as an attempt to make money. That is still more relevant now. The club is more than $500 million in debt, incurred by borrowing in the buyout last year. With the American ownership of United since the takeover by the Glazer family, possessing the player tipped to be the first American soccer superstar would be invaluable.
Richardson does not believe Adu will become that, saying: 'He is unlikely to become a great player.' Nonetheless, he could yet be a lucrative one.
Quite how the Glazers will make enough money out of even as profitable a club as Manchester United to service their huge debts remains to be seen. And club and player have mutual interests in the United States: Nike, which sponsors Adu, manufactures United's shirts.
For skeptics such as Richardson, Adu has more appeal to United's owners and sponsors than to their manager. He added: 'As far as the Glazers are concerned, only Joel, the one true football fan, will know anything about Adu. He would definitely be interested from a publicity point of view -- the same goes for Nike. All this is about expanding their American empire. The same goes for Chelsea, probably even more so.'
So Adu's eventual destination is unknown, but the suspicion remains that it will be influenced by commercial concerns. At Manchester United, where many prefer to focus on a glorious heritage rather than a parlous financial position, it came as the club announced plans to erect statues of three of its greatest players -- Best, Denis Law and Bobby Charlton -- outside Old Trafford. After an inconclusive trial, it remains to be seen whether they will ever be joined by one commemorating Adu.
Richard jolly writes for ESPNsoccernet and covers the English Premiership and UEFA Champions League. He can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org.