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Adu still hampered by unrealistic expectations

Freddy Adu's career was bound to plateau. Adu always had a better chance of ending up with Real Salt Lake than with Real Madrid.

But D.C. United's trade of Adu to RSL still took many by surprise. Tension has been simmering between Adu and coach Peter Nowak, but United seemed more likely to find a foreign buyer for Adu than to unload him to what is still essentially a glorified expansion team.

If Adu had been able to make an impression with Manchester United during a recent tryout, an offer from the English Premier League club would have provided D.C. with funds to bring in a replacement, satisfying all parties. But neither Manchester United, nor any other EPL club, is likely to offer big money for Adu.

The hype has caught up with Adu, which is somewhat unfortunate since the placing of Adu on a pedestal was not his idea. Adu could not be expected to fulfill the expectations created for him almost purely through media hyperbole.

In fact, Adu has handled his situation remarkably well. It is not easy to be both regarded as MLS's savior off the field and held in contempt by opposing defenders reluctant to be Adu's victims. Adu has had to contend with resentment over his sponsorship deals and wages. There is also the mixed message those numbers send -- that he should be in a marquee role -- in conflict with the pragmatic evaluation of Nowak.

Adu apparently believes his time to shine is now, and Real Salt Lake coach John Ellinger agrees. But Ellinger could be repeating the errors which have set up Adu for disappointment, greeting Adu's acquisition by calling him a "great'' player. This again threatens to set expectations unrealistically high. Objectively, Adu is no better than a "very good" player.

Adu was fortunate to have started his pro career with D.C. United. Adu was playing close to home and also with an established team, one with a distinct style of technical play which favored him. Adu played an important, but not high-profile, role on what was MLS's most successful team for most of the 2006 season. Now, Adu will be placed in a high-profile role on Real Salt Lake, which is likely to continue to be a mediocre team.

The soccer system in the U.S. helped create the Adu phenomenon. Adu's development has been distorted by media hyperbole, plus the leveraging of an offer from FC Internazionale when Adu was 12 years old. The $750,000 which was reportedly offered by Inter for Adu was likely inflated -- it was probably much lower -- but Adu was able to use it to earn a seven-figure package from MLS.

This could only have happened in the U.S.

When Adu first was being publicized, I thought of three Ghanaian players -- Emmanuel Duah, Mohammed Gargo and Sammy Kuffour -- who were 14 or 15 years old when they signed with Torino in 1991. The story was strange because Italian clubs usually bring in foreign players only after they have proven themselves; in fact, Duah, Gargo and Kuffour were sent away to develop in lesser leagues.

This was potentially a major story in Europe, since it signaled one of the major league's direct entrances into the African market. But after the initial signing there was little media coverage of the Ghanaians until they re-emerged as first-team players. Duah, Gargo and Kuffour have had long and relatively prosperous careers in Europe, succeeding purely on their ability. But they were never expected to transform soccer or even be the focal point of a club.

Adu has carried some heavy burdens. Even with RSL, Ellinger appears to be setting up Adu for a role which might be too big.

Adu's career needs to gain the proper perspective, and starting over in Utah might yet work out. The West has always been a good place for people to reinvent themselves.

Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.