No story will be bigger this year to the long-term viability of MLS than what happens to Freddy Adu. Love him or hate him, everyone who follows the sport in this country has an opinion on the 17-year-old midfielder. Whether he is overrated and overhyped is left open to debate, but there is no denying that for three years now, Freddy Adu has been the face of American soccer.
And there is no denying that, right now, Freddy is struggling.
It has been bantered about the soccer circles that the kid isn't as good as the buildup. MLS officials have waited for the young star to blossom into the superstar of the league, a true drawing card and a homegrown talent. He is the type of talent that supposedly comes once in a generation.
A true blend of youth, ability, hype and savvy, Adu is perhaps one of only a handful of players who might be considered a household name in this country. However, his first three seasons with former club D.C. United produced mixed results. He did not hold down the starting job on a consistent basis, but most pundits agreed that he acquitted himself rather well and his overall game has improved as his professional tenure has progressed.
"I'm well ahead of my projections," said Adu. "I know I've got a talent. Regardless of what anyone says, I never let myself get too high, or too low."
"He was one of the best one-on-one players I'd ever worked with," said former Real Salt Lake coach John Ellinger, who worked with Adu when he was coach of the U.S. youth national team and pulled the trigger on the trade that brought Adu to Real Salt Lake. Though no longer managing on the field, Ellinger remains with the team as a member of management, and in many ways still acts as a steadying figure in Adu's life.
It's a steadying influence that Adu needs. It's been a seesaw ride for the teenager. "I never really felt comfortable," Adu said of his time with United. "I was always in and out, out of position."
He was in and out of the doghouse too. Adu frequently locked horns with the fiery and oft-temperamental former D.C. United coach Peter Nowak, the man hailed by many as the model professional for Adu to pattern his game after. "People blew it out of proportion," Adu said of his verbal tug-of-war with Nowak. "The one thing I'd say is -- Peter is a great coach, a great guy, but I never felt comfortable in the system."
"You can't blame him, you really can't," said Adu, continuing on the theme of Nowak. "D.C. had Christian Gomez in the center and Jaime Moreno. No coach is going to start me over those guys."
On paper, it seems like an odd move, sending the league's most promising star who was playing on the league's most storied and successful franchise, and shipping him to a little-known club that is two seasons removed from expansion. "To be honest with you, I don't care; I want to be in the right situation. Smaller market? I could care less," Adu said. "Simply put, I love Salt Lake."
Continuing, Adu dismisses the notion that he did not want to play in Salt Lake. "This actually was a move that I wanted," he said. "I don't think a lot of people know that, but I asked to play here, it was my request to come out here. I loved United -- I had a great time, learned so much. It was one of the best things for my career, but, I wanted to go to a place where I'd play a more effective role. I asked to come to Salt Lake."
It's been a rough start for Real Salt Lake, a club that spent all of the early throes of the season mired at the bottom of the table. In turn, Adu's performances have drawn criticism. Maybe it's warranted; maybe it's just because he's Freddy Adu. "I could care less what anyone says about me at this time," he said. "You can't please everyone. I got to keep working."
And now he works for a new coach, Jason Kreis, who started the year as Adu's teammate. At an age when most young people are eagerly awaiting high school graduation or are experiencing college, teammate Carey Talley noted that "the spotlight is going to be on him here. When things go wrong, people are going to look and blame him because he is Freddy Adu. It's almost unfair."
"I do remember yelling at him," said Kreis about his new relationship with Adu, no longer as a teammate but as a coach. "That was only because I wanted him to take more chances and attack with more vigor. The relationship has been good. He is an easy kid to like."
Since Adu signed with MLS, all league insiders have been looking at this year as the year when he is going to jump ship and test the European waters. Set to turn 18 this June, Adu has long been rumored to be a potential acquisition for any number of major European outfits, from Chelsea and Manchester United to Real Madrid. "The decision is up to him, ultimately. It is in his best interest to do what his heart believes," said Talley of an impending move. "I think him going into first-team football with a big club is a little ways off. There is still a lot of learning to be done."
"What I want to do, my goal," said Adu, "is to play out this season, then go to Europe."
Ellinger, for his part, knew the risk when he made the move for Adu, a deal which could be for only one year of play in MLS. "No fear whatsoever. I have my own feelings about that [a possible move]," he said. "I think Freddy needs to get his confidence back, needs to produce as an attacking player in this league on a consistent level, basically [needs] to stick around and get some caps. Improve his value to both his club and to his country. Personally, I don't feel that there are many clubs abroad that are going to want a project; not that Freddy's a project -- he's a great young talent -- but I think everyone's waiting for him be that consistent young star that everybody hopes he will be."
"Freddy's potential is limitless. Only Freddy will determine how far he goes," said Kreis. "I think that if he truly embraces his role in this team and in any team that he plays with, and tries to do the absolute best job he can within that system, he can go wherever and whenever he wants. The ball is, literally and figuratively, in his court."
"I don't want to be the kid with just a lot of potential," said Adu.
The potential, though, is already having an effect on the pitch and in the stands. "He has the skills to be good for our team," said Talley. "But the little things he can do on and off the ball help us the most."
Since the deal for Adu, Real Salt Lake has seen an increase in almost $1 million of ticket revenue, according to a team source. Season tickets from 2006 into 2007 have been renewed at a 90 percent clip, a league record. Talley added, "It seems that anyone who knows soccer knows who Freddy Adu is. They would always ask me when they find out that I'm a soccer player if I knew Freddy. I think it is an advantage for us as a club."
"To everyone who has these expectations, just relax," Adu added. "Everything will be all right. I'm on the right track. I'm not going to stop. I'm never going to slow down or stop."
For now though, Freddy is just happy to be 17 and playing in Salt Lake. Being 17 though, brings enough pitfalls for just a regular kid, let alone a celebrated teen athlete. As for Adu's famed relationship with teen singer JoJo, he commented, "Jo and I have been going out for a while; we decided to take a break. We're gonna get back together though, just you wait."
When asked if Adu ever gets ribbed by his teammates for his relationship with the singer, Talley responded, "JoJo, is that a clown or something?"
"No, honestly, what's a JoJo?" he said.
Kristian R. Dyer covers U.S. Soccer and MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He appears regularly in the New York City newspaper Metro. He can be reached for comment at KristianRDyer@yahoo.com