In 3½ MLS seasons, Freddy Adu showed he could play a technical game and also survive physically against rough-and-tumble opposition. Those qualities will serve Adu well in Portugal.
The Portuguese Superliga has a reputation for technical play but it also has a hard side which reflects the character of Portugal, a self-contained country built to endure. But there is no guarantee Adu will thrive with SL Benfica, which paid the MLS $1.46 million euros ($2 million) to acquire him. And this is precisely the situation Adu needs.
Adu always has been over-hyped and has seldom been in a position to be properly evaluated. That will not happen at Benfica. After the initial greetings and sports daily headlines ("The American Phenomenon is Here" -- A Bola; "Freddy Adu, Son of Pele', Comes to Lisbon" -- Record), the enthusiasm will die down and Adu will have to compete for a place on the team. But, for a change, expectations will be reasonable for Adu, and that is a situation new to him; he will be just another player and, even if he wins over coach Fernando Santos, he will have to continue fighting for a place on the team throughout the season.
Unlike with MLS teams, Adu's place with Benfica will not be assured. One poor performance and he will be benched. Several below-par showings and the consequences will be even more dire.
But, again, this is precisely the motivation Adu needs. This is a fresh start with an ambitious, established club. The Benfica midfield has a veteran playmaker (Rui Costa), a dynamic young prospect (Manuel Fernandes, returning from England) and national teamers (Nuno Assis, Kostas Katsouranis and Petit).
Benfica sold Simao Sabrosa to Atletico Madrid for $27 million and is investing some of that profit in Adu, plus Argentinians Angel Di Maria and defender Andres Diaz and, possibly, Barcelona's Juliano Belletti. Paraguayan forward Oscar Cardozo is proving a possible replacement for Fabrizio Miccoli (Palermo). Adu will have a chance to slot into a forward position or drop back into midfield, but wherever he goes he will not be first in line.
There are questions about whether Adu is ready to make the move to Europe. Real Salt Lake obviously was not eager to keep Adu, who had scored only once for a team which had won only one game in the first three months of the season. No other MLS team needed Adu's inflated salary. But there is a big world out there beyond the MLS and Portugal can be an excellent starting point.
|• Adu on his move to Benfica
Though Portugal is a little off the map, and the Superliga is something of a limbo league, Portuguese clubs are extremely resourceful and they act quickly to acquire players and also to move them on.
Brazilian midfielder Diego also faced skepticism about his readiness for Europe in 2004, even after leading Santos to the Brazilian championship. Diego was a far more sophisticated talent than Adu, yet the big clubs had reservations about his lack of size. While they procrastinated, FC Porto brought in Diego and, two years later, sold him to Werder Bremen, where he named Player of the Year in the Bundesliga last season.
If Adu progresses with Benfica, the club will facilitate a profitable move. If Adu fails to become an established starter, Benfica will help him find another club.
Adu is skillful enough to have a successful European career. It is a question of finding the right situation and also of Adu remaining motivated. Adu always likely will be a complementary player, and if he is teamed with high-level players, will raise his game. Even if Adu never makes it to the Premiership or Serie A, that doesn't mean he can't have a perfectly satisfying career as a journeyman midfielder, contributing to a team's success and taking in decent paychecks. Real Madrid might never happen for Adu, but Real Betis might.
Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.