Freddy Adu wasn't fighting to save U.S. soccer when he stepped onto the fields to play this season. At 19, officially his last year of teen-phenom status, the midfielder had a much more basic goal in mind -- to get off the bench.
While he plays an increasingly important role with the U.S. national team, Adu has been relegated to bench status for quite some time now at Benfica, the club in Portugal where he plies his trade.
Though his goal all along was to play abroad, Adu hit some rough water in his career there. Since Adu was signed by Benfica in July 2007, four different coaches have managed Benfica. With the pressure to win paramount, the coaching staff rarely takes the time to develop players for the future.
"At the end of the day, they're going to focus on the games coming up," Adu said. "If you're not in the coach's plans, it's kind of hard to get that attention from the coaching staff in that regard. You've just got to kind of be a man about it, a pro about it and keep working and plugging away."
The U.S. national team is reaping benefits from Adu's increased professionalism. By training hard with Benfica, even while not seeing any game time, Adu has kept in good form.
"Training is my World Cup, every day," Adu said.
The increased focus, something new for his naturally carefree personality, might have been what helped Adu perform well against three of the world's top teams once U.S. coach Bob Bradley gave him that chance. Adu saw minutes in the matches versus England, Spain and Argentina.
|U.S. men's schedule|
|U.S. vs. Barbados
The Home Depot Center; Carson, Calif.
5 p.m. ET, ESPN2
Against Spain, Adu played an entire half. It was that performance that Bradley recently singled out for praise, implying that Adu had convinced him as his viability as a senior team player in that match.
"We're all hopeful that Freddy Adu will continue to mature," Bradley said. "His first half against Spain was a positive in all ways."
What Adu provided during his time on the field was something that the U.S. was lacking -- ideas. His creative and unpredictable way of moving or passing the ball upset the equilibrium of opponents. Many members of the American squad play as if an invisible standard operating procedure's manual is floating in front of them at all times. The organized discipline helps to yield few goals, but it does very little to facilitate scoring them.
Part of the reason spontaneity is lacking among the U.S. players is that too often, fear of making a mistake is paramount. That insecurity leads to players usually opting for the safe pass instead of attacking. In his struggle for playing time at Benfica, Adu has left such neurosis aside.
"Basically, [I've learned] confidence and believing in your abilities," Adu said. "The people you're playing against every day -- they're good. They have all the tools that you have, too. The hard work is going to have to be there. You're going to have to work 10 times as much as those guys to solidify yourself ahead of them. It's not easy. I've been doing that for the past year and I'm going to keep on doing it."
It's a testament to Adu's natural abilities that he improved measurably in each of the three recent U.S. matches. Exposure to the highest level can make or break a player, and an unfazed Adu found a way to capitalize on the lessons learned in every game.
"Playing against some of the best teams in the world, not only do you improve individually as a player -- the speed of play is quicker and the opponents are technically better then most of the teams that we play against on a regular basis -- but also as a team," Steve Cherundolo said. "It's good for us to see as a team how we stand up against those teams and what we need to do to improve and get to their level."
It only is useful to measure the gap of skill and ability if one has the tools to bridge that distance.
Adu assessed the U.S. performance and noted the positive learning curve.
"The England game, I felt like we did some good things for maybe the first 30 minutes of the game, but then we kind of broke down a little bit," Adu said. "But against Spain, who is one of the best teams in the world -- and to play them to a 1-0 loss, we can look back on that and say, 'You know what? That's respectable.' We're not happy about it, but it's respectable. We watched game tape and we corrected most of things that we did wrong in that game and in the England game, and applied it in the Argentina game and came away with a 0-0 result."
While he might still be uncertain about where he lies in schemes of Quique Flores, the latest coach of Benfica, Adu is certainly in the plans of Bradley. When answering a query about how much the loss of Landon Donovan affected the U.S. on the field, Bradley turned the question around to focus on those he thought might be part of the solution if and when that particular scenario arose.
"There are other players who have shown the ability to make attacking plays and open up defenses," Bradley said. He mentioned that Clint Dempsey and DaMarcus Beasley were such players, then added Adu.
Bradley is not easily given to hyperbole and his statement indicates his belief that Adu is ready to flourish. After all, Bradley knows that's exactly what the match against Barbados needs. With the Caribbeans likely to bunker and counter, a bit of imagination and flair might be needed to pry the defense of Barbados open.
"The responsibility is on us in the home match to attack, to create opportunities to score," Bradley said.
The keys to the U.S. offense might finally be dropping into the teenager hands of Adu -- and he's ready to drive it.
Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She also writes for soccer365.com and contributes to a blog, Sideline Views. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.