Freddy Adu: A Sad Tale but Also One That You Have to Admit is Pretty Funny
When Freddy Adu was drafted by D.C. United as a 14 year-old prodigy in 2004, American soccer fans were celebrating like the GI’s stationed in Paris on V-E day. Here was our savior: a hyper-talented goal-scoring machine destined to take the much-maligned USMNT to the top of international football. With Freddy being so highly touted at such a young age, the Outlaws had lush visions of a new generation of worldwide supremacy. A World Cup win in the next decade or two no longer seemed like an impossibility. This would be a moment we could look back on in which the tide changed for soccer in America. And what a story it would be! It was as if Hollywood had Law of Attraction’d Freddy Adu into existence.
As a wee footballer of 10 myself, it was enthralling to see Freddy get his shot professionally. To me, the over-the-top theatrics that engulfed him didn’t raise any red flags. It was around that time that I had seen the 1993 film “Rookie of the Year”, in which Henry Rowengartner, an oh-so-average preteen, injures his arm, only to discover that he could hurl 100 MPH fastballs. He’s quickly signed by his hometown Cubs and experiences the trials and tribulations of being a child sensation. Things seem to be going south, but in an Act II montage we see Henry blossom into dominant closer, helping the Cubbies get to the playoffs. This was heart-warming for myself and many others, seeing the wildest of childhood dreams coming to fruition as a culmination of absolutely zero hard work.
I assumed Freddy would follow a similar path, no doubt full of boyish misadventures. Much like in Henry’s case, the corporate world wanted in on this media bonanza. Entrer Pepsi, Campbell’s, Nike, and the coveted Honey Comb cereal box. All of them want a piece of the Messiah to appease their investors-turned-talent scouts who are absolutely positive that this kid’s something special. And as the endorsements roll in, the legend of this mystical talent grew to outrageous proportions. I was certainly eating it up at the time. When I see him eating soup with Pele on TV, I see the writing on the wall: this kid is the greatest soccer player of all time.
Two titans of football pose for a timeless photo
Sixteen years later, the rubble has been more or less cleared. Freddy Adu is no longer playing professional soccer. His last professional stint came in 2018 in the USL Championship, America’s second division. Prior to that he had bounced around 13 teams in about as many years. He never found even a semblance of the success expected of him. Time after time, he would vastly underperform, only to be snatched up by another third rate team, the result of a manager having the gall to think that he could unearth Freddy’s hidden genius. Teammates were put off by him, and fans complained of his lethargy off the ball. He seemed averse to hard work, making us scratch our heads. For a while we contented ourselves with the fact that he was still young, and though his deferred ascension to superstardom was irritating, we casual fans would press on and check in with him in another two years or so.
Adu is now 30 years old and we have nothing to look upon but an embarrassing charade put upon us by the press. It’s hard to say that Freddy is pitiable, seeing as he’s made quite a bit of money and gotten to play professional soccer around the world. But man…it’s tough to look back at his interviews. He is as amiable as you want someone of his athletic caliber to be, hardly a trace of conceit or hard-headedness. On interviews he flashes a bright smile and says all the right things. At first his love for the game is apparent. It was clear he was not out for fame.
In an interview in 2014, Freddy lamented on his decision to sign to D.C. ten years prior: “I decided to go pro because my family was real poor….What am I gonna do? Say no to millions of dollars at that age while my family is struggling? No.” His father had abandoned the family some years ago, requiring his mother, Emilia, to work long hours to provide for Freddy and his brother. Going pro was essentially a non-decision for him. Had he waited until after high school to go pro, it’s reasonable to think that his career could’ve had a completely different trajectory. The earnest and genuine appeal of his story makes the end result all the more tragic. Henry contentedly rode off into the sunset after a year in the Bigs. Freddy persisted for a decade and a half in futility, guided by a vision created for him by people who knew zip about becoming a world-class soccer player.
The main difference between Freddy and Henry is that in reality, talent alone does not yield results. Imagine you are on an opposing MLS team in 2004. You’re making an average of $81,000 a year and along comes a freshman in high school who would obviously not refute claims that he is better than you and everyone else in the league for that matter. You have worked tirelessly and sacrificed your life for meager pay in comparison to other pro athletes. And here is this child, a millionaire overnight, just making his rounds before presumably hopping the pond to Manchester United and eternal glory. If I am this dude, I am making it my life’s mission to shut Freddy down.
Now imagine you are Freddy. You are famous as shit. Everyone is telling you that you will be the next Pele and your attention is being constantly diverted by reporters, executives, and fans. You’re also 14. How are you expected to compete with grown men twice your age that are spiteful towards you for no other reason than being a prodigy?
Inversely, what would LeBron James’ career have been like had he been hypothetically allowed to join the NBA at age 16? At that age he was 6’6”, 200 pounds, and plausibly an NBA level player already. Had he been a declared a bust after his first year or two, what would the implications have been on his 18 year-old psyche? The media would be all over him and his confidence would be shot. Not exactly the best foundation for a solid career. Because LeBron was able to continue to dominate at the high school level, albeit under the national spotlight, he was allowed time to develop an insane work ethic, a factor that has been vital to his longevity.
Freddy was not afforded this luxury. He was given too much too early, and as a result, his humble nature was suffocated. Why put in the work to earn the stripes when you people are telling you you already have them?
Today, the USMNT is still reeling from a 2018 World Cup nonappearance and lacks a solid identity. It wouldn’t be surprising if we were to hear of another child prodigy who will save the day in the near future. If that does happen, let’s hope that we can temper our expectations and let the poor soul live a little before we thrust our hopes and dreams on his shoulders. After all, when was Henry more happy than when he was building a boat with his pals?