Professional soccer player
Born June 2, 1989, in Ghana; son of Maxwell and Emelia (a hardware store cashier).
Addresses: Office —D.C. United, RFK Stadium, 2400 E. Capitol St. SE, Washington, DC 20003.
Joined U.S. Under-17 National Team, 2002; joined U.S. Under-20 National Team, 2003; joined major-league soccer team D.C. United, 2004.
Awards: U.S. Soccer Chevy Young Male Athlete of the Year, 2003.
At the age of 14, Freddy Adu became the youngest athlete ever to play major-league soccer. A native of the African country of Ghana who had moved to the United States in 1997, Adu had been recognized as a star in the making since his performance at an under-14 tournament in Italy at the age of ten. His potential was so hyped that some commentators believed he could single-handedly increase soccer's popularity in the United States someday. But his future is very much up in the air after his rookie season as a professional in 2004, which was disappointing but showed he could compete with adults.
Born in Ghana in 1989, Adu played soccer as a kid in pickup games against men three times as old as him. In 1997, the Adu family won a green-card lottery,
At the age of ten, Adu played in an under-14 tournament in Italy for the U.S. Olympic Development Program's team. He was named most valuable player of the tournament. Representatives of the Italian professional team Inter Milan met with his mother in April of 2000, hoping to sign him to a contract. His mother refused, feeling he was too young to sign a professional contract.
She also turned down offers from agents and from the shoe company Adidas, even though she was a single mother working two jobs. In the meantime, her son proved himself to be an exceptional athlete beyond soccer fields, excelling in basketball and golf the first times he played organized games. At school, he also won a fifth-grade art competition.
Adu moved from Potomac, Maryland, to Brandenton, Florida, in the winter of 2002 to join the U.S. Soccer Federation's under-17 residency program, which includes accelerated high-school education. In the spring, when Adu and the rest of the U.S. Under-17 National Team was playing in a full-speed scrimmage with major league soccer's San Jose Earthquakes, Adu, then 12, went up against all-star defender Troy Dayak. "Taking a pass on the left side, Freddy feinted to his right, then swerved like an X-wing fighter to his left with such a sudden and breathtaking whooosh that poor Dayak nearly fell over," wrote Sports Illustrated 's Grant Wahl. According to Wahl, U.S. coach John Ellinger joked, "I guess Troy hasn't played against a 12-year-old before."
"I love having the ball at my feet and running at the defender one-on-one," Wahl quoted Adu as saying. "That's when I'm at my best, when I can pull some weird move and get by him and everyone goes, Ohhhhhh. I love that." Adu became an American citizen in February of 2003. He told Wahl of Sports Illustrated about his ambitions: "I see myself in a World Cup final for the U.S.A., playing against a top-notch team everyone picks to win. And we just come out and blast them."
Because of Adu's skill, some have wondered if he is really as young as he and his birth certificate say he is. Some youth soccer officials quietly suggested he ought to undergo a bone scan to prove his age. Sports Illustrated once attempted to confirm his age with sources in Ghana, and produced no evidence challenging his birth certificate.
When he was 13, he and his mother inquired about Adu joining a major league soccer team, but the league replied that 13 was too young. Meanwhile, Adu continued playing with the U.S. Under-17 team, scoring a goal and notching an assist in key wins against Jamaica and Guatemala in March of 2003 that qualified the team for the Under-17 World Cup. In the tournament's first game against South Korea, Adu scored a hat trick, leading the team to a 6-1 victory. Then, against Sierra Leone, he scored the winning goal in the game's 89th minute. That sent the United States team to the quarterfinals, where it lost to Brazil, which went on to win the championship.
In May of 2003, just before he turned 14, Adu signed a $1 million deal with Nike. Later that year, Major League Soccer (MLS) decided he was ready to join the league. He signed a contract with MLS in November of 2003 for $500,000, the league's biggest in history, and his hometown team, D.C. United, drafted him in January of 2004. In the meantime, the day after signing his professional contract, Adu was called up to the U.S. Under-20 National Team to replace an injured player. He played with the team in the World Youth Championships in the United Arab Emirates in late 2003, starting in four games and assisting on the team's lone goal in its loss to Argentina in the quarterfinals.
When D.C. United's 2004 season began in April, Adu, at 14, became the youngest player ever to appear in a major league soccer game and, on April 17, the youngest player in the league ever to score a goal. Meanwhile, in May of that year, he received his high school diploma, thanks to the accelerated academic program he went through while in the under-17 residency program. D.C. United's home attendance increased by eleven percent as of the end of August, and attendance at its away games increased 45 percent, thanks to Adu. He was named to the league all-star game, as part of an annual commissioner's pick (a player recognized for reasons other than performance on the field). But stardom proved distracting. "Through the end of June, Adu had done hundreds of interviews, chatted up Shaquille O'Neal, dined with Daniel Snyder, taken a cell phone call from Sean 'P. Diddy' Combs, greeted John Ashcroft, mingled with Will Ferrell and Robert Duvall, charmed David Letterman, flirted with FOX starlet Mischa Barton and the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders, and rocked with David Bowie," wrote Steven Goff in the Washington Post.
Adu's play suffered. Though he played in every game of the regular season, he scored only five goals. He found it difficult to play against opponents twice his age. In June of 2004, he seemed to be in a slump, and after one game in which he only played a few minutes, he complained to a reporter about his playing time. His coach told the team not to complain about his decisions through the press. Adu later admitted his comment was a mistake. "When you're 14 and you go and be a pro and get all the media attention in the world, it's a little crazy," he told the Washington Post 's Goff. "You're getting pulled in a hundred different directions. It's not the easiest thing." He admitted that it was hard to make his public appearances when he was not satisfied with his play on the field. "I still had to put on a nice face and be a nice person, but inside it didn't feel right because I didn't feel like I deserved it." Eventually, the league changed his schedule, allowing interviews only once every few days, so he could focus more on the game. He scored his first game-winning goal in a 1-0 win over the MetroStars on October 2, 2004. He played in D.C. United's league championship victory in November of that year.
Despite his disappointing first season, most of his fellow players said they thought he would eventually become a star. "I think he has realized how hard the league is," Jaime Moreno, United's all-time leader in points, told the Washington Post 's Goff. Moreno, Goff wrote, appeared to be especially frustrated with Adu at times during the season. "He's learning and taking something from each time he has stepped on the field. He's going to be a good player."
During the short off-season, Adu rejoined the U.S. Under-20 National Team. His goal against Panama in January of 2005 helped the team to a 2-0 victory that clinched a berth in the summer of 2005 world championships in the Netherlands. As D.C. United's 2005 exhibition season began in February, Adu told Goff of the Washington Post that he had worked hard on the Under-20 team and put on some weight to help his game. "I can't wait," Adu said. "It's been a short winter. Time to get back to work."
Before his rookie season, many soccer commentators expect Adu to join the U.S. World Cup team in 2006. However, as his second professional season began, Adu had yet to live up to the extravagant praise and expectations piled upon him. Whether he could seriously increase soccer's popularity in the United States, a country that has proven stubbornly resistant to embracing soccer for decades, was also uncertain.
Washington Post, July 13, 2004, p. D3; August 31, 2004, p. D1; November 15, 2004, p. A1; January 16, 2005, p. E3; January 28, 2005, p. D3.
"Adu could grow soccer's popularity," ESPN.com, http://espn.go.com/sportsbusiness/s/2003/1119/1665998.html (February 20, 2005).
"Freddy Adu—forward—9," D.C. United, http://dcunited.mlsnet.com (February 20, 2005).
"Who's Next? Freddy Adu," Sports Illustrated, http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/si_online/news/2003/03/03/freddy (February 20, 2005).