At age 23, Freddy Adu seems to be a walking contradiction, boasting the body of a rookie but a mind tested through a near-decade of professional highs and lows.
His story is well known in American soccer circles. As a 14-year-old, the Marylander became the youngest athlete in MLS history and the league’s highest-paid player, signing with D.C. United amid a storm of hype that billed him as the next Pele.
In the eight years since, the midfielder has carved a more modest career, departing MLS for a tumultuous European expedition before returning stateside last summer to join the Philadelphia Union. While the glimpses of potential have been constant, he remains a cautionary tale of overexposure.
On Sunday, Adu will play at RFK Stadium for the first time as a visiting player when the Union (7-12-2) face United (11-8-3). Considering he left D.C. in 2006, Adu doesn’t expect an overly rambunctious reception. But he hopes the fans who do remember him observe an evolved player.
“When I came in, I was just a kid,” Adu said. “Now, I’m just a much more mature player. I’m looking forward to the home fans who saw me kind of growing up in D.C. Hopefully, they see a big difference in my game this time around and say, ‘You know what? Freddy has improved.’”
After struggling to lock down a spot last season, Adu has started 15 of his 16 appearances for the Union this campaign, recording three goals and an assist.
“Freddy has at times this year been very good for them,” said United coach Ben Olsen, who shared the field with Adu during the player’s three-year stint with D.C. “He’s obviously a kid that we know and has special qualities on the ball and can produce some great plays.”
Adu’s resurgence of sorts has come after he spent four years toiling in Europe, playing for teams in Portugal, France, Greece and even the Turkish second division.
A surprise selection to the U.S. national team for the Gold Cup last summer, Adu said the call-up reinvigorated his drive. Coming on as a sub, Adu orchestrated Clint Dempsey’s strike in a 1-0 semifinal win over Panama. As a starter in the final, he played a part in both U.S. goals, though the Americans fell 4-2 to Mexico.
“Just being there and having that experience, it was my World Cup — it really was,” Adu said. “I did everything I should to really have a good Gold Cup, and that really opened a lot of eyes because a lot of people just kind of wrote me off. But at the end of the day, I showed up and I showed everybody up.”
Acting on new U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s advice to seek regular playing time, Adu then signed with Philadelphia. But since he was selected for Klinsmann’s first game in charge last August, the two have not spoken.
“Hopefully that changes soon,” Adu said. “It’s the biggest honor to represent your country. Now, I’ve got to produce — it’s the only way to get back. In a way, for me, it’s frustrating because the Gold Cup final was my last game with the national team, and I thought I did well.”
Adu, though, has remained in the international picture. In March, he was named captain of the U.S. under-23 side that attempted to qualify for the London Olympics. As United midfielder Perry Kitchen, Adu’s teammate on that squad, put it, “I can’t tell you how many youth championships he’s played in, but it’s a ton.”
But the Americans fell short, failing to advance in the qualification process after going 1-1-1 in their opening games.
“You can’t dwell on something too long,” said Adu, who did represent the U.S. at the 2008 Olympics. “It happens. You’ve got to keep working and getting better, and really, if anything, just use it as motivation. And that’s what I did.”
It was yet another lesson for Adu, who certainly has had his fair share of them. At this point, there is little doubt he’s a different person, on and off the field, than the one who entered the league at the age of a high school freshman.
“He’s taken on a little bit more of a leadership role as far as taking ownership of the team,” said Union midfielder Brian Carroll, who also played with Adu on United. “He’s matured, through his play, through his communication, how he acts off the field.
“He’s just grown up.”
NOTE: D.C. United on Thursday acquired Colombian forward Lionard Pajoy and an international roster spot from Philadelphia for midfielder Danny Cruz. Pajoy, 31, has five goals in 20 games (16 starts) for the Union this season, his first in MLS.