Freddy Adu: The Rise and Fall of America’s Pelé

american soccer player freddy adu

The proof that the United States is a country longing for global football success and relevance is Freddy Adu. In the United States, sports fans are constantly searching for the next big thing. The debates rage endlessly. Jordan or LeBron, Brady or Montana, Ruth or Gehrig. It’s what we do. Except with soccer. American’s never had an entry into that discussion. Enter 14-year old Freddy Adu, the boy that would save American soccer and be our Pelé. 

The Hype

Freddy Adu was born in Ghana but came to the United States when his mother won a Green Card Lottery allowing the family to immigrate to the States in search of a better life. Living in Maryland, young Freddy caught the eye of a local coach. Eventually, he made his way to the U.S. Olympic Development Program, the most selective of all such programs in the United States.

It was during a U-14 tournament in Europe against the likes of Italian juggernauts Lazio and Juventus that Freddy Adu made it onto the radar of European clubs. He was the tournament’s top scorer and was named MVP. As a result of those performances, Inter Milan offered him a spot in their academy.

The attention didn’t stop with Inter. According to his mother Emelia, she was getting calls from all over Europe to sign her boy. “I get calls from people in England and Italy, and people back in my home country who said they would take care of Freddy. He is just too young.”

At just 14 years old, he was drafted into Major League Soccer. Like most American professional sports, Major League Soccer uses a draft system to allocate new talent into the league. Major League Soccer worked out a deal with its clubs to have Adu drafted by D.C. United, a team close to his home in Maryland. With this acquisition and contract signed, the hype machine went into overdrive. America had its next big sporting icon: Freddy Adu. 

This came at a time in American soccer history when there were not any recognizable American soccer players having an impact on the country’s sporting landscape. Sure, soccer fans knew who Claudio Reyna and Kasey Keller were, but there was no mainstream recognition in the greater sports culture of the United States. The World Cup triumphs of the U.S. Women’s National team meant that the countries female stars were often more recognizable than their male counterparts. Freddy Adu changed all that.

Nike signed the teenager to a $1 million apparel and shoe deal. At the time, Ivan Gazidis, then-MLS Deputy Commissioner and current CEO of AC Milan, said, “I think Nike anticipates that Freddy Adu will be to men’s soccer what Mia Hamm has been to women’s soccer.” In effect, the face of the sport in America.

Then the endorsement deals started rolling in. He did a “Got Milk” ad, was on the cover of a cereal box, and the cover of Time magazine. The most famous ad was his Sierra Mist commercial with Pelé, who compared the young star to Mozart. That didn’t age well.

Freddy Adu and Pelé star in a Sierra Mist Ad

The exposure was great for Major League Soccer, who had a bona fide star wearing one of their club’s jerseys in all of these promotions. Then-MLS Executive Vice President of Marketing Mark Noonan told ESPN, “He will be one of, if not the most popular players in the league right off the bat.”

He was compensated as the league’s star too. While the average MLS salary at the time was around $80,000 a year, Adu’s contract paid him $500,000 a year. That’s an incredible weight to put on a 14-year old’s shoulders, but at least he was playing at home, right?

The Early Years in MLS

Eventually, Freddy got to play soccer. On April 3, 2004, Adu entered United’s first game of the season as a second-half substitution against the San Jose Earthquake. When he stepped onto the field, he was the youngest player ever to appear in American professional sports. 

Just two weeks later Freddy Adu found the back of the net for the first time. It was a poacher’s finish off a poorly defended cross, but he was off the mark nonetheless.

Adu didn’t just have an impact on the field for D.C. United. As you would imagine, Adu’s presence led to a 20% attendance increase at United home matches and sold-out stadiums across the country as fans flocked to see Adu play in their cities when D.C. United played away from home. 

Freddy Adu’s first season in Major League Soccer was marked by incredible fanfare around his appearances, but his performances on the field did not display the same excitement. The youngster finished the season with 5 goals and three assists in 30 appearances.

While Adu played in all of D.C.’s league matches, he featured mostly as a substitute. He garnered some criticism from the media about his play and fans commented that he seemed to be lacking the physical and mental development required to play professionally against grown men. Just a reminder, he was 14 years old.

The growing pains continued for Adu in his second season. Unhappy with what he perceived to be a lack of playing time, he publicly complained about not seeing the field enough. This earned him a one-match suspension from the club.

In November 2006, during the MLS offseason, Adu went on a two-week trial with English giants Manchester United. Because he was not yet 18 and could not receive an English work permit, no further arrangements could be made. Despite this, legendary United gaffer Sir Alex Ferguson enjoyed the teenager saying, “Freddy has done all right. He is a talented boy.”

As for a future transfer to United, Ferguson reported, “He’ll go back to the US, and we’ll keep a check on him. When he is 18, we will have to assess what we can do next.”

In Adu’s third season with D.C., he finally became a regular starter. Despite the increase in minutes played, Adu’s production dropped to just 2 goals and 8 assists in 32 matches. This was due in part to his continued development as an all-around midfielder and taking on more defensive responsibilities.

The Freddy Adu era in Washington D.C. ended in December 2006, when he was shipped to fellow MLS club Real Salt Lake. Now 17 years old and a competent professional player in Major League Soccer, he started the 2007 MLS season in good form.

He was called away from Salt Lake City to captain the U-20 U.S. side at the 2007 U-20 World Cup. Another strong showing on an international stage meant the big boys of Europe were circling yet again. Having turned 18 earlier in the month, Adu was sold to Portuguese titans Benfica for $2 million in June 2007. 

Europe Comes Calling

This was a decision that may haunt Freddy Adu to this day, though he’d never admit it. Yes, he got his move to Europe, but the move to Benfica is where the wheels began to come off for the young American.

Freddy Adu made just 2 starts in 21 appearances for Benfica. His goal return wasn’t bad considering he scored 5 goals in a limited number of minutes. However, the Lisbon-based club wasn’t convinced and the following season Adu was loaned out to Ligue 1 club, Monaco.

With a pattern beginning to form, Adu lasted just one season in the principality with Monaco not opting to make the loan deal permanent. He made only nine appearances for Les Monegasques

Still contracted with Benfica, Freddy Adu spent 3 more seasons on loan with Belenenses in Portugal, Aris in Greece and Caykur Rizespor in Turkey. Adu would have a full passport to be proud of if he was a travel writer or an international businessman, but for a promising young footballer, this constant change in scenery stunted his development.

It gets even worse when you discover that in those 3 seasons and three countries Adu played in just 19 matches. How is a player supposed to develop if he isn’t seeing the field? At the end of the 2011 season, Freddy Adu had just finished his 8th professional season despite still only being 22 years old. He was still a young player with promise, but he was beginning to look like a bust.

What do you do when things aren’t going well, and you need a fresh start? You go home. Which is exactly what Adu did. 

Return to MLS

Benfica received zero return on investment when hd left for America on a free transfer. The Adu in Europe adventure was over, for the moment, and the once-promising star returned to the league where he got his start but with much less fanfare this time around.

Freddy Adu returned to MLS with the Philadelphia Union and without the endorsement deals or much excitement. This was a rescue mission for Adu to save his career from flickering out. It didn’t happen though. 

In two seasons in Philadelphia, Adu produced seven goals and two assists in 35 matches. The low production combined with his high salary meant that his time in Major League Soccer was coming to an end yet again.

Officially a loan deal, Philadelphia sent Adu to Brazilian club Bahia, with former Brazil international Kleberson going to Philly. 

The Journeyman

The move to Bahia was completed on April 5, 2013. Adu was released by the club on November 7, 2013, after playing in just 2 matches. At the age of 23, it seemed like his career was over. The child star compared favorably to the greatest player of all-time had now failed in six countries on three continents. Unfortunately for Freddy Adu, the most desperate portion of his career was just beginning. No one came calling.

Adu was forced to seek out trials in the lower divisions of Europe. He trained with Blackpool in England, no contract. He trained in Norway with Stabæk who was coached by his former national team boss Bob Bradley, no contract. He trained with Dutch club AZ Alkmaar, no contract.

Eventually, Adu earned a contract with the Serbian club FK Jagodina. The deal began in June 2014 but was just a short six-month contract that ended in a December release. He appeared only once for the club and it was as a second-half substitute in a Serbian Cup match.

The following March, Adu signed with Finnish first division side KuPS. He played in 5 matches before he terminated his contract in July of the same year. Freddy was going home once again.

Alas, this is not the story of a rock bottom revival in MLS. This time, Freddy Adu was returning to the States with the Tampa Bay Rowdies of the North American Soccer League, in the second level of the US soccer pyramid. He played in 12 matches for the Rowdies before his contract expired.

In one final season to date, Adu played for Las Vegas Lights FC in USL, also in the second tier of American soccer. He played in 14 matches and scored his first-team professional goal in over five years, before being released at the end of the 2018 season.

At 29, the man once heralded as the savior of American soccer, the white knight that would lead us to World Cup glory, was finished. His final game was not played in a European coliseum surrounded by thousands of screaming fans who adored him. It wasn’t played with the stars and stripes of his country’s badge adorning his chest as he lifted a trophy. It was played in a minor league baseball stadium in the deserts of Nevada where the average attendance is 6,395.

Where is Freddy Adu Now?

These days Freddy Adu is back home in Maryland with a grassroots soccer organization called Next Level Soccer. He claims he’s still waiting for the call to get back into soccer, but it’s not likely to happen.

When asked about Adu’s chances of getting back into the game, former U.S. National Team great and Las Vegas Lights manager Eric Wynalda said, “The reason that Freddy’s not here now, six or seven guys are getting their first chance or their second chance. He’s on his fourth or fifth. It’s their turn, not his.”

That and the fact that he has not played regularly in a league that ranks in the world’s top 20 for nearly a decade means that call probably isn’t coming.

Why Did Freddy Adu Fail?

By all accounts, Freddy Adu is one of the greatest raw talents of his generation. So why didn’t it work?

To begin with, the hype was unreasonable. The amount of pressure put on Adu meant that unless he was MLS Best XI in his first season, he would be a failure. Fans coming to the stadium came to see a star, not a rookie.

However, expectations of him as a rookie were that of an established league veteran. He was just 14 years old. The kid needed to grow and develop as a person and as a footballer.

Maybe it wasn’t the right thing for Adu’s career to turn professional so early. At 14, most football players around the world are still in their club’s youth academies learning how to play the game. For Adu, it wasn’t that simple. 

He admits looking back he felt pressured by the money “I decided to go pro because my family was really poor and at that time my mom’s just a single mother working two jobs, three jobs and what am I going to do, say no to millions of dollars at that age while my family is struggling?”

Those around him say the hype went to his head. Adu’s teammate at D.C. United and eventual manager at Real Salt Lake, Jason Kreis, said, “He was touted before it was deserved, and before he was ready to handle it. He believed what he was reading. He believed he was worth all the money he was being paid.”

The coach who discovered Adu, Arnold Tarzy, knows why Adu failed. “It’s a matter of habits. He never hard the work rate. He never had to. Things always came easy.”

Even Adu himself admits his attitude wasn’t right. “I saw my game in a certain way. They saw it as ‘You can give so much more to the team.’ And I wasn’t doing that.”

He’s also admitted maybe he was too young to handle the rigors of the professional game. “As a 14, 15, 16-year-old you’re young, you’re immature and you kind of get caught up in that a little. Maybe I wasn’t training as hard as I should have and it hurt me. It hurt my development.”

If Adu had grown up in a country with a more competitive and skilled youth environment, things may have been different. He was too good for his age group, and there was no youth academy set up at the time, so he was stuck in with the professionals.

When he was playing with professionals, he had never learned the habit of working hard to improve. He played the game his way because it had always worked for him. When it didn’t, he didn’t know what else to do. 

The story of Freddy Adu is a cautionary tale for a myriad of reasons. Hopefully the next time a prodigy comes around the people around him will be better equipped to foster his development. Until then, the search for America’s answer to Pelé continues.