By Andrew Winner
Andrew Winner was the Sounders FC beat writer for MLSsoccer.com and its predecessor site, MLSnet.com, from 2009-2012. He lives in New York.
Can we all agree to stop calling Freddy Adu a washout?
The news broke Tuesday that Adu will be released by his Brazilian club Bahia due to ‘technical deficiencies,’ when his contract runs out in December. Some might look at that news and consider it proof of Adu’s shortcomings, the final coup de grace in a disappointing career.
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I am not one of them.
At the age of 24, he’s packed more life experience into the past 10 years than most of us have in a lifetime, playing at nine clubs on four continents. Did he catch on at any of those teams like we thought he might? Of course not. The $2 million move to Benfica at the age of 18 (and the subsequent loan spells) were a disaster. (Perhaps he smiled too much for Benfica’s liking?)
However, by all accounts, he became a great teammate and a hard worker in the latter stages of his career. In 2011, when many had already written him off, he came back to the USMNT and made a solid contribution to the Gold Cup team, including a start in the final match against Mexico. He had already impressed coach Bob Bradley with his willingness to play anywhere in the world to get his career going again. Adu, in turn, repaid Bradley’s faith with two excellent games to close the tournament. Adu was involved in the buildup of Clint Dempsey’s goal in the 1-0 semifinal win against Panama, while many thought Adu was America’s best player in the 4-2 loss to Mexico in the final.
The Freddy Adu we saw in the Gold Cup was willing to dig in and do the hard work, but still had the creative flair that had marked him for stardom in his early teens. It was a different player than the one we thought we knew.
When we think back on Adu’s career, one of the first things that comes to mind is his jousting with then-D.C. United coach Peter Nowak. At that time, it was portrayed as a headstrong teenager rebelling against a strict but well-meaning coach. However, after watching Nowak come apart at the seams in 2011, isn’t it time to revisit that narrative?
Nowak’s departure from the Union was so far beyond the pale — including the bizarre transfers of key players like Sebastien Le Toux, Danny Califf, and Michael Orozco Fiscal along with allegations that he might have profited from player transactions — I can’t help but become more sympathetic to Adu’s side of those disputes. Maybe we were unfair when, searching for an explanation as to why he never became dominant, we decided he was a head case. His first stint in MLS just fit the predefined clichés too easily — a teenage kid with lots of cash and endorsements, adored by many. He must have been selfish, a me-first player, right?
I don’t think that particular shoe fits.
Here’s the bottom line: in soccer, there are late bloomers (San Jose’s Chris Wondowlowski and Seattle’s Lamar Neagle come to mind) and there are early bloomers. I’ve read some articles that say you only get 10 years at the top level. It just so happened that Freddy’s clock started ticking when he was 14. He was an early bloomer, nothing more. Not a failure, not a flameout, nothing like that. He had no control over the expectations placed upon him. And it’s not like he’s ‘done’ – he’s still only 24 years old. Even if he hangs up his boots, he’s still got a full life ahead of him.
In the end, so much of life comes down to luck. Being in the right situation to take advantage of an opportunity. Being surrounded by people who believe in you. Obviously, playing for Nowak wasn’t the right opportunity. Neither was Benfica. When it comes to summing up Adu’s career, I can only think of one word that’s been used on soccer fields across the country.
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