Starr: Freddy Adu Emblematic of U.S. Soccer Problems

You might have read how 17-year-old Freddy Adu, a young man that I and many others once cast as the future of American soccer, spent a couple of weeks last month practicing with English soccer giant Manchester United. Adu has often said that he would love to join Man U or another European power when he became eligible after his 18th birthday next June. And after this brief trial, Man U’s legendary coach, Sir Alex Ferguson, allowed that he was impressed by the American teen and would monitor his progress with an eye to possibly signing him at some point in the future.

Was I prophetic about this kid or what?

Actually, I think the answer to that is definitely “what.” Because from every angle, the matchup of Man U and Adu, with the exception of its poetic possibilities, is total bull----, uh, make that bullswoosh. You might recall that Nike signed Adu, when he was just 14 to a $1 million endorsement deal. Nike also has a lengthy, gazillion-dollar partnership with Manchester United. In fact, Ferguson apparently didn’t even know that Adu was coming and the team has since indicated that it has no plans to pursue him. So do you think that, just perhaps, Freddy’s Man U flirtation might have been something of a commercial contrivance?

Back in the real world, D.C. United of America’s Major League Soccer provided a rather convincing answer to that question. Three seasons after the most ballyhooed debut in league history, Adu was traded even farther from Manchester, England—to MLS’s Real Salt Lake. Not that there is anything wrong with Salt Lake City. But trust me on this: no team trades away the 17-year-old future of American soccer—not even one who clashed with his coach and pines for Europe—unless it has concluded that he is not the future of American soccer.

My pal, Boston Globe soccer writer Frank Dell’Apa, says casting off the kid to—even by already low MLS standards—a lesser outpost is the inevitable result of unrealistic expectations created by media hype. “Adu,” writes Dell’Apa, “always had a better chance of ending up with Real Salt Lake than with Real Madrid.” I was, as I have already admitted, part of that hype. A passionate fan of soccer and, like many Americans, a dreamer concerning the potential of the game here, I had heard lots of talk about the coming of this kid, this Ghana-born American Pelé. So I wrote one of the first stories about him to appear in the national media, featuring the 13-year-old Adu in our year-end “Who’s Next?” issue . And if I want to be literal, I was right. He was indeed “next”: soon after came the Nike deal; a big contract with D.C. United, a rare network showcase for his MLS debut, and his anointment, at age 15, as an MLS all-star. Everything pointed to this youngster being something very special.

For three years now, I have watched this boy against men. And my reluctant conclusion is that, while he is quite talented and, at times, dazzling with his feet, Adu is not the magical player that will someday lead American soccer to the Promised Land. He is neither big enough nor fast enough to dominate on the big pitch. And he has shown a bit too much of an NBA-superstar temperament for a still-unproven player. He has groused over playing time and playing position. Granted that playing on the wing rather than in a more creative—and for him more natural—central midfield role, may have limited his effectiveness. Still, 11 goals in 59 games with D.C. United does not resemble a LeBron-like impact.

Still, my current, muted enthusiasm about Adu’s potential is derived less from his three years in MLS than from watching him in several games during last year’s U-20 [under age 20] world championships. That was no case of a boy against men but boy against slightly older boys. And Adu was startlingly ineffective. His flashy moves seemed purposeless, like a behind-the-back dribble while walking the basketball across midcourt. At times, he could take your breath away, but without making anything happen—like a guy who might win the equivalent of a slam-dunk competition. Moreover, in each of the first two games, Adu missed a crucial penalty kick. On his second botch, there was a violation by the opposition, giving the U.S. team a do-over; rather than putting Adu back on the spot, the American coach replaced him with another shooter. (Soon after the U-20 tourney, he would become the youngest player ever to suit up with the national team. But Adu was never seriously considered for the 2006 World Cup squad—despite its need for scorers.)

As a Boston Red Sox lifer, a fan before there was such a thing as Red Sox Nation, I know a little something about suffering and dreams deferred. But I am beginning to wonder if I will be around long enough to see the equivalent soccer dream come true. The dispatching of Adu is a footnote to what has been a dismal year for U.S. soccer. The U.S. team, overhyped because of its dominance of a weak region and an inflated top-10-in-the-world ranking, flopped in the World Cup—three games, no wins and homeward bound.

Coach Bruce Arena, the “genius” of our run to the quarterfinals four years earlier, was the designated fall guy, whatever genius he once possessed now clearly exhausted. But any coaching failure was, to my mind, overshadowed by the sorry performances of our brightest lights from the 2002 World Cup. Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley, who back in 2002, at age 20, had buoyed the offense with their aggressive play, appeared to have regressed, looking tentative and, at times, completely lost.

While U.S. soccer may have pointed the finger at Arena, the coach pointed his directly at MLS. The league, once viewed as critical to the emergence of our national team, was now seen by Arena as the biggest hindrance to the team’s growth. To advance to the next level, he insisted, young American stars needed to compete in Europe against the very best talent. Donovan, who fled Germany for the comforts of MLS and home, was seen, with his soft play, as the prime example. But then how to explain Beasley, who had been playing for the Dutch power PSV Eindhoven? Or why New England Revolution star Clint Dempsey was the most effective and fearless Yank on the field.

Until last week, there was hope that U.S. soccer would find a new coach who could provide some new answers. The obvious choice was former German star Jürgen Klinsmann, who had an impressive coaching debut with the host country in this year’s World Cup. With his California home address, Klinsmann seemed perfectly positioned to elevate both the play of the national team and the stature of American soccer. But negotiations broke down for unspecified reasons, though speculation was that he wanted more control than our soccer bureaucrats were prepared to relinquish. Instead, they settled for a bright, young American, Bob Bradley, totally lacking in international profile as interim coach.

Maybe Adu, who will be reunited with his youth coach, John Ellinger, in Salt Lake, will find his magic wings and once again soar. Maybe Bradley will prove his brilliance in a couple of tough tournaments next year, or Klinsmann will relent and take on the challenge. Maybe the U.S. team which, after all, has been on a World Cup yo-yo (’90—bad, ’94—good, ’98—horrid, ’02—great, ’06—bad), will now bounce back up. But I confess my optimism is at low ebb these days. American soccer is one of those places where it is not beginning to feel like Christmas.