Wednesday, November 10, 2004
Think back and try to remember what you were doing when you were fourteen.
I don't know about you, but when I was that age, I spent my days skipping school and doing everything I was told not to.
My biggest worry was what to expect when I got to high school, I mean all of the sudden, I would be attending classes with guys that could grow beards and girls that had...er...well... you know.
Now, imagine being fourteen and facing more pressure than most 30 year olds.
That is the situation Freddy Adu entered when he signed the most lucrative contract in MLS history and was "traded" [yes, Dallas got hosed] to DC United. Hailed unfairly as "The Next Pele" or "The Savior of American Soccer", the mania began.
The expectations placed on him were greater than most of the seasoned professionals in the league. Not only that, the teenager was going to be facing older, more experienced players on the pitch who had paid their dues and were not being compensated as well.
Freddy had to prove something ASAP or his detractors would seize the moment and discredit him.
In the first match of the season, he performed adequately after Peter Nowak subbed him into the game. Freddy beat a defender or two, made a few decent passes, but he also got flattened by Jeff "Own Goal" Agoos and the horror of all horrors - he didn't score.
Not the greatest debut ever, no. And certainly not the debut MLS would have dreamed. Their 60 Minutes/David Letterman Hype Machine blew a gasket.
But despite defeating defending champions San Jose, DC United, MLS and most ludicrously, Adu himself, were hammered in the press.
Hailed as a bust.
A joke, overrated.
After one game.
Now fast forward 10 months or so.
Freddy has come a long way.
He went from playing with kids, to a league chock full of world cup veterans, internationals from dozens of countries - thrusting himself into a pressure fryer, and has handled it well. (Ok...well there was that little incident there with the beer cups and the photos with the college girls, but hey...tsk tsk...he's 15...)
So what does Freddy think about all this now?
"It's been great. It's the same game, the same game," Freddy told me after the Eastern Conference final in an ecstatic DC locker room.
"When I came in here I was thinking too much. I wasn't playing my game. I was thinking 'Oh my god it's the pros' but it's the same game."
Yup. He's still a kid.
But if you look at his contribution to the team you could say that he has been a definite factor in United's campaign.
The 15 year old was one of three DC players to see time in every match, racking up five goals, including the game winner in a 1-0 match against the MetroStars on October 2, making him the third highest goalscorer on the team.
Not to mention the conversion of one of the vital penalty kicks which has sent DC to the cusp of their 4th MLS title - in what could arguably be hailed as the greatest match ever played in the history of our young league.
Some athletes would crumble under such pressure, but Adu seems to have thrived on it and it has helped him become a better player.
"I ended up playing very well the second half of the season," he said while drenched in champagne.
"My fitness has gotten better, my defense has gotten better, you know just dribbling. Everything has gotten better, even shooting."
When asked who has helped him the most in his transition, without hesitation Adu replied; "Ben [Olsen], Earnie [Stewart], Ryan [Nelsen]. Those three are the best, man."
"They have been telling me, especially Ben, to just go out there and play my game."
You could make a case that Adu would be justified to have a large ego after what he has accomplished in his rookie season, but he remains humble.
That's pretty amazing considering that when I was his age, I took incredible pride in the fact that I could pop, lock and break (ahh...Electric Avenue...) with the best of them and I made sure everyone knew it all of the time.
This kid is playing professional soccer in the MLS and doesn't seem to think as much of it as I did when it came to my "incredible" ability to "get down".
"Everything can definitely get better, I mean everything. Especially on the defensive side," Adu claimed.
For someone in his position, you would expect modesty to be the last characteristic that they would emit, but there's more.
He has a serious work ethic as well.
With all that money and fame, I could think of a lot of things to do when the season ends that do not include soccer.
Freddy has different plans.
"In the off season you keep plugging away. Especially strength over the ball, that could get a lot better. That is what I am going to focus on in the off season."
Freddy's future looks bright and the expectations are still there. The USMNT and Europe both loom on the horizon but he refuses to let them be a distraction - unlike certain young American players.
"I am not even thinking about that right now. I have DC United to focus on. No player would ever tell you that they don't want to play for their country or at the highest level, but you have to focus on the task at hand to get results."
"Results are what will help me get the opportunities I want."
The bottom line is that Adu might not have met the expectations that the fans and media have placed on him, but he has performed extremely well for some in his position. His satisfaction does not come from accolades but from his own self image.
"It's important to know in your own heart that you have gotten so much better since the beginning of the season."
Freddy and the rest of DC United will face Kansas City on Saturday to battle for MLS Cup 2004, and you could say that this will be the biggest game of his life and it would probably be true.
But if you ask me, there are many, many more "biggest games" ahead for this young man in his bright future.