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The coming of age for Union's Freddy Adu

The prodigy has returned. It is Aug. 13 and the Union is set to play FC Dallas in front of another sellout crowd at PPL Park, the soccer-specific stadium at the foot of the Commodore Barry Bridge in Chester. PPL is used to big crowds: Since it opened on June 27, 2010, the 18,500-seat structure has been at or near capacity for virtually every Major League Soccer game it has hosted.

The prodigy has returned.

It is Aug. 13 and the Union is set to play FC Dallas in front of another sellout crowd at PPL Park, the soccer-specific stadium at the foot of the Commodore Barry Bridge in Chester. PPL is used to big crowds: Since it opened on June 27, 2010, the 18,500-seat structure has been at or near capacity for virtually every Major League Soccer game it has hosted.

It's easy to understand why. The setting is beautiful, the grass is perfectly manicured - on this night, the turf reflects a vibrant green under the lights - and, in only its second year in the league, the team is a contender. The Sons of Ben, the Union's independent group of supporters, have already marched into "The River's End" seating section and are chanting, which they will continue to do throughout the 90-minute match.

Still, the buzz in the crowd is a little different tonight - mostly thanks to the 5-8, 140-pound forward now standing on the field wearing No. 11 for the Union: Freddy Adu.

The crowd knows Adu. Anyone even slightly interested in U.S. soccer knows Adu. When he jumped onto the scene as a 14-year-old in 2004, he was hyped as "America's Pelé," a once-in-a-lifetime talent who would help bring American soccer to the Promised Land. When that, predictably, didn't happen, the onetime wunderkind went to Europe and basically vanished. He wasn't a bust, exactly. He just didn't live up to the unrealistic expectations that had been placed upon him.

Now he is back. The day before the game against Dallas, the Union signed Adu on a free transfer from Benfica of the Portuguese First Division. At 22, he's at an age when most athletes enter their physical prime. Somewhere between the extremes of fantastic and failure is the player Adu eventually will be, and the fans have come to witness the first scene of that second act.

When he is announced as a starter, the crowd gives him a standing ovation.

His timing was perfect.

On April 3, 2004, when Adu made his MLS debut for D.C. United - becoming the youngest player on a major U.S. professional sports team in more than 115 years - American soccer was at its zenith. In 2002, the men's national team had beaten rival Mexico to reach the quarterfinals of the FIFA World Cup, the United States' best finish in the tournament since placing third in 1930. The moment seemed right for the sport to make up ground in its decades-long fight for acceptance in the United States.

Key to the sport's popularity here was the MLS, the domestic league created after the 1994 World Cup, which was still searching for its niche in the sports landscape. In an attempt to avoid the mistakes that doomed the old North American Soccer League, MLS was trying to showcase developing American talent rather than relying on aging, expensive stars from overseas. By 2004, the league featured some talented young American players, but none was a household name. What the league needed was a "wow" factor, something that would capture the attention of more than only the core soccer audience.

Enter Freddy Adu.

The legend was that, while he was a child in Tema, Ghana, Adu honed his skills playing against those three or four times his age. He was 8 when his mother won a diversity immigrant visa and moved the family to Rockville, Md., where he was discovered by a local coach while playing against older boys. He eventually made his way to The Heights School, an exclusive prep school in Potomac, Md., and jumped from seventh to ninth grade so he could play varsity soccer. While at The Heights, he led his team to a state championship. He was 12 at the time.

Shortly after, Adu joined the IMG Soccer Academy, U.S. Soccer's full-time residency program in Bradenton, Fla., which enabled him to play against youth teams from all over the world. By the time Adu turned 14, he was coveted by some of the richest clubs in Europe.

MLS officials knew that keeping Adu at home would be considered a marketing coup, and it went all in to make it happen. In 2004, he was picked No. 1 overall in the MLS SuperDraft by his hometown side, D.C. United. Even before that could happen, Nike jumped on the bandwagon, signing the then-13-year-old to an endorsement deal worth more than $1 million.

On the field, Adu was considered a professional - a man. By any other measure, he was barely a teenager, which presented more than a few problems. Even if Adu was a golden child to MLS and Nike, he simply was another threat to his fellow players, someone who could be marginalized by his lack of size and strength. "You can be the most talented player in the world, but if you happen to come up against somebody who can just physically dominate you, they can make up for the difference," Adu said.

The challenge wasn't just physical. For years, Adu had dominated his peers, been constantly told he was the greatest, then handed a few million dollars to support this view.

"Obviously I wasn't prepared for any of that," Adu recalled. "I was 14. I was just taking everything day-by-day. It was crazy. It really was, but I also thought it was cool at the time. I really enjoyed it. It was a big accomplishment in my life. It was good for my family and that was all I really cared about at that time. I was happy about things."

Adu's Union teammate, Danny Califf, was in his fourth MLS season when Adu made his debut. "You can't really understand the pressures and responsibilities that go along with becoming a professional athlete until you go through it," Califf said. "To have that kind of expectation on a kid at that age was ludicrous. It was crazy to expect him to be able to deal with that and perform at a level of guys who were 20 and 25 years old."

The adults involved should have been a bit more wary of the potential pitfalls. MLS commissioner Don Garber has basically conceded as much.

"I'm not sure, looking back on the whole Freddy Adu experience, that we managed it all as well as we could have," Garber recently told the Associated Press. "The league was very different then. Freddy was different then. He was a very young guy with a lot of attention on him, and the league needed it. The sport needed it."

One person who was leery was D.C. United coach Peter Nowak, a man who knew what it took to become a successful professional. Nowak, a native of Poland, had made his professional debut as a 15-year-old and had reached the highest levels of European soccer. He knew all the pitfalls young players can fall into.

"This is not an individual sport," Nowak said. "I know this is a different generation of players and times have changed, but the bars on the principles of how to practice, how to act in the locker room, how to play the game, are going to stay forever. When we talk in 100 years, it will be the same thing."

Such a philosophy doesn't always sit well with teenagers, but Nowak was determined to make Adu earn his playing time. No matter how much the fans and the media howled, he was not going to bench a better player simply because Adu was Adu.

"We've all been young," Nowak said. "I was probably a nightmare when I would talk to my coaches in the past. As a young guy with the world in front of you or right at your feet, you have a lot of options. Which options you choose is a different story."

Frustrated by his inconsistent playing time, Adu committed the cardinal sin of team sports: He went public with his complaints.

"Peter gives you tough love," Adu said. "At that age, when I was 15 or 16, I didn't see it like that. I just felt I was getting picked on for whatever reason."

In 2005, he was suspended for a playoff game because of another public complaint. The next year, D.C. United traded Adu to another MLS club, Real Salt Lake, to free up room for the team's salary cap.

On the field, Adu had won an MLS Cup as a rookie and was a two-time MLS All-Star, but many fans and commentators were already starting to grumble about unfulfilled promise. He seemed to slip off the radar with the national team, having been left off the 2006 World Cup roster.

"Obviously, other people have their expectations of you," Adu said recently before a training day with the Union. "But you have to have your own expectations of yourself. My goal from the beginning was to get to

Europe and hopefully play in one of top two leagues in the world [in Spain or England]."

That goal seemed a long way off in the summer of 2007. But then, on July 7 of that year, during a game in the FIFA Under-20 World Cup in Canada, Adu scored a hat trick in a 6-1 win over Poland. Three weeks later, his rights were transferred to Benfica in Portugal, for $2 million.

Founded in 1904, Benfica is considered one of the Tres Grandes of Portugal's football clubs. FIFA once ranked it as the world's 20th-most successful soccer club of the 20th century, the home club of Portuguese star Eusebio - considered one of the greatest players of all time.

Yet when he signed with Benfica, Adu had little comprehension of what he was getting himself into. "I had no idea how big that [Benfica] was and how much pressure there is in European soccer," Adu said. "I was only 18 when I signed, and I honestly didn't think they knew much about me."

Adu could not have been more mistaken about his anonymity. "When I got there, it was the same thing over again- the next Pelé, the next this, the next that."

On Aug. 14, 2007, Adu made his debut for the club in a UEFA Champions League match against FC Copenhagen.

That game basically would be the highlight of the next 4 years. Adu had signed with Benfica during a time of instability. The club had lost status and was looking for quick turnaround, and change came early and often during his tenure.

"I went through three coaches in 1 year," said Adu, who appeared in only 11 games and scored two goals for Benfica in four seasons with the team. "A coach brings you in and then he gets fired. The new coach comes in with his own ideas. He might want older players and not want to deal with the development of younger players. That's exactly what happened, and it kind of ruined everything for me."

Rather than develop Adu, Benfica decided to recoup some of its investment by loaning him to other clubs. In 4 years in Europe, he was loaned to teams in Monaco, Portugal and Greece. By February 2011, Adu's star was barely flickering at Caykur Rizespor, a second-division team in Turkey.

"The only time I really felt like people had forgotten about me was when I went to Turkey," Adu said. "It was kind of like, 'Man, I'm really flying under the radar.' But I actually kind of liked it, because it allowed me to just concentrate on getting better as a player."

Adu's fortunes continued to mirror those of the men's national team. By this past spring, as the team prepared for the Gold Cup, the momentum from the United States' winning its group at the 2010 World Cup was long gone, and the team was hampered by inconsistency. It was, like Adu, off the radar. Nobody was quite sure what to make of the squad - or the fact that coach Bob Bradley had selected Adu for the roster.

Part of it may be the fact that Adu's travels - his willingness to play anywhere - displayed a trait few had associated with him before: maturity. Bradley

basically said as much when he put him on the team.

"When we put together this roster, we felt like this was the time for us to reassess where [Adu] was in all of this," Bradley said at that time. "He didn't get put on the roster, in all honesty, with expectation that he was ready to play a big-time role."

But in the fifth game of the tournament, during a semifinal against Panama, Bradley sent Adu onto the pitch in the 66th minute. It was Adu's first national-team appearance in more than 2 years.

Bradley's instructions: "Make a difference."

Ten minutes after entering, Adu heeded his coach's directions. Running on a ball at midfield, he turned and one-timed it down the right flank, curling the ball past the Panamanian defense and onto the foot of midfielder Landon Donovan. Donovan slid the ball across the goal mouth to the onrushing Clint Dempsey, who scored the lone goal of the match in the U.S. victory.

Adu's professional career, however, was still up in the air. Benfica hadn't decided what it was going to do with him for the upcoming season, while the MLS season was already well under way.

"People were saying just come back to MLS; it's better than when you left," Adu said. "I knew that. I was keeping track of MLS the whole time. It was something I wanted to do probably a little earlier, but I couldn't because I was owned by Benfica. It had to be the right time to make it happen."

That time finally came on Aug. 12, when Adu was inked to a contract with the Union. Nowak, Adu's old coach at D.C. United who now coaches the Union, was instrumental in the signing.

"Once I got to Europe and saw the reality of how things work there," Adu said, "you realized [Nowak] was really trying to prepare you for this kind of stuff."

Adu has transitioned well to the Union. That first night with the team, he played 62 minutes and the Union rallied twice to tie FC Dallas, 2-2. Even more important was his movement, his confidence, his presence. Switching between midfield and striker that night, he showed flashes of the promise that once had him sold as the future of U.S. soccer. Over the next eight matches, he would post two goals and an assist for a team marching toward the playoffs.

"So far, I have really enjoyed being here," Adu said. "[Coming back to MLS] was something I really wanted to do. It's great playing in Philadelphia with the new stadium, great fans and being close to home. It's been amazing so far."

He smiled when it is mentioned that his jerseys are already showing up in the stands.

"It's nice," he said. "I was talking to my mom about that, and she's real happy. I went to Europe and was kind of gone for a little bit. It was a different experience there. It's nice to know these fans still have some love for you and support you. It motivates you to want to keep getting better."

Said Nowak: "I think the biggest factor now is he wants to learn. The most important thing for him is to become a complete player. He understands now that things don't happen overnight. I told him 7 years ago when he came to D.C. United that what we are trying to do here is kindergarten compared to what you will face in Europe with the coaches, the fans and the media. I think he learned the hard way, but it's good to have him back."

This time around, Adu agreed with his coach.

"I've learned the realities of just being a pro athlete," he said. "I'm lucky that I went through the experiences that I did at such a young age. I could be 28 or 29 right now and trying to still figure this out. I'm lucky. I'm blessed. I just turned 22 and I'm able to apply everything that I've learned now. That's made me a better person and a better player, for sure."

In early October, on a rainy night in Miami, the USA national team earned a 1-0 victory in a friendly against CONCACAF rival Honduras, the first win for new national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann. That same night in Seattle, the Union faced the Sounders FC in a game critical to its chances of making the playoffs. Midway through the second half, Philadelphia rookie midfielder Gabriel Farfan, who made the club after trying out during the preseason, beat a Sounders defender down the left goal line and flicked a ball toward the 6-yard mark. Fighting off a defender, Adu redirected the ball past Seattle veteran goalie Casey Keller and into the net. It ended up being the first score in a 2-0 victory for the Union, putting a playoff berth in focus.

The narrative is starting again rather than ending.