Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

A decade after Freddy Adu joined the Union, he admits he didn’t work hard enough in MLS

What could Adu have become had he come up through a club academy like the one the Union have now? He likely wouldn't have been as overhyped as he was as a 14-year-old pro.

Freddy Adu playing for the Union in 2012.
Freddy Adu playing for the Union in 2012.Read moreSteven M. Falk / Staff file photo

Ten years ago this summer, the Union shocked American soccer by bringing former teenage phenom Freddy Adu back to MLS. While his time in Philadelphia is just a small part of his career (which is still ongoing at age 31), it was brought back to prominence recently by a documentary podcast created by former longtime Sports Illustrated soccer writer Grant Wahl.

If you’re a relatively new Union fan, it’s worth knowing the history of Adu’s meteoric arrival and equally stunning descent.

Adu became world-famous when he started his professional career with D.C. United in 2004 at age 14, with so much hype that he was in a TV commercial with Pelé. But after a reasonably successful first year — five goals and four assists over 33 games, and D.C. won the MLS Cup — he rarely ever lived up to the billing.

He was traded to Real Salt Lake two years later and earned a nearly $2 million move to Portugal’s Benfica after seven months. But he was a flop there, playing just 17 games in one season before being loaned out four times.

By the summer of 2011, Adu had done just enough with Turkish club Rizespor to earn a return to the U.S. national team. He started in that year’s Gold Cup final under then-coach Bob Bradley, and was on the squad for Jurgen Klinsmann’s debut a few months later — which coincidentally was at Lincoln Financial Field.

The next day, the word got out that the Union were signing him. And the day after that, Adu became the team’s first ever Designated Player.

Adu recorded two goals and one assist in 14 games in 2011, and helped the team reach the playoffs for the first time ever. In 2012, the year Union manager Peter Nowak was fired midseason, Adu had five goals and one assist. The 41 games Adu played for the Union remain the second-most he’s played for any club.

After Nowak’s exit, Adu didn’t get along with new manager John Hackworth, who had been one of Nowak’s assistants. There were major disagreements over what Adu’s position on the field should be, and clashes over the team’s demand that he take a huge pay cut if he wanted to stay with the team. Adu played in just one of the Union’s last six games in 2012, and the Union began trying to offload him.

It took until three games into the 2013 season — none of which he even made the bench for — to finally find a partner in Brazilian club Bahia. Adu was sent there in the deal that brought Kleberson here.

» READ MORE: Now a Union academy coach, Kleberson got Christian Pulisic, Kaká, and Fernandinho to do Zoom chats with their prospects during the coronavirus lockdown

Adu left Philadelphia as a bust, but there were just enough flashes of brilliance to leave people wondering what could have been. His departure started another odyssey: from Brazil to the Netherlands to Norway to Finland to Serbia, then back to America to join the second-division Tampa Bay Rowdies, all in just over three years.

He only lasted five months in Tampa before hanging up his cleats for a while. In 2018, he returned to the field with another second-division team, the Las Vegas Lights, but that only lasted one season.

Last October, Adu went to Sweden to take one more shot at playing. The team he joined, Osterlen FF, plays in the country’s third tier. Seventeen years is a long time in soccer, but 31 isn’t close to the sport’s retirement age.

There’s a lesson to learn from Adu’s story, and it’s not that the Union didn’t earn another home playoff game until 2019.

When he turned pro in 2004, D.C. United and the rest of MLS didn’t have the kinds of robust youth academies that they do now, like the Union’s high school in Wayne. Adu was thrust straight into the big time. His talent was clear, but there wasn’t a proper support system of coaches and teachers to develop him through his teenage years.

Adu also would have been able to play with and against kids his age in an academy, with the shared stakes of competing for professional futures.

“The more a young prospect can see that there are a lot more people like him at his age, the less sense of entitlement you’re going to have,” Wahl said in an interview with The Inquirer. “And the more feeling that you’re going to need to remain hungry and work to get to where you want to go.”

What could Adu have become had he come up through a club academy? Could he have been like Brenden Aaronson, who started in Union youth teams as a 10-year-old, turned pro at 17, and earned a $6 million transfer fee at 19? Or Weston McKennie, who grew up in FC Dallas’ academy; or Tyler Adams, who did so with the New York Red Bulls?

The question is a central one in Wahl’s documentary.

“That 14-year-old would have a chance to go through a system, and maybe not have as much media glare and be doing ads with Pele — have these crazy expectations set up that this was the guy who was going to save the league,” Wahl said. “I don’t think MLS and D.C. United were ready for Adu’s arrival.”

» READ MORE: Mark McKenzie leaves the Union having grown as a soccer player and an anti-racism activist

And after all these years, Adu admitted that he wasn’t fully ready either. He said on Wahl’s podcast that he didn’t practice hard enough as a young player.

“Now that I think about it, and if I had a chance to do it again, I would do it every day, I would bring it every day, every day, every day,” Adu said. “Because I did let myself relax when ever I was with my MLS teams, and I think that hurt me a lot.”

Though it’s been so long since the height of his fame, Adu’s name still resonates vividly with American soccer fans. Whenever a new young phenom comes along, and there are plenty of them these days, the question is inevitably asked: Will he make it in the sport or will he be the next Freddy Adu?

As talented as the current national team is, with McKennie and Reyna and Christian Pulisic and so many others, the scars of Adu’s failure haven’t fully healed yet.

“Even when Christian Pulisic was sold for $73 million to Chelsea [by Borussia Dortmund in 2019], I saw comparisons on social media to Freddy Adu,” Wahl said.

Since then, American soccer has learned a necessary lesson. It’s not good to hype up a 14-year-old, or really any prospect, as being able to single-handedly make the sport big here.

“Usually, the people who use the term ‘savior,’ or act like there’s one thing that’s going to take American soccer to the promised land, are not soccer people,” Wahl said. And he knows from experience, because he quoted them over the years in Sports Illustrated.

In an early 2004 feature, Nike founder Phil Knight said Adu could be bigger for soccer than LeBron James, Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan were for their sports.

“Freddy has the potential to bring soccer almost for the first time into the public’s consciousness,” Knight said. “What it needs, I think, is a superhero, and he clearly could be it. Now, that’s putting a lot of pressure on him, but the kid’s got all the potential to do that.”

That potential was never fulfilled, and a lot of people were stung for a long time. But they aren’t anymore. The kind of spectacle Adu brought 16 years ago isn’t needed when Pulisic, Reyna, McKennie and others are playing on the sport’s biggest stages.

Adu’s stardust still lingers, though. While it’s a history that American soccer likely won’t have to repeat, it’s still good to learn.

»FROM OUR ARCHIVES: John Smallwood’s reflections on Freddy Adu’s flameout in a 2013 column