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Freddy Adu Championship Manager 03/04 CM4 Edition
The ultimate icon of failed potential is Fredua Koranteng Adu, one time lauded as the ‘next Pele’, now little more than a minor influencer on social media. More relevant for this series, he was voted the Greatest Football Manager Wonderkid of All Time in 2019, beating Cherno Samba into second. If only Adu was prophetic when he said: “A lot of people have been hyped up to be great but just disappeared. I promised myself I wouldn’t be one of them.” Unfortunately he was wrong.
Born on 2nd June 1989 in Tema, Ghana, the same city as a future subject of this series, Nii Lamptey and grew up there playing football against grown men. His mother Emilia worked long hours in a convenience store to support the family, as father Maxwell was not the most supportive father. In fact Emilia was forced to rely on those that Freddy played football with to look after him while she was at work. Luckily for her, even by the age of 6 he was invited to games against teenagers and adults due to his standout ability. Or possibly it was because his mother was always able to provide them with a ball to play with as Adu revealed recently: “My mom was always the supplier of soccer balls, and so people were always knocking on my door, and trying to get me out so we could play.”
It was Maxwell who dreamt of moving to the USA, but mother Emilia was also keen to join her brother in the States and so they were both delighted when she won the Green Card lottery in 1997. The whole family moved to Maryland, though Maxwell soon abandoned them, leaving Emilia to raise Freddy with the help of her family. That left her once again working long hours, this time with two jobs, one testing computer boards for Hughes Network Systems and the other as a cashier at Home Depot. Emilia had to be up at 5am each day and worked over 70 hours a week to make ends meet.
Freddy attended Sequoyah Elementary School where he began playing soccer during recess and starred in those playground games tosuch a level that a classmate called David Hawk told his parents about him. They invited him to join David’s club team in a Potomac Soccer Association Tournament, it was Freddy’s first ever organised match. There he was spotted by Arnold Tarzy, an insurance agent who also coached one of the best teams in the area and Tarzy convinced Adu to join his team the Potomac Cougars.
Tarzy managed to arrange a full scholarship for young Freddy and his brother to a private school called The Heights, where Freddy excelled as a student. Not only did he excel in various sports, incluing basketball and golf, he was also an exemplary student and skipped 7th grade and won a country-wide 5th grade art competition. Freddy was also widely remembered for being friendly, polite, courteous and well-behaved at the school.
By the age of 11 he was also playing for the US Olympic Developmental Program and went to Italy with them for an under-14 tournament against teams such as Lazio and Juventus. Freddy was top scorer in the tournament and drew the attention of Inter Milan, whose general secretary Piero Ausilio said: “We have never done this before – Freddy s the first American soccer player that we have ever seen with potential as a pro in European soccer.” They put an offer on the table that was worth $750,000 to the family. Despite the financial benefits, Emilia turned it down as she wanted the young Freddy to concentrate on his education first and foremost. She also rejected offers from Adidas and the US Soccer Federation.
It was not all plain sailing though and little Freddy’s skills with the ball had brought attention of the unwanted kind as well. One of his Cougar teammates and childhood friends, Nicholas Scrivens recalls finding Freddy alone crying: “And it’s just me and him. And I’m like, ‘Yo Fred, what’s wrong, man?’ And he’s like, ‘Everybody keeps saying that I’m not the age that I am. That I’m 20 years old. Just because I’m black and I’m African, they think that I’m lying.'”
The age of Adu became a genuine bone of contention, though Tarzy dismisses it as jealousy: “The egos of the collective parents would not believe anyone could be better than their chosen kids. They had to blame it on something so they said he must be too old.” But, whatever the reason it became a media story as Scrivens says: “People asked to see his birth certificate, they wanted to take away our medals.” Sports Illustrated even sent a journalist to the hospital he was born to investigate, but they could find no evidence of any wrongdoing. That did not end the problems for Freddy though as opposing parents and fans would then bay for his blood, encouraging the kids he was facing to kick Adu out of the game. The fouling got so bad that US Soccer used videos of it to train their officials.
Despite the rough treatment, Freddy still managed to score 25 goals and 12 assists in 16 matches for his school in his first year there, but that left the family with a problem. Staying with the school team would see Freddy stagnate, as he was already too good for the opponents and his teammates. The offer from Inter was still sat there waiting on the table for him, but Emilia was still not keen on it. Then US Soccer’s John Eilinger, their Under-17s head coach, asked Adu to join them for a weekend tournament in Florida. Freddy was impressive enough to be offered a place at the Under-17 Residency Camp, which was run by IMG in Florida.
Freddy was by far the youngest member of the 30 boys there when he joined in January 2002, aged just 12, at least two years the junior of the other players on the team, but he still stood out in exhibition matches against MLS sides. He was playing with the best young players in the USA and under the best youth coaches in the country and they tried their best to prepare Freddy for the future. Trevor Mowad, a mental conditioning coach, was assigned to prepare Adu for the media and Mowad hooked him up with mentors, such as legendary sprinter Michael Johnson, MLS star Clint Mathis and American footballer Roy Williams.
U.S. citizenship was granted to him in February, so that he would be eligible for the national team and less than a month later he was called up by the under-17s for the qualifying phase of the Under-17 World Championships. Though still only 13, he went to Finland in August 2003 for the tournament itself and scored a hat-trick in the US’s first game, a 6-1 thrashing of South Korea. That just brought him to the attention of their next opponents, Sierra Leone, who targeted him with knees and elbows. The referee gave Freddy no protection at all but he retaliated in the best way, by scoring the winner in a 2-1 victory. That was as far as the USA went though, as Brazil put them out in the next round.
Adu had done enough to earn a call-up to the Under-20s after Arturo Alvarez pulled out with injury and went to the UAE for the FIFA World Youth Championships. By now he was being called the ‘next Pele’ and the ‘future of US Soccer’ so it is little surprise that MLS made special allowances to allow him to be drafted in the January 2004 draft, though he was still only 14. The Dallas Burn had the number 1 draft pick, but they were compensated with a player allocation in November 2003 and the pick was assigned to DC United so that Freddy could stay near to his family. This was done to ensure Adu chose to stay in America, rather than take up one of the offers on the table from Europe.
In January 2004 he became the youngest athlete ever to sign a professional contract in the US and became the highest paid player in MLS history at the same time with a $500,000 contract in his pocket from DC United. That age record has since been beaten by a youngster called by Francis Jacobs in 2019, when he signed for Orange County SC on loan from Rangers, also aged 14. Nike had already signed him to a $1m contract and then Pepsi shortly afterwards also agreed a lucrative sponsorship deal with Freddy shortly afterwards. It is little wonder that ESPN said that his commercial potential was greater than LeBron James’.
Nike chairman Phil Knight said of him in 2003: “Freddy has the potential to bring soccer almost for the first time into the public’s consciousness. Soccer in the United States isn’t really part of the culture. 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.” Major League Soccer clearly saw the potential and used him in a media campaign and Freddy was on The Late Show with David Letterman, NBC’s Today, 60 Minutes and MTV’s Total Request Live and featured in major magazines such as Sports Illustrated, Time and Vanity Fair.
Freddy was still just 14 and that meant he missed much of DC United’s training camp due to high school but his high grades, he was a straight A student, and the USSF’s accelerated academic program helped him to graduate in March 2003, three years early. While Adu was completing his schooling, ABC and ESPN2 were haggling over the TV rights to DC United games. Even his first exhibition match with DCU in Tampa saw the kind of hysteria normally reserved for pop stars, as thousands awaited his arrival in town.
DC United’s opening MLS game of the season was against the San Jose Earthquakes and vendors struggled to cope with demand for Adu t-shirts for the 24,000 who attended, a sell-out. Coach Peter Nowak was determined to bring him through gradually and Freddy started the game on the bench. In the second half the crowd chanted his name and Nowak succumbed to the pressure in the 61st minute, with DC 2-1 up, and brought a 14 year old Freddy on for his debut on 3 April 2004. Adu was the youngest player ever in Major League Soccer.
Two weeks later Freddy became the youngest ever goalscorer when he scored in a 3-2 defeat to Metrostars, but that did not stop criticism from commentators that he was too young and needed more time to grow into the adult game. Adu even managed to force his way into the starting line up for a short period, until Christian Gomez was signed midseason, returning the youngster to the bench. By the end of the season Adu had played a part in all 30 regular season games and scored 5 goals and 3 assists. He got a further assist in the play-offs too. He was also a commissioner’s choice for the MLS All-Star game.
That left the club struggling to hold Freddy back for the 2005 season, he was visibly straining at the leash wanting to play, even getting himself a 1 game ban for complaining about his lack of playing time in the media. Nowak held firm with his approach and it certainly did not seem to do the teenager any harm as he was called up by the USA for the 2005 FIFA World Youth Championships in a group with Argentina, Egypt and Germany. Argentina had the likes of Pablo Zabaleta, Sergio Aguero and a certain Lionel Messi in their squad.
Despite being 2 years the younger, Adu was the one that shone and USA topped their group, though the Argentinians went on to win the tournament. Freddy impressed enough to earn a nomination for FIFPro Young Player of the Year. In January 2006 he won his first full international cap in a friendly against Canada, the youngest to ever play for the USA. All that meant that it was no longer possible to hold him back and Adu became a regular starter for DC United in the 2006 season.
Freddy did well enough to earn a spot in the MLS All-Star team via coach’s choice and to earn a frustrating two week trial with Manchester United in November. He was unable to get a work permit and so was only able to train and play in practice matches, but then-United manager Alex Ferguson said of him: “Freddy has done all right. He is a talented boy. He’ll go back to the US and we’ll keep a check on him. When he is 18, we will have to assess what we can do next. What we did was to bring him here to give him an idea of what United was like so he could see the place and see how comfortable he was with it.”
Despite all the attention, at the end of the season Adu was traded to Real Salt Lake, along with goalkeeper Nick Rimando, for a major allocation, another goalkeeper and future considerations. He had managed 11 goals and 17 assists in his 3 seasons with DC United. He continued to play for the US U-20s and captained them to qualification for the U-20 World Cup, where he also captained the side. His hat-trick against Poland on 3rd July in the group stage made him the first player to score a hat-trick in both the U-17 and U-20 World Cups.
That was enough to persuade Benfica to show interest and begin talks with Real Salt Lake and MLS over signing him. Talks were not progressing quickly enough for the teenage Freddy and he skipped out on an RSL game to fly to Benfica. That sealed the deal and Benfica announced the $2m signing of Adu on 30th July 2007. Just over 2 weeks later he reached probably the highest point of his career when he made his debut in the European Champions League qualifiers against Copenhagen as a 37th minute substitute.
The rest of the season saw him struggle and he joined Monaco in July 2008 on loan with a view to a permanent deal, despite not being able to talk French, saying: “I don’t know French at all. I took some lessons when I was younger but all I know are the numbers. I’ve been told basically everyone in Monaco speaks English because of it being a huge vacation spot so I’m excited about that. I might not need to learn French after all.” Already the signs of laziness were there for people to spot, when a player moves to foreign country and is just glad not to have to bother to learn the lingo!
It must be said that the signs were there much earlier for people to notice, Arnold Tarzy has claimed that even as young as 10 Adu would stand around waiting for the ball to come to him and that things came so easy to him that he never developed a work ethic. It did not stop the USA taking him to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where he scored 4 goals in 3 games and was voted into the team of the tournament. Despite 2008 being the year Freddy scored his first international goal, in a World Cup qualifier against Guatemala, he flopped in France and Monaco declined the option to make the loan into a permanent move.
Benfica were still unable to find room for him in their squad and loaned him to fellow Portugese side Belenenses. It started badly when he was injured just before half-time in his first start and the loan was cut short in December. Greek side Aris were the next to give him a chance, when they signed him in January 2010 on a 12 month loan to play alongside fellow American international Eddie Johnson. Despite getting off to a good start, Adu again failed to impress. In July 2010 he spent a week on trial with Swiss side FC Sion, who rejected the chance to sign him. Adu ended up on yet another loan deal, this time with Turkish second tier side Caykur Rizespor, on 1st February 2011.
Despite his struggles Freddy’s confidence was not affected and he told ESPN: “By the age of 25, I wanted to be playing in England or Spain – and not just playing but be a regular starter for my team. I’m 22 this year. In 3 year’s time, I see myself playing in one of those leagues. A lot of people might not know this, but that’s been my goal all along. I wanted to be an established regular for a team in like Portugal or France before that. That’s why I chose to go to Portugal instead of going straight from here to England or Spain.”
Despite his talk, 2011 saw him return to Major League Soccer in August as he signed for Philadelphia Union, now coached by his former DC United and USA U-23s coach Piotr Nowak. The following July Nowak was sacked and once more Adu lost his way. New coach John Hackworth gave up on him and traded him to Brazilian side Bahia in April 2013 in return for Kleberson. “With me not performing to the level expected of someone making designated player money in Philly,” Adu admitted later, “coupled with the fact I had the young guys looking up to me on that team, in his eyes, maybe I wasn’t setting a good enough example for those young guys on the team. Looking back on it, he was right. I can’t even be mad at Hackworth for pushing me out of Philly. At the end of the day, you have to take some responsibility for yourself. You have to put yourself in the best position to succeed, on the field or off the field, and at that time I wasn’t performing great on the field or off the field.”
After just 7 appearances for Bahia, Freddy was released in November. He later sued them over $220,000 in unpaid wages, the breach of Brazilian law made by Bahia not contributing to pension payments and the clubs’ failure to formally terminate his contract. Bahia were still paying Kleberson’s back pay amongst others and never disputed the claims, eventually reaching an out of court settlement with him.
Following his release Adu spent the early part of 2014 jobbing around Europe having trials with team after team, including Blackpool in February, who allowed him to stay and train with them for a while, despite deciding against signing him. In June he trained with Stabaek in Norway, who were managed by former USA manager Bob Bradley, then he was off to Holland to a trial with AZ Alkmaar, neither team wanted to sign him. Serbian side FK Jagodina decided to take a chance on him in July. It was September before he made his debut as a second half substitute in a Serbian Cup match. It was his first and last game for the Serbians and he was released in December.
It was March 2015 before he found another team when he signed for Finnish side KuPS. After a few games in their reserves, he was loaned out to third tier KuFu-98, where he again failed to make an impression and his contract was terminated in July. A week later a team in the US second tier, the NASL, Tampa Bay Rowdies signed him. His time with the Rowdies did not last longer either and he was released in 2016. Once again he was back searching for a new club, undergoing a trial with Portland Timbers and Polish side Sandecja Nowy Sacz. The Timbers did not want him and the Poles had not even told their manager that Adu would be arriving. The manager called it “a joke” and Freddy could not win him over.
Newly formed USL (the USA’s third tier league) side Las Vegas Lights took him on trial in 2018. He failed to even make the team for their first two pre-season matches but was finally given a run out in the third, playing 30 minutes and notching the team’s first ever assist. It was enough for him to sign for them on 15th March, but he was released at the end of the season. One member of staff at the club said: “The fans would chant his name, ‘Freddy! Freddy!’ Then they’d see him play, and they wouldn’t chant any more.” Adu was heavily overweight and struggled badly, badly enough for it to seem to be the sad end to a once extremely promising career.
Even his off field life showed the same downward spiral. From being on the cover of cereal boxes and making commercials for drinks with Pele comparing him to Mozart, he is nowadays seen, rather forlornly, pushing a Hoover vacuum cleaner around by a pot plant in a social media advert. He also reviews films and television series for a lasagne company, assigning the shows a lasagna rating rather bizarrely. His love life has equally gone down the pan, from a time when he dated a singer called JoJo who released a song and video about their relationship and break up which featured MLS footballer Mike Zaher badly reenacting bits of Adu’s career.
Freddy is left hoping to revive his career, he still wants to play professionally, but all the game has for him now is a few coaching sessions a week at a friend’s youth club. It is all a long way from the ‘Next Pele’ with the million dollar sponsorship deals. Adu does admit that it is probably his own fault that it went so wrong: “As a fourteen, fifteen, sixteen year old, you’re young, you’re immature, and you kind of get caught up in that a little bit….and maybe I wasn’t training as hard as I should have. And it hurt me.”
For the previous Champ Man Legends article on Jonas Lunden click HERE
Written by Tris Burke September 18 2020 10:30:41