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Wednesday, December 13, 2006


First they made a big deal of his showing at the U17 World Championships, but history tells us that Landon Donovan and DeMarcus Beasley were beasts in this competition, and look at them now. Then they made a big deal of his signing for DC United at 14 years old – with many questioning the veracity of his age – but then “the hard men of the MLS” (never thought I’d use that expression in a sentence) revealed his physical and mental limitations. Finally, he went on trial with Manchester United for 2 weeks, and we didn’t hear a peep about how it went, or any interest in signing him.

Yesterday Freddy Adu became the first unofficial casualty of the MLS and US Soccer hype machine, when it was confirmed that not only has he been traded to Real Salt Lake for a draft choice and a future marquee selection from the league, but that it was he himself who requested the trade. This is not to say that Adu is not a quality player, and won’t have a good career, but one thing is certain: comparisons of Adu to the game’s greats, and the predictions that he would become the world’s first football star from the US, are looking less and less like coming to fruition.

That Freddy Adu is talented, is without question. He has pace, excellent ball control and he strikes the ball better than anyone in MLS. At first glance, it’s all the more reason to question what’s wrong with him, and why he hasn’t been more successful. But in reality it’s just proof of two things – he is 17 years old, both mentally and physically, and skills and physical ability aren't the only things needed to become a great footballer. Far from it. And the fact that DC United have given up on him, and that he has given up on DC United, is a clear indication that he’s just not all he’s cracked up to be.

Can you imagine Zinedine Zidane walking into the office of the manager at Cannes and requesting a transfer to a bigger team? How about Pele going to the directors at Santos and saying, “I need more playing time in a role that suits me”? Would Maradona have ever requested a transfer from Boca Juniors? Never. Of course there are exceptions, but those are restricted to the likes of Johan Cruyff, and Freddy Adu is no Johan Cruyff.

The fact of the matter is that the hype surrounding this kid’s precocious prowess, aged 14 years when he joined the league’s most illustrious team in 2004, was as big as that of the aforementioned greats of the world’s game, but he was never up to the task. One always had the feeling watching Adu, that he seemed to lack a certain fire. As a striker, his goal-scoring rate is laughable, and as a midfielder, although his skills are sumptuous, his lack of impact in that position made him as much a liability as an asset, cancelling out his value with the cost of playing him in a man’s game, with a boy’s physique and mentality. If there were any doubts about whether he’s actually 17 or not, his performances for DC United show that he is definitely not a man in a boy’s body.

One lingering doubt on this subject is the fact that he basically hasn’t changed, physically, since he joined the league. I don’t know many 17 year old kids who look the same as he did when they were 14, but then again, Adu could have peaked (physically) a lot earlier than most kids – which may explain his success at the U17s. If you saw a team photo of Brazil in 1999, when Brazil won the Confederations Cup, you’d be hard pressed to identify Ronaldinho if he weren’t smiling. He’s now a ball of muscle, whereas 7 years ago he was a gangly 19-year old kid, with an uneven gait. No such change from Adu.

The worst and most revealing moment in his stint with DC United came when Adu announced to the world that he felt his MLS Player of the Week award merited more playing time, just a week prior to DC United’s foray into the MLS Cup competition in 2004. Ill-timed and ill-advised, it revealed two disturbing facts about him: that he began to believe in his own hype (neglecting that his award was as much a promotion for MLS, as it was recognition of his performance) and that his commercial value far outweighs his sporting value. The weight of expectation that went along with being over-hyped and over-paid, stripped bare the truth: he is not a player around which a team can be built.

The truth is that clubs build teams around great players, they don’t fit them in. When Zidane when to Real Madrid, he joined a team full of stars, but it didn’t take long before he himself became the focal point. When Cruyff returned to Ajax in 1981, they had Riijkaard and van Basten at their disposal, but they both made room to appease the Dutch Master. There has never been a case of a great player who was sent to a club just to fit in – invariably they either force the remolding of the team in their own image, or play out their remaining days as a bit part player when their skills do not meet expectations. Adu is too young for the latter, and just not good enough for the former.

So when we read in reports today that Adu felt he was better suited for a role already filled by other players in the team, and that the team refused to mold the team in his image, it was clear that they didn’t consider him worth the effort. This may have been impacted by the fact that Adu is unlikely to remain in MLS for the remainder of his 6-year contract, and as such molding a team around him makes little sense. That means that getting the most out of him while he is here is more important than rearranging the furniture for him - hence the trade. But let’s be honest – if DC United thought they could win 2-3 more titles with him before he leaves, they would have moved the entire house, never mind the furniture.

One thing you can be sure of where DC United is concerned, is that they know what they’re doing, and they don’t make emotional or PR decisions when it comes to sporting matters. First, they shipped John Harkes off to the New England Revolution, after they failed to win the MLS Cup in 1998. Later, in explaining his decision, Kevin Payne proclaimed that, as far he was concerned, there were only 4 players at DC United who he would never trade under any circumstances: Etcheverry, Moreno, Agoos and Pope. To date, he kept his promise on Etcheverry alone, and never made any such comments about Adu. Bottom line: Adu was sent packing because he just isn’t worth the money. Jaime Moreno and Cristian Gomez (both 32 years old, by the way) earn their pay, and it didn’t make any sense to move them around a 17 year-old who thinks he’s bigger than the club but doesn’t deliver.

You have to ask yourself about the wisdom of Real Salt Lake giving up so much for Adu when it’s clear to anyone who can read that he wants to play overseas as soon as yesterday. Maybe, as a struggling expansion side, they felt they needed the marketing boost, and they’ll surely get it by signing Adu. In sporting terms, building a team around a precocious young talent makes sense if the kid’s going to stick around, but who thinks he will? As such, we can only conclude one of two things: either Real Salt Lake think it’s worth the 1 year boost to their MLS profile to sign Adu or, they don’t think he’ll actually be going anywhere, because neither Man U(seless) nor Chelski FC will come calling, and Adu won't go play for some second-rate European team. If that is the case, it means they don’t really believe the hype, but aren’t averse to benefitting from it.

When Maradona left Boca Juniors in 1982, it wasn’t for sporting reasons, it was for money. At £5M he was the world’s most expensive player, a sum akin to paying $60 in the inflated market values of 24 years hence. If Boca could have figured out a way to keep him and make £5M in a day, they would have. His time in Barcelona was largely seen as a failure, since they didn't win anything of significance (except the Copa del Rey), but when he moved to Napoli in 1984 for £7M, another whopping sum of money, what they realized in Italy, which they didn't in Spain, is that when you have a great player, you build a great team around him, and don't simply slot him into the side. Barcelona did as much when the bought Ronaldinho in 2003, and they now reap the benefits of building a team around the world’s best player (with no due respect to Fabio Cannavaro).

There is no hedging of bets in football, and when you’re prepared to break the bank on one player, you better be prepared to do the same for the players that must complement him. 9000 square yards is a lot of room for one man to make an impact, but it may as well be 9 million if he hasn’t got the quality around him. Added to the sum they paid for Maradona, Napoli shelled out handsomely for Antonio Careca and Alemao, a pair of Brazilians whose hearts he would ironically go on to break at Italia 90, when Argentina dumped their nemesis out of the competition at the round of 16 stage.

Ultimately, Napoli, a team now mired in the Serie B, never had it so good, and won an Italian Cup, Italian Supercup and two Serie A titles with Mardonna, after spending an incredible amount of money on him and his partners in (dis)organized crime. But what is important to remember from this, where Adu is concerned, is that as soon as they got their hands on a player that could lead them to titles, they built a team around him to achieve that aim. With Adu, DC United could have done the same if they felt he was worth the effort. They didn’t and now he’s gone.

I hope I’m wrong about Adu, because nothing would please me more than to finally have a player of great international quality from the US. I just don’t think Adu is that player, and I am joined in that sentiment by the most successful club in MLS. It seems that DC United felt that his time here truly was much Adu about nothing.