U.S. wunderkind Freddy Adu is on his way out of MLS. Washington Post reports say that a deal between MLS and Benfica of the Portuguese First Division is almost complete. According to the published reports, MLS is asking somewhere in the neighborhood of $7 million dollars for the 18-year-old.
It is the right move for Adu, whose career in MLS never developed as advertised. The hoopla surrounding Adu's entry into MLS was like nothing the league had ever seen pre-Beckham. At 14, Adu was the prodigal son and many were expecting him dominate the league, emerging as the first truly world-class American player. But the intense pressure that MLS placed on him, as the face of the league, along with coaches who never really understood his talents, resulted in a less than stellar four-year tenure.
Former DC United coach Peter Nowak must bear some of the blame for Adu's failure to thrive in MLS. The utilitarian Nowak never fully appreciated Adu's unique talents, placing him out on the left or right and limiting his distribution duties with defensive duties that would have been better suited to Nowak's style of play, not Adu's. But, of course, Freddy was also to blame at times, often acting his age, pouting or quitting in games due to frustration. Perhaps he was too young. In 2005, the steep learning curve began to flatten a bit, and in 2006, he posted his best season with United. However, despite the proximity to his childhood home, DC wasn't the fit Adu wanted it to be.
He was traded out to Real Salt Lake, where he hoped reuniting with his former U-17 coach, John Ellinger, would reignite his MLS career. But Ellinger, too, played Adu out of position and eventually RSL's poor play led to Ellinger's dismissal as coach.
Jason Kreis’ tenure as RSL coach has been relatively Adu-less due to Freddy’s national team call-ups.
And it might just be this time with the U.S. under-20 team at the U-20 World Cup that proves to be the turning point for Adu's career. As captain of the U-20s, Freddy led the young Americans to the quarterfinals, where they lost a close match to Austria. It was Adu's best string of matches since he became a professional and included a hat trick against Poland and an expertly orchestrated win over tournament favorites Brazil.
With deft flicks and feints, Adu demonstrated what he could do if given the freedom to work centrally, as an attacking midfielder or withdrawn forward. He also demonstrated the leadership, as captain, that helped the U.S. to come from behind in two matches. His performance turned heads both domestically and overseas and the Adu buzz began anew. After all, soccer is a sport of rebirth. And one may die several times in a career before being reborn.
Although this is the right move for Adu and will no doubt help his development, I can't help but feel that MLS has failed in some respects. Adu's entry into the league four years ago was heralded as a new era for American soccer. Fans circled their team's home matches against DC, in order to see this American phenom. He "put butts in the seats" as the saying goes. He was the original Golden Balls.
It’s just a shame that MLS couldn't find a way to develop this talent, couldn't find him a team where he fit with the players around him, and couldn't find a way to let Freddy be Freddy all the time.
Adu stood out because of his creativity on the ball, something that most critics of the American game say that our teams lack across the board. Creativity, imagination, Adu had these qualities, and if we want to advance as a soccer nation we need to learn how to develop these things in our players, so we can keep them here and not just ship them off to Europe when they play outside the MLS box.