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Freddy Adu: From Elite Wonderkid to Lower-League Journeyman

Freddy Adu - another failed wonderkid
Credit:STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images

The name of Freddy Adu has become synonymous with that of unfulfilled promise within the game, yet his story deserves more than a cursory glance accompanied by a glib dismissal of it being yet another case of talent and opportunities wasted.

During an almost unprecedented initial hyping of his career during its pre-embryonic stage, there was a sense of excitement regarding the potential of the young man who was born on June 2, 1989, in Tema, Ghana, and christened Fredua Koranteng Adu.

Freddy Adu will turn 30 this year and while nobody could claim he’s had a career that reached anywhere near the peaks projected, his story is not one of the atypical tales of woe concerning a player who had it all and then ‘threw it all away’.  

Unlike certain other players who failed to reach the heights predicted, his perceived failings have not been caused by either lack of commitment or over-indulgence. He is not a player whose career has failed to hit the highlights anticipated due to a wayward style of living.

Luck first visited Freddy Adu in 1997 as an eight-year-old when his family won a Green Card Lottery and were able to move from Ghana to the United States. Adu first came to prominence as a football player when appearing in an under-14 international tournament with the U.S. Olympic Development Program.

Adu then made his next breakthrough by way of the MLS when he became the youngest ever player to be chosen as the first draft in the 2004 pick. At the time Adu was a mere fourteen years of age.

Making his debut for D.C. United later that year, Adu again made history by becoming the youngest ever professional in the history of United States sport. His first goal in competitive football scored at the age of 14 was, invariably, another case of history being made, while yet a further ‘youngest ever’ accolade followed in 2006 when Freddy Adu made his international debut for the USA against Canada at the age of 16 years and 234 days.

Eligible to play for both Ghana and the USA, Adu had elected to play for his adopted country rather than that of his birth. He initially played for the USA youth teams, appearing for the U17, U20 and U23 and became only the second player to appear in three U20 World Cups.

By the time of the 2006 World Cup held in Germany, Freddy Adu was barely 17 yet was aiming for inclusion in Bruce Arena’s final squad. The fact he ultimately did not make the cut was a major disappointment for the young man, and led to him making public statements of dissatisfaction at the lack of playing time he was being afforded at D.C. United. D.C. coach, Peter Nowak, was less than impressed and promptly suspended the teenage starlet for one game.

However, his performances were enough to draw real interest from both Chelsea and Manchester United. Known throughout the game for showing personal interest in the talents of prodigious young talent around the globe, Sir Alex Ferguson went on a charm offensive in an attempt to attract the then 16-year-old. Difficulty in obtaining a work permit meant that Adu was unable to appear in any competitive games for United during his trial, but he left with an endorsement from Sir Alex that he had impressed and United would be keeping tabs on him with a view to possibly signing him once he turned 18.

During Adu’s time at D.C. United, he was selected for the MLS All-Star team twice before surprisingly being traded to Real Salt Lake, after almost one hundred appearances at D.C. United. He made just 11 appearances for Real Salt Lake prior to his move to Portuguese giants, Benfica.

At the time of his move to Portugal, it is worth noting that Adu was still just 18.

This was the time when Adu’s career was set to really take off, and indeed he made his debut in a European Champions League qualifier against Copenhagen.

However, to some observers, rather than bookmarking the beginning of Adu’s march to world-class status, this period actually coincided with the beginning of his troubles. Unable to nail down a regular place in the 2007-08 season, Adu was loaned to AS Monaco in time for the following campaign.

It was initially intended that the loan period would be one season, with Monaco having the option of signing Adu on a permanent basis at the end of it. Monaco chose not to take up the option and Adu returned to Benfica twelve months later, leaving both player and club in a predicament.

Adu stayed on Benfica’s books for another two years yet never made another competitive appearance for them. Instead, what followed was a series of further loan moves to clubs in Portugal, Greece and Turkey, before a permanent transfer back to the MLS and Philadelphia Union in the summer of 2011.

Adu’s erratic club career during this period meant his international career also stalled and was once again omitted from the United States team that qualified for the 2010 World Cup.

Following a single season at Philadelphia Union, Adu was once more on his travels. Over the next half-decade, he went on to make appearances for a further six clubs in four countries. These included Brazil, Serbia, Finland, and the United States. During the same period, Adu also underwent unsuccessful trials at clubs in England (Blackpool FC), Holland and Norway.

Freddy Adu was last seen playing for Las Vegas Lights FC in the 2018 USL season.

So, why has Freddy Adu failed to make anywhere near the impact predicted for him back in the middle years of the millennium’s first decade?

There are those who contend that it is simply a case of ‘too much too young’ and that rather than being hawked the United States professional sports scene as a 14-year-old, he would have been better served being protected and developing alongside players of his own age-group.

A series of bad career choices certainly did not help, either, and in his pursuit of regular first-team football, he perhaps was badly advised. It is difficult to advise young players sometimes to be patient, but surely this is what somebody should have been doing at some point in the case of Freddy Adu.

Maybe, however, there is no one reason why Adu’s career has not turned out the way it was anticipated. Perhaps it is nothing more or less than a case of a player’s talents and skills simply not developing as foreseen over the course of a career.

About the author

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David Nesbit

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