Since he entered MLS as the youngest American athlete to sign a contract with a professional sports team, a lot has been said about Freddy Adu—some of it good, some of it bad.
Adu has had some highs and some seemingly low lows. He’s bounced around from club to club, unable to establish himself anywhere.
Still, he’s only 21 years old, so there’s still time for him to make his mark. During the winter transfer window he was loaned out to Rizespor, a club in the second level of Turkey’s soccer system. With this new opportunity, another chapter in Adu’s career begins.
I had an opportunity to talk to Trevor Moawad, Director of Performance at IMG Academy, who worked with Adu when he was a student at the Academy and still keeps in touch with him.
Moawad has spent a lot of time working with Adu and watching him play. He chose to give his own personal opinion and insight on his experiences with Adu, what he thinks has happened to him in his career and what he thinks is still to come.
In what ways have you worked with Freddy?
I handled mental training for all the 1984 and 1988 teams, and now I’m Director of Performance. I still do college and professional football and work with programs like the University of Alabama and Florida.
I’ve known Freddy for 10 years and I stay in touch with a number of players that came through the residency program. There’s a lot of different things out there. My perception is don’t put a period where there should be a comma, whenever there are young athletes trying.
I think the situation with Freddy is much more complicated than people know, and when you’re going on loan it’s a complicated process. I think there are a lot of teams that have had interest but it’s not always easy to get things done or sorted out when you’re dealing with the complex world of European soccer.
I think this kid still has a lot of opportunities to be successful. He came here to work out for three weeks, and I saw the hunger, the desire, the athleticism. Christmas Day no one is in the weight room except for Freddy. He knocked out a three-hour workout. I don’t think he’s worried about anything other than trying to establish himself with a club in Europe.
I think he did a great job in Greece, but the economics in Greece affected the players on loan. He played a huge role for Aris to qualify for Europa. He was in a competitive league playing under a lot of pressure, and I think if you just follow the Internet you see one step back after another, and it’s a little more complicated than that.
I think he’s headed in the right direction, for what my opinion's worth. The past has been more complicated than people understand...I still think the story has a lot left to be written.
Why has Freddy struggled to latch onto clubs?
I think some of the teams, when you go to certain places on trial whether it’s Switzerland, Germany or Holland—some of these places he’s been in—it’s not necessarily that they don’t want him, but there are a lot of things that have to happen to play in a certain environment when you’re owned by a parent club.
It has to also be the right terms of the deal. The team in Germany was extremely interested in him, but they wanted him for a longer time than he could go. The Turkish team was excited to work with him for the next five or six months.
It’s tough because a young American soccer player doesn’t have a role model playing in Europe except for goalies, really. Michael Bradley has done an excellent job. Steve Cherundolo has done a tremendous job. The last few years Clint Dempsey has done exceptionally well. But over the least 15 years, it’s not an easy road. It’s not an excuse, but it’s not an easy road.
The kid’s fighting and working hard, and he’s doing what he needs to do to continue his career. He knows what people say about him, but he’s focused on controlling what he can control. It’s not an easy process for any of these guys trying to make it. Freddy’s career is in Freddy’s hands. He’s making his decisions. He’s got people that support him, but...he’s not a young kid anymore, he’s making his own decisions.
What role have the heavy expectations to be the “great American soccer player” at such a young age had on him? How has he handled those expectations?
I’ll just take, for example, at the academy they’re always looking for the next young Andre Agassi or the next young American Pete Sampras. Other people’s expectations are important, but there’s none more important than your own. For an athlete trying to make it to the next level, you cannot accept mediocrity and you cannot tell yourself you have time.
If you’re saying, "I don’t need to make it now because I’m young," no. Once you start at the professional level...you start as a professional soccer player at 13, the clock’s on. You’re no different than a 22-year-old stepping in. It’s all about now, and that’s difficult for a lot of young athletes. If they think, "I have time," then they’re not going to put their best foot forward.
What I’ll say is the last time I spent significant time with him was before the 2007 U-20 championships. It was clear to me that he knew this tournament was unbelievably important for him and you could see it in the way he prepared and trained. He put himself to be in a position to be signed by Benfica. I saw that same kind of hunger and mentality for three weeks this winter. When he has that hunger he’s extremely capable.
I expect Freddy to do well. Every one of these teams he’s gone to on loan he’s gotten into the lineup and earned a starting spot. It’s just holding on to it. They’re not going to put a guy in there for fun. These are the environments.
At Monaco it wasn’t easy, but he made the roster. You gotta fight your tail off just to get on a roster. These are things he’s learning from, and he knows that. What he’s gone through has made him stronger, it’s made him tougher and he has a sense of urgency with his ability that is extremely positive.
I’m optimistic about his career path, and I think I have a good volume of experience with a lot of athletes at a lot of levels. I expect him to take advantage of his situation in Turkey.
He’s not focused on anything other than finding a way to contribute in Turkey. Everything else takes care of itself. Being a pro soccer player in Europe is a tough road. I applaud the fact that for three years he’s hung in there.
What does he have to do to do more than just “hang in there?” What does he have to do to take the next step?
The keys to success is just staying on top of the details, maintaining that sense of urgency and keeping the expectations for himself extremely high. And that’s what I expect he’ll do. When he came here over the winter, I saw a young athlete who’s driven and focused. If the best parts of his career are ahead of him, then he’s going to have to pay attention to the details. It’s not okay to take your talent and be average. The details relate to the nutrition and stretching as well.
Every place he’s gone there was no doubt he has the capability. There’s a reason he breaks into the lineup. It’s just the ability to sustain it. I think anyone that’s written him off has done so prematurely.
And that doesn’t just go for Freddy. That goes for a lot of these guys: Jozy [Altidore], Eddie [Johnson]. Some guys have success for a little and they go on loan. It’s just an extremely complicated situation. I’ve got a tremendous amount of respect for those guys.... Coaches come in and go and it’s about reestablishing yourself. It’s a cutthroat environment. Anybody that writes him off, well those people clearly don’t understand the circumstances.
You say for the individual athlete, he or she should never say, “I have time.” But on the outside looking in, Freddy is still only 21 years old. There is still time in his career for him to develop and grow as a player, right?
The reality is there is still time, but from an athletic perspective when you’re a player, you’re a brand. And you have to treat yourself like a brand. When you go to places and don’t do well, you’re damaging your brand, and if you do well you’re improving your brand. If you continue to go to places and aren’t performing, well you’re going to get less and less opportunities.
Freddy went to Greece and for large portions of that season he did very well. But he didn’t have control over Greece’s economic situation and what happened to those players on loan. [The club’s] priorities changed. At Aris last year he played well. I think he fully expected to continue playing there and the circumstances changed.
Some of the young athletes who Freddy worked with here, they said I might be 16 but there’s no reason I can’t win Wimbledon. You have to have that expectation that I’m going to come in and I’m going to make a difference. When he was 11, 12 and 13 years old his expectations any time he was going out to practice or games, they were extremely high.
I saw that to some degree before the Olympics. He was the player of the tournament in CONCACAF in the qualification for the Olympics. When he went to Monaco he had built up some momentum, but then he lost it after Monaco, and that was a complicated situation.
At the end of the day if you’re going to help a team win they’re going to play you, but there are also mitigating factors. His job is to go out there and establish himself in Turkey, just like he did in Greece. He’s got to establish him and be consistent.
That’s not something that Freddy’s dealing with alone either. That’s what a lot of athletes in sports are dealing with. It’s why a lot of NFL players don’t get two contracts, and even fewer get three. It doesn’t make you a bust. It just shows how much of a challenge it is. His whole focus is establishing himself as a club player.
As you said, he’s had some success at the international level, especially at the youth level. Is it frustrating for him to do well there but not for a club team?
I think mentally it’s a situation where, you look at it that way it could be frustrating, but you should look at it as I know I can do it and what do I need to do to get there.
When there’s value attached to your name, you’re going to get more negative attention then you deserve, and when you do well you’ll get more positive attention. Neither of those things are his fault, but they are his reality.
Nobody’s going to give him anything, nor does he want to be given anything. He just wants a fair shot, and I think he’s going to get that.
What work do you do with the athletes?
I’m the Director of Performance at IMG. My job is to oversee a team of 50 experts, and that’s in strength and conditioning, athletic training, mental conditioning, life skills and communication training as well as vision training. I also work as a mental conditioning consultant for the University of Alabama and University of Florida football teams and the Jacksonville Jaguars football team. I work with athletes individually on their attitude, performance in pressure situations and their ability to recover from setbacks.
I’ve seen [Freddy] for a long time. I know his family. I’m not paid by him—he is a client of ours when he comes down here and trains—but I’ve been able to spend 10 years watching this man, and I believe what I saw this last three weeks in December, he’s poised to really take some positive steps forward.
I was talking with one of his former teammates, Heath Pearce, and he was talking about how he saw a replay of the 60 Minutes piece when he signed with MLS and he said people forget he was exceptional then. He started in the U-20 Cup at 13 years old. He earned those things. And just as he did then, he’ll have to do that now. And whatever happened in the past has helped prepare him to be better in the future.
And he’s a neat kid. I’ve probably talked to four or five of these kids a week, who are now coaches and firefighters. Some of those kids are still out there fighting and trying to compete. Some of them have had tougher roads than others, and that’s okay. I went to Eddie Johnson’s wedding last week. I still keep in touch with John Spector. They may not be famous names now, but they were important to what we did in Bradenton.
I’m not involved in the world in soccer anymore, but I obviously care about these kids who came in, and I wish them the best. I understand the road, and it’s not an easy process.
I want to make it very clear that these are my opinions, they are my beliefs. I feel I have a fair perspective about the world of sports. I haven’t talked about [Freddy] in a long time.
How do you feel when you read negative pieces about Freddy?
It’s a little bit frustrating, and I also know the emotional toll it takes on an athlete to hear some of those things or read. But if you’re an athlete you’re responsible for it. We try to make them think, “I may not perform well, but that doesn’t make me any more or less of a person.” But at the same point you’re still human. It’s going to affect the athlete and when you invest a lot of time in someone you want them to do well.
People will say you don’t have an argument because people can point to the facts, but I think the facts are complicated.
I watched him play two games in that Greek league with packed crowds, loud environments and I was extremely optimistic. It was clear to me that there was no doubt he can do that. There’s no doubt he can still do that. Everything is about looking forward and taking care of the details. I’m excited about the prospects for him. At the end of the day it’s about what you do, not what you say.