Charting Where It All Went Wrong for 'New Pele' Freddy Adu

Phil Keidel@@PhilKeidelContributor IIJanuary 16, 2015

Rich Schultz/Getty Images

The 30 for 30 on Freddy Adu, if it ever happens, will be must-see television. Especially if this is the last word on his playing career:

Adu was, shall we say, not retained by Serbian club FK Jagodina. It was certainly not the first time Adu was told his services were no longer required. If it is the last time, the precipitous fall from the sport's pantheon of hyped uber-prospects will make a fascinating, albeit sad, story.

It was Jan. 16, 2004, that Adu was drafted first overall in the Major League Soccer SuperDraft by D.C. United. At the time, it was believed that D.C. United had lucked into selecting a franchise cornerstone. Adu was 14 years old on the day he was drafted into MLS, and the future ahead of him was blindingly bright.

Darren Rovell's ESPN.com piece on Adu's inking of a $1 million apparel and shoe deal with Nike in 2003 contains several cringeworthy passages seen in the cold light of 2015:

  • "We are confident and very certain that Freddy brings a tremendous excitement to the game and we're excited for his future in the sport," gushed Nike spokesman Dave Mingey at the time.
  • "He will be one, if not the most popular players in the league right off the bat," said then-MLS Executive Vice President of Marketing Mark Noonan.
  • And the hardest hit of them all in retrospect is this one from MLS' deputy commissioner at the time, Ivan Gazidis"I think Nike anticipates that Freddy Adu will be to men's soccer what Mia Hamm has been to women's soccer."

So how exactly did Adu end up here, as waiver-wire fodder in a fifth-rate football league somewhere in Europe? A lot of Adu's troubles emanate from a failure to launch in the United States' capital.

Rimando has been a rock for Real Salt Lake since coming to Utah in the deal that sent Adu with him.
Rimando has been a rock for Real Salt Lake since coming to Utah in the deal that sent Adu with him.Ed Zurga/Getty Images

"United yesterday shipped its 17-year-old celebrity midfielder along with veteran goalkeeper Nick Rimando to Real Salt Lake for reserve goalie Jay Nolly, a major player allocation and significant future considerations," was the epitaph on Adu's D.C. United career by Steven Goff in The Washington Post.

Goff noted that Adu "had 11 goals and 17 assists in 87 regular-season appearances and, in his rookie year, helped United win the 2004 championship," but chafed at a lack of playing time at his preferred position (central midfield or withdrawn forward) under then-United coach Peter Nowak.

"Freddy desired to play a different role than the one we offered here at D.C., so we hope this move can aid that wish," Nowak announced via a prepared statement as the trade to RSL was announced.

The change of scenery, the first of many to follow for Adu, just did not take.

After one season in Utah, then-RSL (and current New York City FC coach) Jason Kreis had a kiss-off for Adu similar to that of D.C. United's Nowak. 

"This is certainly a scenario that does not surprise us, and we would like to thank Freddy for his time here and wish him the best of luck," Kreis said in 2007, per Jack Bell of The New York Times.

Adu knew where to find the goals at D.C. United; he just couldn't put many balls in them.
Adu knew where to find the goals at D.C. United; he just couldn't put many balls in them.Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The money Adu was earning in MLS—$125,000 per season—is a paucity compared to what players in other leagues made. But in MLS, Adu's four-year, $500,000 contract was an albatross that first D.C. United and then RSL badly wanted to rid themselves of.

"In the end, Salt Lake probably decided that spending $500,000 on a player who has scored only 12 goals in nearly four seasons in MLS was a luxury the club no longer could afford," Bell observed, adding that "now, the 18-year-old attacking midfielder will be plying his trade for Benfica."

It did not happen for Adu in Portugal, either.

"Adu, the former teen phenom who has matured into a promising young player, will be loaned by Benfica in Portugal to Monaco in France’s Ligue 1," reported Jeffrey Marcus for The New York Times in 2008. "During his time with Benfica, Adu failed to get close to the starting XI, making only 21 appearances, but he scored five goals," Marcus added.

A year later, AS Monaco returned Adu to Benfica, but that did not last too long, either.

"The next season, Adu was back in Portugal with Belenenses, before he moved to Greek side Aris in January 2010," wrote Elliott Bretland in the Daily Mail recently. "Thirteen months after that, he joined Turkey's Caykur Rizespor, but that spell was short-lived and he returned to the U.S. half a year later."

Adu's initial months as a Union player were, for him, fairly productive and happy.
Adu's initial months as a Union player were, for him, fairly productive and happy.Drew Hallowell/Getty Images

Adu's return to MLS with the Philadelphia Union looked and felt, for a while anyway, like the career rebirth many soccer fans had predicted and wished for.

"(T)he Union, behind two goals from Freddy Adu, defeated the Houston Dynamo 3-1 in Sunday's Major League Soccer game at PPL Park," reported Marc Narducci for the Philadelphia Inquirer in September 2012.

As always seemed to happen with Adu, though, his production never approached the absurd (by MLS standards) money his contract called for.

"Adu joined the Union under former head coach Peter Nowak in August 2011 but only scored seven goals while assisting on two others in 35 league appearances," noted the MLSSoccer.com report that announced Adu's departure from Philadelphia.

Along with Adu's inability to find the net, it was money that drove Adu from Philadelphia if you believe what was written by Jonathan Tannenwald for Philly.com in March 2013.

"Adu's guaranteed annual salary as of the end of last season was $519,000. As he is a Designated Player, his hit against the $2.95 million salary cap is $368,750, according to Major League Soccer's roster rules," Tannenwald noted in a piece that detailed Adu's (ahem) desire to honor his contract. 

It was therefore not a shock when, a few weeks later, yet another MLS manager had yet another terse farewell to Adu. 

"We would like to thank Freddy Adu for his service to the Union over the past two years," Philadelphia team manager John Hackworth said, according to The Associated Press (h/t ESPNFC.com), "and wish him the best of luck as he continues his career in Brazil."

Since leaving Philadelphia, Adu has played a mind-boggling amount of soccer. Mind-boggling, in that he has barely played any soccer at all.

Seen here with MLS commissioner Don Garber on the day he became an MLS player, no one could have predicted how far Adu would fall.
Seen here with MLS commissioner Don Garber on the day he became an MLS player, no one could have predicted how far Adu would fall.Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

"Once labelled as 'the next Pele' during the early stages of his career, the Ghana-born forward has played just 59 minutes of competitive football since the end of the 2012 MLS season," was the cutting summary by Bretland in his Daily Mail piece.

News of Adu's recent washout in Serbia has been similarly unkind in the States.

FK Jagodina was "the 10th stop of Adu’s nomadic professional career which features stints in the United States, Portugal, France, Greece, Turkey, Brazil and now Serbia," was how Andy Edwards put it for Pro Soccer Talk.

Edwards also asked the question that, really, any sentient soccer pundit would ask: "With all due respect to the Serbian league, if Adu can’t get into a team there, where can he find regular first-team games?"

As of this writing, the answer is still beyond unclear.

What if I told you that, at age 25, soccer prodigy-turned-cautionary tale Freddy Adu's career might as well be over?

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