I'm a big believer in reclamation projects, especially when it comes to sports. Two NFL seasons ago, when Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick threw a frozen rope of a touchdown pass as a "wildcat" player in an otherwise-dismal playoff loss to the Cowboys, I predicted to my sons that he would be the team's starter within a year.
Back in June, Freddy Adu showed a similar flash of his old talent in the United States men's national team's 1-0 semifinal win over Panama in the CONCACAF Gold Cup. The one-time savior of U.S. soccer played a laser-like diagonal ball from the center of the pitch that traveled at least 60 yards toward a lurking Landon Donovan on the wing.
Within a few seconds, the ball found itself at Clint Dempsey's feet at the far post and was deposited into the net for a big victory. It was a signature moment in the recent ascent of Adu, who has bounced around clubs of varying size in Europe since he left Major League Soccer after playing for D.C. United and Real Salt Lake.
Who could have predicted that Adu would so quickly end up with the Philadelphia Union? The team unveiled him to the media Friday at PPL Park in Chester, Pa. and handed him the No. 11 shirt ahead of tonight's match against FC Dallas. The Union has stressed that Adu is an "attacking midfielder," not a striker, so that should provide some clues as to where he'll play once he gets on the field.
My sons Alex and Ben and I chatted with Adu in the tunnel of the old Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., in June 2008 after the U.S. tied Argentina 0-0 in a high-spirited friendly. Even though the U.S. didn't score a goal that night, Adu made a huge difference in the way the U.S. team sprayed the ball around the turf in the second half. He was a class act on and off the field that night.
But his career went off the rails, with his name almost becoming a punchline. In February 2009, I was writing my own soccer blog before The Press of Atlantic City gave me a better forum to inflict my views on an unwitting public. I remember crafting a piece criticizing then-U.S. manager Bob Bradley for excluding Adu from a 23-man roster at the time.
Granted, Adu was rooted to the bench for French Ligue 1 side Monaco at the time, but I wrote that "a player with his special abilities must be on the roster at this point. Yes, Sacha Kljestan is in fine form at the moment and you don't need Adu to beat Mexico (in World Cup qualifying), but against sides like Italy or Spain or Argentina, that extra bit of guile he brings to the table cannot be underestimated. Could it be that Bradley has doubts about Adu's work ethic? This one merits some close monitoring."
Now that he's signed for the Union, you tend to forget that Adu still is only 22 years old. I saw him score his first goal in person on April 17, 2004 while playing for D.C. United in a 3-2 loss to the MetroStars at the old Giants Stadium. He was just 14 at the time and facing a whole boatload of hype. I remember specifically watching him in those pre-game warm-ups and thinking how self-conscious he was. It almost seemed like his laughter with his much-older teammates was forced and fake.
But, looking back, he probably was just nervous. He literally was a boy among men, and the league put him in a nearly impossible spot. Juan Agudelo debuted for the New York Red Bulls at the age of 17 last year, but that's a different kettle of fish altogether. Adu never really grew physically, and when he went to Europe he wasn't accompanied by the unrealistic expectations. He was just another player, and he really struggled.
But Philadelphia represents a new opportunity for him. His quickness, creativity and lethal left foot can make a huge difference for a Union team that has designs on a deep playoff run. Peter Nowak was his manager with D.C. United the first time around, and maybe the boy-turned-man will flourish under Nowak's guidance this time around. It's a chance for Adu to rescue his reputation, and I'm definitely rooting for him.