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Scooby-dooby-Adu, where are you?

<dern sports are filled with hyped-up, young talents that inevitably don’t pan out as planned. Some trail off as they hit puberty, falling into the abyss of athletic failure, and others do so when they get to college. Only a small group of prodigies goes on to actually realize the potential they were judged as possessing. In this era of hype, a phenom may be written off as quickly as he rose to stardom.

American soccer’s most hyped talent ever was Freddy Adu. Once scouted by the likes of Chelsea and Manchester United, Adu is currently trying out for second division German Club FC Ingolstadt. What happened?
Let’s start near the beginning. Adu immigrated to America from Ghana when his mom won a green card lottery in 1998. The family moved to the Washington, D.C., area, where Adu settled on a contract with local Major League Soccer (MLS) club D.C. United. Adu was 14 at the time—the youngest American athlete of any sport to sign a pro-league contract in over 100 years. 

The highest paid player in the league, Adu didn’t disappoint. Coming off the bench, his squad won the MLS title in his first year. He became the youngest MLS goal scorer ever and made two all-star teams in two seasons. When he turned 19 (2007), he captained the US U-20 men’s national team, playing that summer in the U-20 World Cup. Stellar performances against Poland and Brazil catapulted him to the senior men’s national team. He also capped the tournament by leaving the MLS, heading to Portuguese powerhouse club Benfica.

Adu was a young phenom, like LeBron and Kobe once were to basketball. He was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated and made a Sprite commercial with soccer legend Pele. He appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman, received endorsements from companies like Nike and dated young pop star JoJo.

And then, as critics would have you believe, the end began. Adu wasn’t quite ready for Benfica’s first squad, so the managers lent him to lesser clubs for seasons at a time. He made stops in France (AS Monaco), Portugal (Belenenses) and Greece (Aris). Coaches, for various reasons, didn’t factor Adu into their regular rotation. A couple of failed tryouts in Switzerland and Denmark added more stamps to his passport but no contracts, and now Adu is trying out for a German second division club.

Adu has clearly done his fair share of European site-seeing. It is not clear, however, where his career is headed. Critics say he’s going nowhere:  he’s a wimp, he holds the ball too long, he isn’t a disciplined defender, he lacks tactical knowledge, he’s not fast enough.

The man who brought Adu to AS Monaco once said, “He became professional at 14 and in some ways stopped learning at 15.” 

One U.S. soccer blog likens Adu to NBA flops Kwame Brown, Sebastian Telfair and Darius Miles, each touted – through Youtube, the internet in general, endorsements, agents, professional scouting – as basketball prodigies, until they were promptly swallowed by the professional game. As boldly put forth last year by Adu’s Danish manager at Aris, “Is this the last chance for Freddy to get to the top?  Probably it is.”

But such assertions are premature. Any Youtube highlight video should easily convince you of his offensive gifts – passing, dribbling, vision, free kick service.

Most importantly, Adu is still just 21 years old. No one would accuse Andrew Luck and Cam Newton, this year’s best college quarterbacks, of being past their primes. Blake Griffin, rookie of the NBA’s L.A. Clippers, is only 21. Stephen Strasburg, pitching phenom of the MLB’s Nationals, is 22.

Like the others, Adu has a full decade to reach top form; he should be eligible for the next three World Cups. And with hundreds of club teams to choose from, in time he should find his home.

So how will he make it? The remedy is playing time. His slump began three years ago when he fell short of Benfica’s first team and has continued as he hasn’t found a place on the field.  Bob Bradley, the U.S. national team’s coach, refuses to seriously consider players who are not seeing the field regularly.  Whether he earns a spot on FC Ingolstadt or returns to the MLS is less important than whether he’s out on the pitch.

American soccer fans are not unfamiliar with abrupt upswings (Hercules Gomez, Stuart Holden) nor downswings (Oguchi Onyewu, Troy Perkins) in career trajectory. The same goes for international soccer (football) fans, who surely are familiar with the ascent of Franck Ribéry and the mighty tumble of Ronaldinho. 

But now that Adu is just old enough to legally buy Beer 30, it makes no sense to slap the “Bust” label on his career and count him out.  Give him some time.

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