Making a US Soccer Star Much Adu about Freddy

Sporting goods maker Nike would like to make America's soccer prodigy Freddy Adu into the next Pelé. But can the teenager born in Ghana live up to the hype?

Freddy Adu superstar?

Freddy Adu superstar?

On the same January Sunday that the Pittsburgh Steelers earn a trip to the Super Bowl and Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers scores an incredible 81 points in a single basketball game, Freddy Adu gets to make his international debut for the US national team. He is sent on as a substitute in the 81st minute against Canada, with just under 10 minutes left.

The game is scoreless when he bounds onto the pitch, sparking a wave of applause from the fans and shrieks from young girls in the stands - Freddy Adu is the only thing that interests them about soccer. He wears a diamond stud in each ear and a winning smile. At 16, he's about to become the youngest player ever to represent the nation. But right now, at this very moment, he doesn't have a whole lot of time to "make a difference" - his pet phrase. Adu works the ball into the Canadian penalty area once and promptly falls over. The referee thinks he has taken a deliberate dive and flashes a yellow card. Soon after, the game is history.

A scoreless tie against Canada: that about sums up what the average American sports fan associates with "soccer." On Monday, the US sports world is abuzz with talk of Kobe and the Steelers. But no words are lost on the 16-year-old's national team record.

Freddy has failed to make a difference.

Three days later, Adu and his teammates are training at the Home Depot Center in Los Angeles: thirty aspiring squad members taking part in a six-week training camp, where US coach Bruce Arena is looking to finalize his 23-man World Cup roster. His starting 11 are with their clubs in Europe; the hopefuls practicing here all play in the domestic league, whose season doesn't kick off until early April. Freddy Adu is last off the team bus. He's surprisingly small in stature and looks more like a ball boy than a fully-fledged squad member. But he is the only player sporting red Nike shoes that day. And that does make a difference, if only a small one.

The players trot across the well-tended grass. Freeway traffic hums in the distance. The parking lot around the Home Depot Center is empty. No fans are hanging out along the fence, and no reporters standing on the sidelines. A US soccer federation press officer chats on his mobile phone to a French journalist, telling him that interviewing Freddy Adu would be a waste of time.

"Why do you want to talk to this guy when there's a 95 percent probability he won't be going to the World Cup?" the press officer asks. Judging from the pained expression on his face, the Frenchman is clinging to the other five percent and won't be swayed.

He shakes his head and snaps his phone closed.

"Wouldn't you rather write about Kasey Keller?" he asks me. "He's the number two goalkeeper in the Bundesliga. Or how about Greg Berhalter? He's even club captain at Germany's Energie Cottbus."

Energie Cottbus sounds very strange out here in Southern California, and the press officer seems to register this as well. He tucks away his mobile and heads off to help the conditioning coach hand out baseball caps on an adjacent field. Freddy Adu is the best story they have. Even if he doesn't make the cut for the World Cup.

Adu was born Fredua Koranteng Adu in June of 1989 in Ghana, where his parents ran a small store. Legend has it that the neighborhood children with whom he played soccer barefoot nicknamed him "Pelé." When he was 8 years old, Freddy, his parents and his little brother Fro left Ghana for Maryland.

A friend took him to a local school soccer game, and he caught the eye of the opposing team's coach. He then played at a youth tournament in Italy and was offered terms by Inter Milan, but his mother insisted he finish his schooling in the United States. At the age of 11 he was enrolled in the US Soccer Under-17 Residency Program at the IMG Academy. Based in Bradenton, Florida, the academy is the brainchild of tennis guru Nick Bollettieri, the place where top young athletes like Wimbledon-winner Maria Sharapova and golfing prodigy Michelle Wie were groomed for professional sporting success.

Three years later, Adu, now 14, played for the United States at the 2003 Under-17 World Championships in Finland. After the tournament, Adu signed a pro contract worth more than $500,000 with Major League Soccer (MLS) - and pocketed a further $1 million by inking a deal with Nike. MLS allocated him to Washington's DC United, so he could continue living at home. He was the youngest and best-paid soccer player in the United States before he'd even kicked a ball as a pro. Both Nike and MLS saw him as a potential gold mine.

Adidas has just signed a 10-year sponsorship deal with MLS. There are currently few soccer-specific stadiums in the United States, although more are in the pipeline. The country has around 18 million recreational soccer players, a huge and largely untapped market. Selling soccer stateside has always been an uphill battle. In the 1970s, the North American Soccer League made a splash by luring Pelé, Cruyff and Beckenbauer to the United States, even if they were a little past their prime. The NASL folded in 1984. In 1994 the World Cup was staged in the United States; two years later MLS made its debut. Still, most Americans just didn't get the game. A 0-0 draw against Canada? What kind of score was that? American soccer needed a face, a story to call its own.

It needed Freddy Adu, so it invented him.

Freddy juggled balls through Nike TV ads and on the David Letterman Show. He scored some exciting goals. He smiled. He took time out for every reporter and every fan. He left Ghana, but didn't want to go to Italy. He was a first-generation American immigrant - without an accent. Whenever Freddy Adu played, roughly 2,000 more spectators came to MLS games. In his first season, Adu and DC United won the championship. He didn't always make the starting line-up; after all, he was just 15. His number 9 top was the league's biggest seller. Nike designed a shoe for him and called it "Legend." When he turned 16, Freddy Adu was given a BMW 330. Shortly afterward, the United States qualified for the World Cup in Germany. In June Freddy Adu turns 17, the same age as Pelé when he won the first of his three World Cups - in 1958 in Sweden. This has been weighing on Freddy's mind recently.

In the cyberworld, he already has plenty of caps: On the FIFA 2005 video game in his room, a Freddy Adu look-alike replicates all his best moves against his national opponents. And it's hard to tell which came first: the man or his virtual doppelganger.

But out on the practice field, the teenager with the red shoes is having a hard time fitting in with his real teammates, who seem to be too fast, too big and too regimented. Adu wants to play, to make that difference. But the American team functions like a machine. When Freddy has the ball, he often seems like a child caught in the middle of a busy intersection; without it he looks like a bored schoolboy.

After practice he's on safer ground. He comes over to the touchline, smiles and fields questions like a seasoned pro, just the way his virtual double would answer them - if it could talk.

"It's been a great year ... I'm really happy ... It's an honor to practice with the national team ... you have good days and bad days ... I'm a fighter, I'm fightin' ... I hope to make the team against Norway ... I'll play any position the coach wants me to ... it's up to the coach ... I've been dreaming of playing the World Cup since I was a little kid ... Sure I'm rooting for Ghana, but not if they're playing us."

He smiles while he talks, his head pivoting on his shoulders like a ball, stealing the occasional glance at his teammates and coaches who are edging toward the bus. He remembers my name and juggles his responses to my questions. Most of his answers are multi-purpose anyway. The aim is to make the best possible impression in five minutes. At the moment, the core message of every Adu interview is "I want to make a difference." Presumably, this has been drummed into him by the rhetoric coaches at IMG Academy, where Tiger Woods and Andre Agassi mastered the art of the sound bite. When it's over, you might as well toss your tape recorder in the trash can, but at least you feel good.

"That's it?" Freddy Adu asks. "Thanks, man. Looking forward to seeing you tomorrow at practice." He saunters off to the bus. You feel like he needs a good hug.

"Freddy?" Bruce Arena says 10 minutes later with a soft groan. "Freddy's got a long way to go."

Arena is sitting on a bench by the practice field, staring at the toes of his shoes. He knows just how long a road it is. Thirty-three years ago he played in his only international, as a goalkeeper for the United States. At a time when soccer was a national joke; the sport had no stadiums of its own, no sponsors and no fans. As a coach he won five national championships at the University of Virginia, and then went to DC United and captured the first two MLS titles. In 1998 he took over the US national team and steered them to the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup, where they narrowly lost 1-0 to Germany.

United States team manager Bruce Arena.

United States team manager Bruce Arena.

Arena used players who would struggle to survive at a top European club, but as a team on this Korean evening, they all but matched the Germans - proving themselves faster, more athletic and less selfish. That is Arena's achievement, and the centerpiece of his coaching philosophy.

"We don't have a Ballack, a Nedved or a Ronaldinho," says Arena. "We can't beat Brazil, Italy or Germany as individuals, only as a team."

But couldn't Freddy Adu be the 2006 team's playmaker? "Freddy's just a kid. He's 16 years old," says Arena. "He isn't even a regular at his club."

Arena comes from Brooklyn. He has dark eyes and a thick neck. He has no problem with the fact that his team is always the underdog, but he isn't interested in advice. He gets along well with Germany coach Jürgen Klinsmann, who lives in Huntington Beach, not far from the Home Depot Center, and occasionally drops by to watch practice. Like Klinsmann, he'll have the final say about which players will be going to the World Cup. Bruce Arena doesn't figure in Freddy Adu's footballing fairytale.

Two days later, Nike launches a new soccer shoe at the Home Depot Center. It is called Mercurial Vapor III and is the world's fastest soccer shoe, claims Greg Smith, director of the soccer shoe division at Nike USA. They have tested the shoes on Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Figo, Roberto Carlos and Thierry Henry, and have discovered that a player wearing them gains up to five-hundredths of a second over 12 yards, Smith says. These could be the inches that decide between success and failure. It sounds like a joke, but nobody is laughing. US midfielder Landon Donovan testifies repeatedly to TV cameras that he sensed the shoes' speed immediately. Landon and the shoe seem to have shed their separate identities. He has all but become the product.

Greg Smith waits his turn, a smile on his face. In a few moments, he will show off a new Nike ball that is supposed to travel farther and with more precision than any other ball. It's all about faith. Faith in the shoe, the ball, Freddy Adu. If it doesn't work, Nike will always come up with a new product to parade. "Freddy's 16," Smith says. "He's not a marquee athlete for Nike Soccer yet."

A few hours later, during the final practice for the friendly against Norway, somebody yells at Freddy to do the trick he performed in the latest Nike ad. Adu dribbles into the center circle, flips the ball into the air with his heels while sprinting, spins underneath it and then volleys into an empty net. It's a bare-bones routine, shorn of the ad's fireworks, but it's not bad. Freddy Adu lets out a highpitched squawk of a laugh. A short distance away stands defender Eddie Pope, and he isn't laughing. He is twice Freddy Adu's age and Germany will be his third World Cup. He was playing for DC United when Freddy turned up to a team practice one day.

"He was strange. He was about 12, maybe 11," says Pope. "It was like having your kid brother running around at practice. And he's still just a boy. I really hope that all the hype doesn't destroy him."

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