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 Sportsass: All in Adu Time

American sports coaches have long used the phrase, “There’s no I in TEAM.” As valuable a lesson as exists in those simple words, the American sports public has always been in love with its superstars. It has been the individuals who shone bigger and brighter than those around them that have vaulted the mainstream sports in America into the multi-billion dollar industries that they are today.

Every league in the United States has its superstars from the past that have catapulted their respective popularity. The NFL had Johnny Unitas, Jim Brown and Joe Namath. The NBA built its huge following on the shoulders of Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan. Our national pastime has an endless assortment of characters who were bigger than the game itself – Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantel, Jackie Robinson and Sandy Koufax – just to name a few. Hockey and Gretzky are synonymous.

The true measure of these players’ greatness came not only from what they achieved on the field, but the legacies they left behind and the expanded following of their respective sports which they helped to create. This following opened the door for a new and younger generation to pass through, and an American public salivating at the chance to experience more and more of it.

So what about soccer? Last summer, more Americans than ever before stayed up late and watched our boys reach the Quarterfinals of the world’s biggest sporting event - the World Cup. It was truly a team effort. Unfortunately, only the most cultured soccer fans in the U.S. still remember a single player’s name. Could this be the reason why soccer in America and its domestic league MLS have not made the strides necessary to rival the big four? I happen to think so…

America needs a superstar to rally behind, and now, finally, we may just have one. Enter fourteen-year-old Freddy Adu. In the true spirit of the American melting pot, Freddy, his mother, and his brother won a lottery to come to the United States from Ghana when he was eight-years-old. He grew up kicking a makeshift ball around barefoot through the dusty streets with other kids, then came to America and upgraded to grass fields and cleats. His mother, Emelia Adu, had the difficult task of working two and three jobs while taking care of her precocious kids as well. Freddy just wanted to keep playing soccer.

And he did. Well. By the time young Freddy was just eleven-years-old, he was playing so far and beyond the kids in his own age bracket that he was given the opportunity to play with teens sometimes as much as five or six years older than he. And he still dominated.

His talent level was so high that one of the biggest soccer clubs in the world, Inter Milan of Italy, offered his mother a contract of 750,000 dollars for Freddy to come and develop with their youth academy. She politely turned it down and told them that Freddy would be best served by staying close to home with his family.

Since then, Freddy Adu has continued to progress at the U.S. Soccer Academy in Brandenton, Florida. At the tender age of thirteen, he became the youngest player ever to wear the United States jersey in an international event. Now fourteen-years-old, he is playing with the United States Under 17 National Team and creating a buzz around the international soccer community that no American player in history has ever experienced. But why all the hoopla?

Because Freddy scores goals. Let’s face it – that’s what the American fan wants. The American sports aficionado doesn’t want to see great saves from a talented goalkeeper. They don’t want to see hard tackles from burly defenders. What they do want to see is the ball powerfully rocketed past the opposing goalkeeper at six thousand miles an hour or artistically chipped over him from twenty yards out. Until now, the United States has never produced a talent with the potential that Freddy Adu packs into his right, or left, foot. He plays with a nose for goal, with the flair to dazzle the crowds, and the creativity that may just make him a household name in the States within a very short few years.

The danger, of course, comes from the hype and pressure that will undoubtedly be forced upon him in the next months. It’s hard to imagine carrying the expectations of a nation at only fourteen, but that’s unfortunately the position he will be in.

Luckily, Freddy seems to have a very good head on his shoulders. He is humble and without question a team player. Off the field, he is an astute student and will receive his high school diploma by next May thanks to exceptional tutelage and his full commitment to studying and an advanced education.

In short, he is the complete package. Even mega company Nike has already thrown in its lot with Freddy Adu by way of a million dollar endorsement deal – unheard of for an American soccer player who has yet to play a professional match. But that time is coming soon.

The United States Under 17 National Team was recently ousted at the World Championship in Finland by Brazil in the Quarterfinals. At the U.S. matches, there were dozens of scouts mainly there to see Mr. Adu in action and see if the hype matched the product. Against competition three years his senior, Freddy scored four goals in four matches and was among the top scorers in the tournament. Such heralded clubs as Real Madrid and Manchester United have all expressed serious interest in landing the young phenom. Major League Soccer is also doing its best to keep Adu close to home. Although it cannot offer the same type of money that big European clubs can, they have the benefit of Adu’s closeness with his family and Emelia’s wish for her son to be within shouting distance. The buzz for an American soccer player has never been so great.

Nor has the pressure. Freddy Adu has stated his intentions very clearly: “I want to win a World Cup with the United States.”

As evidenced by the results of the World Championship, it’s going to take a lot more than just Freddy alone for the United States to one day hold the most coveted sports trophy in the world. But if Freddy Adu reaches the great heights that so many expect of him, it’s a sure bet that a great number of American kids will take off the shoulder pads, leave the mitt at home, or put the basketball back in the closet and emulate their new hero on a big, grassy field, or even in the backyard with an old shirt as one goalpost and a bag of Doritos for the other.

As a pure soccer fan, I want nothing more than to see Freddy Adu play soccer right here in the United States for a few years before heading off to Europe for the real big bucks. It might be just the shot in the arm that America needs and may one day help to make soccer in the United States THE place to play for all the big superstars. Of course, winning that World Cup one day might not be too bad either.

August 2003

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