American soccer doesn’t boast many household names. The country has renowned players, of course, but few who could be rung off by every soccer fan the world over.
Freddy Adu is perhaps the exception to that rule. Now 27, he is remembered for being the original ‘wunderkind'. He’s no longer so wonderful, though.
Coming into what should be his best years as a professional, Adu finds himself on the scrapheap. It’s 13 years since he broke on to the scene as a teenager, branded ‘the new Pele’ after becoming the youngest ever MLS draft pick and a first-team figure for DC United at the age of just 14.
Nike banked on Adu fulfilling his potential, handing him a $1 million sponsorship deal before he was even old enough to open a bank account on his own. Of course, this was as good as it got for Adu, playing for 12 different clubs in eight different countries since leaving DC United in 2006.
Did the Portland Timbers represent Freddy Adu's last chance?
Without a club having left the Tampa Bay Rowdies at the end of last season, Adu spent some time training with the Portland Timbers over the MLS off-season. Pictures of the attacker in a Timbers kit spread on social media, with the prospect of him joining the Pacific Northwest club permanently raised. Such hopes were dashed soon after.
“Freddy is no longer with us,” Timbers coach Caleb Porter explained after Adu’s trial had come to an end.
“He had two weeks and we were up front and honest with him about where we're at. More than anything, you look at the depth, there's just not going to be a spot.”
And so Adu is once again in no man’s land, cut adrift from the professional game that once expected so much from him. But were the Portland Timbers right to pass up the option to hand Adu a contract? Was it a gamble worth taking?
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A prolific MLS career
It’s not a decision Porter will have lost much sleep over given Adu’s dismal track record over the last few years, but perhaps it’s worth recalling how MLS has always felt like home for the one-time wunderkind. North America’s top flight is where he has played his best soccer. An MLS return might have reignited deep inside the consciousness of the attacker.
At DC United Adu made close to 100 senior appearances, also impressing for Real Salt Lake during his short stint at the club. It was at around this time that he captured the USA Under-20s side at the 2007 Under-20s World Cup, persuading Benfica that he was worth a $2 million transfer fee.
Even upon returning to MLS to play for the Philadelphia Union in 2011 Adu delivered, scoring seven times in 35 games for the Chester club. It’s the moves in between these stints that have been so disastrous. Maybe being back where it all began, Adu doesn’t feel the crushing burden of expectation. Whatever it is, MLS has repeatedly coaxed something out of Adu that no other league has been able to do.
Of course, signing Adu permanently would have taken up salary cap space that otherwise would have been used elsewhere at the Portland Timbers. That was surely a consideration when Porter decided against adding the attacker to his roster, and it’s an understandable one. Taking on Adu would have been a gamble, but maybe, just maybe, it would have paid off.
Wherever Adu ends up next, he needs games. By his own admission, the 27-year-old simply hasn’t played enough over the past few years, making a number of ill-advised moves.
“Wherever I end up next,” Adu tweeted after leaving Portland without a contract to show for his two-week trial there, “it’ll be with the thought of being somewhere I'll get good competitive games. Been lacking that the last few years.”
It might be that he pitches up in the NASL again or maybe even in the third tier USL. Adu has tried his luck abroad once too many, and so he would be best-served staying as close to home as possible at this stage of his career.
Meanwhile, America still awaits its first soccer superstar. The yearning is so intense it has become something of a cliche. Countless think-pieces have been written about the search for a star-spangled Lionel Messi, with the same conclusion drawn almost every time – that if the country’s best athletes played soccer, rather than American football or basketball, then they might stand a better chance of producing such a talent.
Adu will never be that talent. He will never be the player so many predicted he would be — the vanguard of American soccer’s millennial generation — but in MLS the attacker has at least found some consistency. It might be worth someone, somewhere giving him one last chance.