Let’s start with a few questions about Freddy Adu.
Whose job will it be to protect the 14-year old star from those envious of him? How will he compensate for the physical play, and is that overblown, as his DC United coach, Peter Nowak, suggests? Can the league shield him from the rigors of MLS action? Kansas City defender Nick Garcia thinks Adu will get his fair share of "beats and bruises." Will fatigue be a factor for someone who has never played a 30-match schedule? Finally, how will he deal with the on- and off-the-field rigors of being a professional athlete?
For starters, Nowak says the team will protect him.
"I told our players and made it clear to all of them that I can smell this kind of stuff from my lawn," Nowak said of envious players. "I know what’s going in the locker room when this kind of stuff starts. I’m not going to tolerate any of that. That’s the answer to the questions about jealousy on salaries and all the commercial stuff. The players and everyone has to take care of business on the field. Whatever happens off the field is different. Freddy is young and we have to protect him and take care of him all my players. It’s not going to be easy for us this upcoming season."
San Jose forward Landon Donovan says he is not hearing any of the jealousy talk among his Earthquakes teammates.
"There’s a bet going around in our locker room to see who kicks him first next Saturday I’m kidding, I’m kidding," Donovan joked. Seriously, he added, "I don’t hear it. If it’s out there, I don’t hear it. We understand that any good media is good for MLS and Freddy is great for our league and we understand that. We want him to succeed and we want the league to succeed and I’m sure that both will happen."
So what’s the scouting report on Adu? Garcia offers his assessment.
"He’s the best 14-year old player that the league has, hands-down," Garcia said. "So for me, I think Freddy’s got a lot to learn. Physically, he’s has to get stronger, which time will help him develop. I think his play has to become even faster, because he is going to get thrown around. And I think anytime you give Freddy time and space to turn and go forward, I think that when he’s his most dangerous. But anytime I think when he gets into a cluster of guys around him, I think that’s where his problems begin. You know, if you get a team like San Jose that loves to swarm in the midfield with a [Richard] Mulrooney, [Ronnie] Ekelund and Ramiro Corrales, I think he’s going to get crushed."
Nowak says things are not as they seem with regard to Adu and the physical play he will likely face.
"We talk about the physical part and I still feel that there is a misunderstanding with this," Nowak said. "I still feel Freddy needs to grow naturally. But . . . if he’s fast and quick enough, no one is going to hit him solid. He has to use his speed. Lifting weights and all that stuff, we have to stop it and do the best thing for Freddy. I’m not really concerned with the physical part because he showed in the games and in the practices that he can handle it and he can handle it pretty good. I’m not concerned. With his skills, he’s playing one-two with the guys and he shows up in different parts of the field. These are his strengths and we’re going to use his strengths within the team concept."
Adu agrees that his speed will compensate for the physical play and professes not to be concerned about those envious of him.
"I’m just going out there and playing," Adu said. Even with the Under-17s there were instances where if the other team found out who you were they would mark you closely and try to stop you. It’s part of the game. You have to do what you have to do to win the game. I’m ready to play. I’ve just got to do my part. When the ball comes to me I just have to do the one, two-touch and keep it moving. When the right times comes and you have a one-on-one you take somebody on and take it. Every time I touch the ball I’m not going to try to take on the whole team because that’s how you get hurt. So if I take care of business and do what the team game plan is then I’ll be fine."
Adu noted in his interview with 60 Minutes that his most satisfying goal came for the U17s against Sierra Leone–satisfying due to the nature of their physical play.
"When teams are abusing you like that, the greatest thing to do is just score on ’em," Adu said on 60 Minutes. "That was the greatest feeling."
US national team coach Bruce Arena said in the same piece that Adu will have a "bulls-eye" on him.
So, not only will Nowak be watching out for his young star, so will MLS.
" . . . The league’s obviously going to try and protect him," Garcia said. "But there’s only so much that they can do. I think he’s going to get his fair share of beats and bruises, but, you know, he’s got to learn. I expect great things from him, US Soccer does and so does MLS."
Nowak, during a conference call with reporters last week, sought to take the attention off his young star, noting he has "24 Freddy Adus," and at the same time, defend his value to MLS.
"Freddy is going to play and he is going to show what he can do on the field and everyone is going to respect the way he plays," Nowak said. "About all the other stuff, he’s worth what he gets right now. As I said before, the field is going to verify everything. They’re going to respect him and everything is going to be alright … A lot of players may try to disrupt Freddy’s game. We don’t care what people are going to say. We just want to take care of our business and win games. This is our primary target."
Adu says he is unconcerned about what others think of the salary and attention. As Donovan said, the league stands to gain, at least on the theory of trickle-down attention.
"I was just fortunate. That’s just the way it is and I really can’t say anything about it," Adu said. "I would love it if soccer was a very big sport in America and people knew who players were like they know some of the NFL and basketball players. That would be awesome. But it’s not like that yet and it’s up to us players to make it that way and help this league out in any way we can."
Some wonder about Major League Soccer over-promoting and exposing Adu at his age, seemingly pinning the hopes of a league starving for more attention on his shoulders. He’s already been on several magazine covers and been the focus of national shows such as Late Night With David Letterman, the aforementioned 60 Minutes and MTV’s Total Request Live. Donovan believes Adu, and the league, will do fine.
"If this were the first year of the league I might say it’s dangerous but MLS has developed itself into a very viable league," Donovan said. "We have two stadiums and two more soccer-specific stadiums on the way. I think that we have enough star players now that we don’t have to worry about one person like Preki getting injured or one player like Freddy not playing as much as people want him to. I think the true soccer fans we see at the stadium every week know every player on the field and they all have their own favorite players and some don’t necessarily love the star players."
As Preki’s injury and Adu’s own tender ankle show, it doesn’t take a lot of contact to get hurt, yet there will be plenty.
"The playing level is a lot different. He’s been training and playing practice games with DC United," Donovan said. "But especially in an opener and he’s playing against the defending champs and we’re a team that has been together for three years and has two championships. We’re a decent team. It’s going to be hard. It’s a faster game, more physical and more competitive. Every ball is fought for and it’s just different. If he’s given the chance to make mistakes and learn he’ll learn quickly. He’s obviously very bright and talented."
Garcia reiterates that, and says if Adu can adjust to the spotlight and adapt to the physical play, he has a bright future.
"Sure there’s pressure on him," Garcia said. "The kid’s the highest paid player in the league. So, obviously, the league wants to market him as well as possible. There’s pressure on the field, there’s pressure off the field whether he realizes it or not. I’m sure he does. I think he’s going to have a tough road-to-hoe. I think we first saw when we were down at Tampa, people in the stands [were] yelling ‘Freddy, Freddy’, and the game hadn’t even started. He didn’t even play much of the game. There is going to be pressure there. He’s going to see it day-in and day-out. But hey, I think if he can grow up with it and become comfortable with it, I think he’ll do alright."
Adu, though, has never played week-in, week-out in matches that count, and he’s already admitted fatigue going through the media scrutiny. It’s only going to pick up from here. He said he’s gotten help from his coaches at Bradenton, Florida–John Ellinger and John Hackworth among others–as well as his mom and family.
"They’ve helped me out a lot," Adu said. "It got to a point that I was sick of all this stuff but they brought me right back up and they told me it was a complement to my game. As long as I keep playing well I’m going to keep getting the media attention. I just have to deal with it. I don’t have to do every single thing but I can take some time off and enjoy it.
"I don’t remember exactly when that was, but there was a time I was tired and I wanted to get away from everything and I wanted to just have fun and get out. With the help of family and my agent and coaches, I was able to do that. I took a week off and came back the next week and started playing again and I was refreshed."
With that in mind, Adu notes that his mom likely will drive him to and from practices, and that he looks forward to being home and staying out of trouble off the field. Surely he will have enough to deal with on the field.
"I can’t wait to see my family and friends," Adu said. "I’ve been away from home for the longest time and I finally get to be at home with my family everyday and hang out with my friends everyday. I get to pick up on the life that I gave up about two years ago."
"I’m just going to hang out. I need to take care of my body in order for my body to take care of me. I’m not going to do anything that’s going to hurt my performance on the field. I’ll take it easy and chill with my friends. Nothing crazy."
While Nowak says he does not feel much pressure to play Adu and notes he may not start Saturday, when asked who will pick up the scoring slack for DC United, he did not hesitate in naming Adu.
"We have to realize Freddy’s strengths," Nowak said. "I told him and I told our players what to do to get Freddy’s strengths on the field and allow him to show what he can do. He’s very mobile and very skilful and he can finish and score goals. It doesn’t really matter what position he is going to play."
Adu, who is getting advice these days from the likes of Pele, said he does not care what position he plays as long as he is on the field playing, and says he is looking forward to his opening professional match–a day of debuts for not only himself, but also for Nowak and for San Jose coach Dominic Kinnear.
"I’m not nervous. I’m just anxious. I’m anxious to get out there and play," Adu said. "I’ve been waiting for this for a long time. I just want to get out there and play and have fun. After all when I’m on the soccer field that’s when I’m at my happiest."
Nowak, who was just 15-years old when he began his professional career, says the eras are vastly different, acknowledging the burden Adu faces.
"It’s a lot of pressure of course but Freddy is very smart and he understands what his role is on this team," Nowak said. "I’m not concerned about this pressure because he knows what to do to make himself better and help the team win."
And while Nowak says he has never seen the likes of Adu–now a high school graduate–at his age, he does not want to see Adu become the pulse of American soccer.
"Those were different times when I started my playing career," Nowak said. "You can’t compare my debut with Freddy’s debut. I’ve told him many times: be yourself, be Freddy Adu. We need you as Freddy, not the savior of U.S. soccer. He is supposed to be a young kid who loves the game and enjoys playing and as he said, everything is going to be alright."