The 10 stages of Freddy Adu’s career: From wonderkid to wanderer
On January 16, 2004, Freddy Adu made headlines around the world when he was picked first in the MLS Super Draft by DC United. He was 14.
The Ghana-born attacking midfielder had moved to the US in 1997 and swiftly became the great hope of American soccer.
Comparisons to Pele soon followed, but Adu failed to live up to the immeasurable hype, playing for 15 clubs in nine different countries. Here are the highs and the lows of a nomadic career.
Even prior to signing for DC United, Adu and his family had already turned down an approach from Inter after shining in youth tournaments held in Italy at the age of just 12.
“We have never done this before – Freddy is the first American soccer player that we have ever seen with potential as a pro in European soccer,” Piero Ausilio, general secretary of Inter’s youth sector told the Washington Post.
“Simply, he’s a great, talented player, with great physical tools and wonderful technical attitude.”
No.1 pick in 2004 MLS Super Draft
Come 2004, Adu simultaneously became the youngest American ever to sign a major league professional contract in any team sport and the highest-paid player in MLS when he joined DC United as the number one pick in the MLS Super Draft.
He was still just 14.
In April 2004, Adu became the youngest player ever to appear in United States professional sports when he came off the bench against the San Jose Earthquakes.
Later that month, he scored in a defeat at MetroStars to become the youngest goalscorer in MLS history.
By the end of his first season, Adu had made 30 appearances as DC United went on to win the MLS Cup, scoring five goals and providing three assists in the process.
The following season, however, he began to publicly vent his frustration at a lack of starting appearances, which he suggested cost him a place in the USA squad for the 2006 World Cup.
He said: “I always have to make the best decision for myself first, and, you know, I’m just looking into things right now, so we’ll see what happens at the end of this season and we’ll see where my family and myself are headed.”
Manchester United trial
In 2006, aged 16, Adu trained with Manchester United on a two-week trial so Sir Alex Ferguson could asses the player ahead of a potential move when he turned 18.
“Freddy has done all right,” Ferguson said. “He is a talented boy. He’ll go back to the US and we’ll keep a check on him. When he is 18, we will have to assess what we can do next.
“What we did was to bring him here to give him an idea of what United was like so he could see the place and see how comfortable he was with it.”
Due to work permit restrictions, Adu was unable to appear for the Red Devils, but his pedigree was there for all to see.
Earlier that year he had become the youngest ever US international, while he had been selected in the MLS All-Star team twice and was nominated for FIFPro Young Player of the Year in 2005.
On the move
After a number of clashes with DC United coach Peter Nowak, Adu left the club to join Real Salt Lake in 2007 but lasted less than a year with his new team.
An impressive showing at the Under-20s World Cup, where he captained the US and became the only player to appear in three Under-20 World Cups, led to a $2million transfer to Benfica.
The start of his Benfica career could hardly have been more turbulent as the Portuguese giants burnt through three managers in his first six months.
After initially featuring under the first two coaches, he fell out of favour and made just 21 appearances for the club.
Loan moves to Monaco, Belenenses, Aris Thessaloniki and Caykur Rizespor swiftly followed, but it is telling that all four spells ended prematurely.
The move to Rizespor did at least earn Adu a recall to the US national team, with Bob Bradley impressed by the player’s determination to move to the Turkish second division in order to play first-team football.
After being unused throughout the majority of the 2011 Gold Cup, Adu made surprise substitute appearances in the semi-final and final, impressing in both but unable to stop the US losing 4-2 to Mexico in the latter.
A return to the MLS followed in 2011 with the Philadelphia Union, reunited with the tough love of Nowak, and Adu was adamant his experience in Europe had been a positive.
Ten years on from when he first made headlines, it was easy to forget he was still just 22.
“By the age of 25, I wanted to be playing in England or Spain – and not just playing but be a regular starter for my team,” he told ESPN. “I’m 22 this year. In three years’ time, I see myself playing in one of those leagues.
“A lot of people might not know this, but that’s been my goal all along. I wanted to be an established regular for a team in like Portugal or France before that. That’s why I chose to go to Portugal instead of going straight from here to England or Spain.”
Adu’s career then went down a familiar path. He failed to perform to the expected standard at the Union, Nowak was eventually sacked, and new boss John Hackworth was less than impressed by the player.
“With me not performing to the level expected of someone making designated player money in Philly, coupled with the fact I had the young guys looking up to me on that team, in (Hackworth’s) eyes maybe I wasn’t setting a good enough example for those young guys on the team,” Adu told Goal.
“Looking back on it, he was right. I can’t even be mad at Hackworth for pushing me out of Philly. At the end of the day, you have to take some responsibility for yourself.
“You have to put yourself in the best situation to succeed, on the field or off the field, and at that time I wasn’t performing great on the field or off the field.”
A disastrous move to Brazilian outfit Bahia saw Adu once again play under three different coaches in a season, which led to his subsequent release in 2013.
Eight years after training with Manchester United, he found himself on trial at Blackpool, Stabaek and AZ Alkmaar, failing to earn a deal at each.
Adu eventually found a new club by signing with Serbian side FK Jagodina but lasted only six months. Likewise, a spell at Kuopion Palloseura in Finland lasted all of three months.
In 2015, Adu returned to the US for a second time, signing for the Tampa Bay Rowdies in the NASL. Finally he had something resembling stability, remaining at the club for 18 months but failing to make much of an impression.
Further trials at the Portland Timbers and Polish club Sandecja Nowy Sacz – against the wishes of manager Radoslaw Mroczkowski, who labelled the opportunity “a joke” – failed to materialise into permanent contracts.
At the end of the 2018 USL Championship season, Adu was released by Las Vegas Lights and spent the following two years without a club.
Speaking to the Washington Post in October 2018 while visiting the RFK Stadium, where he made history for DC United, Adu said: I can’t believe it. It just flies, man, it flies. I was 14-15 when I came here. I’m 28 now.
“It’s just weird. It went fast. Now I understand [when he signed], people were like. ‘Don’t take it for granted, it goes by quick. I’m like, ‘Goes by quick? I’m only 15. I’ve got a long time.’
“And then you blink and you wake up, and it’s like, ‘Oh, man.’ It does go by quick. You have to make the best of it when you can.”
In October 2020, Adu returned to the professional ranks with Swedish third-tier side Osterlen FF. At 31, he was hardly old, but after two years working as a youth coach back in Maryland, could he get back to the required level physically?
The answer was an emphatic ‘no’. On February 16 2021, Osterlen vice-chariman Filip Lidgren announced Adu’s departure, saying: “We had an agreement with him that he would have the chance to show himself. But from what we have seen, we have a hard time seeing that he will be able to compete. He has a lot of football in him, but the physical and the mental are missing.
“He was clearly disappointed. He’s a really nice guy in every way, and I’m convinced he would have been a great football player. But he lacks the physicality required. We were actually a little surprised at how unprepared he was when he came here.”