The Throw-In: Adu takes on next chapter as U-23 leader

CARSON, Calif. – It’s been an enormously productive week in January camp for US Soccer, as both the senior and Under-23 national teams have trained for more than a week literally side by side on adjacent practice fields at the Home Depot Center.

The interplay has been frequent, both in twin scrimmages between the squads – in which some players, like Teal Bunbury and Bill Hamid, played for both sides – and in the trickle-down of philosophy from Jurgen Klinsmann to Caleb Porter.

But there’s one thing that’s still a little mind-blowing: watching Freddy Adu quarterback the U-23s and realizing that, at age 22, he has more senior US caps than all but four players on the 20-man senior squad.

Wouldn’t you rather be on that other field, Freddy?

“Of course,” he told MLSsoccer.com after training this week. “That’s where everybody wants to be, that’s where I want to be. It’s one of those things where you work so hard and you get there and then there’s a change in the coaching and obviously you have to prove yourself again.”

The ups and downs of Adu’s career are familiar to every fan. The most recent upswing came last summer when Bob Bradley made him a surprise call-up to the Gold Cup squad, his first time with the senior team in two years.

WATCH: Reactions from USMNT vs. U-23s scrimmage

The even bigger surprise was that Adu delivered immediately. He set up the winning goal as a second-half sub in the US’ semifinal victory against Panama, then assisted on two more as the Americans ran out to a stunning 2-0 lead over Mexico in the final.

Then Bradley was dispatched, Klinsmann was named his successor and the process began all over again.

“That’s what sports is all about,” Adu says. “You’ve always got to keep proving yourself. I’m used to it by now.”

Now, Adu has a unique chance to prove himself again with some sweet redemption. He hopes to help guide the US U-23s through CONCACAF qualifying in March for a berth in this summer’s Olympics. There, he can erase some of the demons of the 2008 team, of which he was a key member.

Despite a power-packed squad with loads of talent, the Americans crashed out of the group stage in Beijing with a deflating loss to Nigeria in their finale. And Adu had a front-row seat – literally. He and Michael Bradley sat out the 2-1 defeat due to yellow-card accumulation, something he calls perhaps the lowest moment of his career.

“It was painful sitting there with Michael watching the game,” he recalled. “It was painful. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.”

It’s not often you get a second chance in this game, but Adu’s got one. And the fact that he is still so impossibly young works in his favor. And he is absolutely itching to see what this current U-23 squad can do.

“The last Olympic team was a great team, don’t get me wrong,” he said, recalling a roster that also included names like Jozy Altidore, Benny Feilhaber, Stuart Holden and Maurice Edu. “That was a stacked team. But this team is stacked as well and I think we could do something special.”

The current squad’s vast influences are wholly unique to a US youth camp. There’s the typical MLS-based representation, but there is also a host of youth prospects who have spent their entire careers in Europe and Mexico, some of who are relative unknowns to US fans and many of whom are experiencing a US camp for the first time. That includes intriguing names like attackers Sebastian Lleget, Joe Corona and Isaac Acuña and big defender Royal-Dominique “Nic” Fennell.

Not to mention the likely later additions of some other European-based players as well as age-eligible US senior squad members like Brek Shea, Juan Agudelo, Bunbury, Hamid and Sean Johnson.

“On this team, I have a lot of responsibility,” said Adu, who was the main string-puller in both contests this past week against the senior team. “Caleb wants me to be free, he wants me to be myself and I love that. It helps me kind of focus on doing the things I know how to do well: attack, attack and attack, but also helping the team defend as well, which he was very happy with after the last game.”

The next step in preparing the U-23s begins as the team travels to Costa Rica, where they’ll face Deportivo Saprissa’s reserves on Saturday and then Alajuelense next week. Adu has played all over the world in all kinds of high-stakes games in tough environments, and he believes the unique experience of playing in Central America will help hone his squad’s mental fortitude.

“It’s going to be a little bit of a hostile environment, which is good – we need that,” he said. “I’ve had some experience with that and it’s not easy. But I think we need that as a team and I really think we’ll respond. I think we’ll come out of that because mentally we’re a really strong group.”

When it comes to his long career in a USA kit, Adu also knows a lot will be expected of him to help keep the team on an even keel. Luckily, he says, he’s a much better player than he was during the last Olympic cycle, and the twists and turns his career has taken over the past four years have helped steel him for what’s coming.

The long-term goal may be to get back onto Klinsmann’s side of the field. But over the next few months, it’s all about getting to London, and seizing the moment once he’s there.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Adu gushed, before pausing to think. “I get to do it twice, hopefully.”

Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.