Fit, happy Adu ready to take leadership role for Union

Freddy Adu, Philadelphia Union (PHI-POR)

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PORTLAND, Ore. – For the Philadelphia Union’s Freddy Adu, a lot has changed since 2004.

He’s worn – and discarded – a lot of labels. He’s no longer a savior. He’s no longer a villain.

He’s a guy who’s experienced incredible highs, winning an MLS Cup and a Supporters’ Shield, playing central roles on US Youth World Cup and Olympic teams. He’s experienced incredible lows, becoming surplus goods at Benfica after a big-money transfer, and falling short of the 2010 US World Cup roster.

Adu, MacMath and a Youthful Union Ready for Fight

And through it all, there’s been one thing he’s really wanted.

“I haven’t had a preseason in like four years,” Adu said to MLSsoccer.com on Sunday evening, on the eve of Philly's season opener at the Portland Timbers (Monday, 9:30 pm ET; ESPN 2, ESPN Deportes). “To get a chance to do that, to come into the season fit, to be around your team. We’ve established some pretty good chemistry, which is important for me because I haven’t had a chance to do that in a long time. So I’m really looking forward to this season.”

That’s right, folks. In the wake of everything that’s happened since he put pen to paper with D.C. United eight years ago, through being praised up one side and cursed down the other by fans, pundits and coaches alike, Adu is just another player who’s looking for a chance to get fit, to get to know his teammates, and to get a crack at making a difference on the field.

It’s not about being a wunderkind anymore. It’s about being ready.

“This league has changed a lot in the sense that the product on the field is much, much better,” Adu explained. “It’s much more competitive, there’s much better players, and the game’s faster. So you’ve always gotta be ready to get on the field and rock and roll.

“And I knew that. Watching highlights when I was in Europe, I knew that was what I was coming back here for.”

Unfortunately for Adu and the Union, when he came back to the league last summer he was struggling for fitness, then picked up an ankle knock that hampered him – particularly his acceleration and agility – down the stretch.

That’s where the full preseason comes in. Adu has not only had time to work on his fitness, but he’s now wearing a bit of a leadership role. The 22-year-old is, after Colombian striker Lionard Pajoy, the most veteran player in the attacking rotation, after all.

With that comes responsibility, from within, from his peers and from his coach.

“I’ve been very impressed with everything he did over the last three months,” head coach Peter Nowak said on Sunday. “What he did, how he approached training, how he approached fitness – I can’t say one bad word about Freddy’s contribution to this team. It’s a big year for him. I think he knows that, and I think he’s mentally and physically prepared for the season.”

And to hear Adu tell it, that means the best is yet to come.

“I welcome it – I do, I do welcome it,” Adu said of the extra responsibility he has in 2012. “Whenever I have a lot of responsibility, that’s when I play my best. As a player you’ve gotta know yourself, and for me, I love it. It wakes me up, it makes me say ‘You know, I’ve gotta bring it every game because I have to be a leader for those guys out there on the field.’”

"Leader" may be yet another label. But for Adu, it's the one he’s wanted a chance to wear all along.