The Word: Will Freddy Adu finally see the light?

Welcome to The Word, a new series on MLSsoccer.com that looks at the trending topics and biggest storylines in MLS and North American soccer. In our debut feature, Philadelphia Union beat writer Dave Zeitlin looks at the expectations surrounding Freddy Adu in his first full season in Philadelphia, what his recent stint with the US Under-23 team meant for his confidence and why he's finally (finally!) happy with where his career is headed.

CHESTER, Pa. – Shortly after a recent training session ends, Freddy Adu strolls into the media room at PPL Park. The room is just about empty now. And dark. Far emptier and darker than it was, exactly eight months earlier, when Adu was introduced as the Philadelphia Union’s prized midseason acquisition, the one-time child prodigy officially returning to Major League Soccer after a rocky four-year absence.

There are other differences from that day to this one, too. Back then, in front of a sea of reporters and cameras, Adu talked about being a changed person, a more mature person, a better person. It was a great story: the player who left for Europe a boy and came back a man. But perhaps unfairly, some people expected the former boy wonder to make a drastic impact with his new club (expectations that Union manager Peter Nowak immediately tried to temper, in his own way, with his now-famous repetition of the phrase “what do you mean by impact?” during Adu’s introductory press conference).

The problem, looking back on it, was that Adu wasn’t game fit, hardly had any time to mesh with his new teammates and could just never get his footing in the final two months of the MLS season – figuratively and literally. Unbeknownst to Philly fans at the time was the fact that Adu sprained his ankle during a training session, which he later admitted slowed him down quite a bit. The attacking midfielder who once did a commercial with Pelé managed a pair of goals and an assist in 11 appearances last season but he recognizes it wasn’t enough. Not nearly enough.

“I know I could have done much, much better,” he says. “I wasn’t happy.”

Now, he is happy. Yes, the fanfare may have simmered and the expectations may have cooled somewhat over the past eight months. But for the first time since he left MLS for Europe in 2007, Adu got the benefit of having a full preseason. Perhaps even better, he’s coming off what could be a career-changing experience at CONCACAF Olympic qualifying that showcased his still-dynamic skill set (he had two brilliant assists in the Americans’ final game), his evolving leadership (he was elected as captain of the US team) and his resolve (after the Americans’ dreams of London 2012 came crashing down, he vowed to never feel that way again.)

And now, as he prepares for his first game back from Olympic qualifying and just his second game of the season this Saturday when the Union host Columbus at PPL Park (3:30 pm ET, NBCSN), Adu is ready to show the Philly fans what he truly feels in his heart. He’s ready to make them believe in him.

“I’m playing at a level I haven’t played at in a while,” the ex-wunderkind says, flashing a familiar smile. “And I’m excited about it.”

Captain America

It would be an understatement to say that a player who turned pro at 14, won an MLS Cup in his first professional season and played for five different European teams all before the age of 22 has been through his share of ups and downs.

But Adu never felt as down as he did two-and-a-half weeks ago when the United States U-23 team allowed a last-second goal to El Salvador in their final group-stage game, eliminated them from Olympic qualifying.

Adu was on the bench at the time, having come off in the final minutes after his two assists fueled a comeback that put the Americans on the brink of advancement. When he saw the ball ricochet off backup goalkeeper Sean Johnson, hang precariously in the air and fall into the net, he had just one thought:  

It’s over, man.

“What more can you say?” Adu says. “I was very, very disappointed in that. The goal was to be in London and we didn’t do that. At the end of the day, you can’t go back and change what happened. You’ve just go to move on. You’ve just got to learn from it.

“Sitting on the bench, watching that goal go in, it was the worst feeling I’ve ever had. For me, that feeling I had, I’m holding onto it. I want to hold onto it. Because I never want to feel that way again.”

As captain of the U-23 team, you can say part of the blame for the Americans’ failure to qualify falls on Adu’s shoulders. But anyone who watched the three US games will tell you that Adu was smooth and in control when he was on the field – finally, perhaps, because he was a veteran player in an appropriate age group, instead of a teenager playing with grown men or an unproven American trying to navigate his way through the rough European terrain.

Before the qualifying games began, U-23 head coach Caleb Porter called it a “natural choice” to make Adu captain, citing the midfielder’s vocal leadership, charisma and experience on the national stage, including his participation in the 2008 Olympics. Back in Philly, the Union staff applauded that decision.

“I think Freddy has worked tremendously hard to put himself in a situation where he’s a leading player again,” says Union Sporting Director Diego Gutierrez, who helped spearhead the deal to bring Adu to Philly in the final days of last season’s international transfer window. “He’s had a lot of ups and downs the last four years. I think he found some stability here with us and I think that has been manifested with his good production. It’s no surprise he was named captain.”

Upon returning to Philly after qualifying, Adu wanted to play in his first game back – a home contest vs. the Whitecaps on March 31 – but Nowak opted to hold him out to recharge his batteries. The Union were then idle last weekend, which means that when Adu returns to the field Saturday, it will be his first league game since Philly’s opener on March 12. And a lot of eyes will be trained on him to see if he’ll be able to carry over his strong play on the international stage into MLS.

Some Philly players, though, have been quick to caution that there are significant differences between starring on a youth national team and starring in the more physical MLS.

“Over there, with the Olympic team, they play differently,” Adu admits. “They like to dominate possession and be a lot more attack-minded and press, press and press. We had a lot of the ball with that team. When you come to Philly, there’s a different style of play, a different formation and you have to adjust to that as well.”

Can he make the adjustments and be the dominant MLS player everyone thought he could be when he first entered the league eight years ago? Can he lead the 0-3-1 Union out of their early-season funk by being the creative attacking playmaker the club desperately needs?

One thing is for certain: he’ll have guys in his corner helping him try to turn that corner.

United again

A smile creeps across the face of Union team coordinator Josh Gros. He’s been asked to share a story from the 2004 season when both he and Adu were rookies on D.C. United, and you can tell he’s got a good one in the cooker.

“I was carrying like six bags on my shoulders and he was carrying one bag,” Gros says. “It’s the preseason. This kid runs up and comes to me and says, ‘Hey, can I have your autograph?’ So I put down these six heavy bags and Freddy is just standing there looking at me. And the kid’s dad, who’s about 20 yards behind, yells, ‘No, not him – the other one!’ So I picked up all the ball bags and Freddy was just laughing at me.”

Such was life that season for Gros, who notes, without any trace of bitterness, “I had to carry all the bags and he got all the fame and glory.” Union youth technical director Alecko Eskandarian, a second-year player on that 2004 championship-winning D.C. squad, also got sucked into the Adu hype machine, which led to some awkward moments between two of the team’s top goal-scorers.

Eskandarian’s first form of contact with Adu was when the 14-year-old tried to buy his jersey number from him – which annoyed Eskandarian at the time, although he realizes now it was more marketing-driven than anything else. Later, Adu made his MLS debut by replacing Eskandarian, who tried to offer some words of wisdom as he came off the field. “And he was totally bailing on my hand,” Eskandarian recalls. “He totally blanked me.”

In general, it wasn’t easy for Eskandarian to offer advice to Adu, even though both players were the top overall selections in back-to-back SuperDrafts. Their situations were that much different, with Adu facing a constant media firestorm and often unsure if his teammates were resentful of him because of that.

“It was tough because he didn’t know if he was being told to do stuff because he was a rookie or if people were just mad at the hype or the media attention,” Eskandarian says. “I tried to help with him that. I was like, ‘Look, I did this stuff a year before. It’s not like it’s anything personal.’ But I think he was a bit reluctant. He didn’t understand.”

What started off as a rocky relationship, though, soon morphed into what Eskandarian called a “little crew” between him, Adu and Gros. They joked around with each other. They ribbed each other. And they challenged each other to be better.

“If Freddy and I scored and Josh didn’t, we’d give Josh crap,” Eskandarian says. “If Freddy and Josh got assists and I didn’t, then they would give me crap. It was fun, that back-and-forth part of it.”

How does Adu remember it?

“We did pick on Josh Gros a lot,” Adu says with a hearty laugh.

Do they still?

“He’d probably beat me up right now,” Adu says. “Back then he couldn’t beat me up. That would be child abuse.”

Eskandarian recalls those years fondly, saying he loved having Adu as a teammate because he made soccer more enjoyable. In the end, though, the young D.C. United crew didn’t play too many years together. Adu was traded to Real Salt Lake in 2006, and Gros and Eskandarian later retired because of concussion problems, before beginning new careers in soccer administration/coaching for the Union.

But when Adu signed with the Union, he felt a sense of relief that he’d be reunited with his old friends from D.C., even if they were no longer in uniform. Throw in the fact that midfielder Brian Carroll, another one of Adu’s teammates in D.C., and Nowak, Adu’s first professional coach, were also in Philly and it almost felt like a family reunion.

“I was finally somewhere I felt comfortable and I felt wanted,” Adu says. “That’s important. I didn’t really feel like I was going to another team. It felt like I was rejoining people that I’ve already worked with.

“It’s just nice to be united with everyone,” he added. “I’m enjoying myself again. That’s important in my game. When I’m enjoying myself, when I’m expressing myself, that’s when the real me comes out – on and off the field.”

Still a dreamer

Adu knows the tweet was a mistake.

Back in January, while training with Rayo Vallecano, the Union midfielder tweeted how much he loved being a part of the La Liga club, and was then quoted in an ESPN.com story as saying “It would be an amazing opportunity to be able to stay here at Rayo.”

When Philly fans unleashed their venom into his Twitter feed, Adu quickly amended what he had said, adding that he loves the Union and their fans and that he’s never said otherwise.

“That wasn’t a knock on Philly and that wasn’t a knock on our fans,” Adu says. “I was just saying the passion over there was great. But don’t get me wrong – the passion over here is amazing. It’s amazing. When you play a home game, it’s a home game. And that’s something I should have probably said on top of what I said.”

WATCH: Adu on joining the Union

The truth is, Adu does still dream of returning to Europe to play in a top-tier league, just as he dreams of building on his success at the 2011 Gold Cup and becoming a fixture on the US national team. But so do many other MLS players. And don’t mistake Adu’s future aspirations for his current ones. The midfielder knows that right now he has to be in Philly. It’s the best place – the only place, really – for him to earn consistent playing time, continue to grow up, resurrect his own career and perhaps win another MLS Cup along the way.

“It’s funny, when I was leaving the first time around to go to Europe, I was thinking that just leaving would get me away from the pressure from being‘Pelé in America,’” Adu says. “And then when I got there, there was even more pressure. And it was just like, ‘Wow.’ Coming back here, just being around people I’m familiar with and also getting a chance to play week in and week out, it’s great. I’m very happy to be here.

“I’ve said a couple of times that I’d like to go back to Europe. I don’t know exactly when yet. But right now I’m a Philadelphia Union player and I’m very, very happy to be here.”

Of course, just talking about one day playing in Europe is probably enough to aggravate certain Philadelphia fans, especially when Adu has yet to do much in a Union kit. Fans don’t care about his name, or the hype that surrounds his name. They care about goals and assists.

Adu believes those will come. He believes his time is now.

“With all the ups and downs, I’m only 22,” Adu says, echoing his familiar rallying cry, the one that fuels him every time he steps out onto the field. “Clint Dempsey started his career when he was 21. That’s what I always say – he went pro at 21. And look at where he is now.

“So I’m 22 and I’ve learned a lot and I’ve grown a lot as a professional athlete and also as a person. Now everything is really coming together. And now I’m really excited for everyone else to see what I’ve been seeing in my game.”

The media room at PPL Park is dark and empty when he says this. But for the first time in a while, Freddy Adu can see the light.

Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at djzeitlin@gmail.com.

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