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Final

Soccer Shocker a hit with D.C. youth

The kids are here for Freddy Adu. Hundreds of them.

Some of them look to be a year -- maybe two or three years -- younger than the 15-year-old forward from D.C. United. If he weren't so gifted, he might have been a high school classmate of their older brothers and sisters.

But that's not Freddy. Not the Freddy who is recognized by his fairly common first name -- which, it should be noted, is short for Fredua -- as much as he is by his unique surname. Freddy, still a young cub himself, is idolized by these elementary- and middle-schoolers, and he grins like ... well, like a child ... as he talks about what it feels like to be looked up to by kids who, under different circumstances, could have played on his youth soccer team.

"This means a lot," Adu said. "You've got to be doing something right to get that."

At a Sierra Mist MLS Youth Soccer Shocker event on RFK Memorial Stadium's auxiliary fields -- one of three such events planned for Friday -- Freddy feverishly signs All-Star mementos for the scores of young soccer players lined up in front of his table.

He is sandwiched at a table between United and Eastern Conference All-Star teammate Jaime Moreno, and L.A. Galaxy defender and Western Conference All-Star Chris Albright. The process is intended to work somewhat like an assembly line: Moreno signs, Adu signs, Albright signs. But Freddy knows he is in demand. He tries to sign as many cards and as many T-shirts as he can as fast as he can. The cards pile up beside Albright, and Freddy occasionally gives Moreno a mock-impatient look.

He takes time out for pictures. He signs the shirt a young girl is wearing after a few minutes of chatting with her. She had sidled up to him while he was signing and made space for herself between his left arm and his body. And Freddy loved the attention.

"She was saying, 'Hi, Freddy. I love you,' " Adu said, "and I said, 'I love you, too.' That makes me feel great."

While it's all enjoyable, Adu is mature enough to understand the impact he has on these kids and the role he plays as an ambassador to youth soccer players. He is a link to them and the world of professional soccer.

"When I was a kid, I didn't have a moment to share with my heroes, but we do whatever it takes be with these kids and have fun," Moreno pointed out. "That's all we're looking for. This league and everybody in it understands how important it is to do all of this."

The league's older players, including Moreno, know their role in the soccer world. On a hot and humid -- nearly unbearable -- summer day in the nation's capital, Marcelo Balboa, Marco Etcheverry, Paul Caligiuri, Eddie Pope, Jeff Agoos and Mauricio Cienfuegos, all 'founding fathers' of MLS, climb onto the huge green Soccer Shocker bus that is scheduled to take them to see three groups of kids during the afternoon.

After the first stop, in Arlington, Va., the players are joined in the lounge at the back of the bus by Tyler Doughtie, an 8-year-old boy invited, along with his father Patrick, to take part in the All-Star festivities by MLS Commissioner Don Garber.

Tyler, who is successfully battling cancer, wears his Nashville Youth Soccer Association uniform, including shin guards, and a white bandana. Agoos, Caligiuri and Balboa joke around with him, making Dr. Evil faces -- Tyler dressed up as Austin Powers' nemesis for Halloween last year -- and knock on his shin guards to make sure 'they work.' Tyler himself winds up and gives his shins a good rap with his fist. He is shy, but he is obviously over the moon about riding on the bus with the MLS players.

"I'm very excited," Tyler said. "This is the best thing I've ever done."

His dad, who is filming the whole experience with a handheld camera, is excited, too. He doesn't stop smiling throughout the ride.

Tyler is excited to meet Freddy Adu, and he does meet him at the RFK event, adding to his collection of autographs and looking somewhat awestruck.

These are the types of connections that MLS players are making, and these are the bonds that are important to build.

"These kids are basically who we are going to funnel into the MLS system, whether it's players or fans or people who work in the organizations," Agoos, the captain of the San Jose Earthquakes and the Western Conference All-Star team, said. "It's great to ... see what they want, what they like, what they're doing and just have a less formal type of relationship."

It's intriguing to think that a lot of the kids at today's events weren't born when the U.S. played in the 1990 World Cup for the first time after a 40-year absence, building the foundation of the American soccer revival in the past dozen or so years. Some weren't alive for the 1994 World Cup, out of which grew MLS. Some weren't even alive to see the start of MLS in 1996.

"You've got guys like Freddy coming in at 15 years old who, in essence, have grown up with our league," Agoos added. "I was lucky enough to grow up with the NASL before it folded, so I saw the players that I wanted to be my role models. We hope that that trickles down to these guys."

It's certainly clear these kids know their soccer. In Arlington, they crowd the table of past MLS stars and D.C. United midfielder Ben Olsen has to step up and try to coax them into a single-file line for autographs. They go nuts for Etcheverry, mobbing him with arms outstretched, offering T-shirts, soccer balls and Sharpie pens.

Unfortunately for the players and some of the kids who were due for a visit from current and former MLS players, D.C. traffic didn't cooperate with the Soccer Shocker schedule and the second of three stops -- scheduled for George Washington University's Mt. Vernon Campus -- had to be scrapped. The players hoped aloud that the kids won't be disappointed, which they shouldn't be, since the visits were intended to be a surprise.

According to Balboa, the response the players got Friday is just one sign of the growth of Major League Soccer. The former Colorado Rapids and MetroStars defender, now a soccer ambassador for the Rapids and an analyst for HDNet's coverage of Major League Soccer, said the league has come a long way in just under 10 years. With soccer-specific stadiums set to provide an economic atmosphere where the league's ledgers could be balanced, the best is yet to come, he said.

"It's nice to see that the kids still remember who we are and appreciate what we've done for soccer. Everybody says that we're pioneers, and we like to think that we've paved the way for soccer to last a long time," Balboa said. "We can't afford for soccer to drop a level or for MLS to go away. And I don't think we're anywhere close to that. [Owner] Stan Kroenke wouldn't be investing in the Rapids or buying the Rapids if there was no future.

"Now, it's about finding a way to build more soccer stadiums so we can control what goes on in the venue. ... I wish I was still playing, to tell you the truth, because so many stadiums are being built and I'd love to play in those things."

The challenge for MLS is to make sure the kids who turned out Friday will turn out at those new MLS stadiums on Saturdays. It's never easy to estimate the future impact of community involvement on fandom and ticket sales, but with the inclusion of youth fields alongside every new soccer stadium and the growing influence of players like Freddy, it's hard to imagine anything but a positive impact.

"We have to find a way to tie all of that in," Balboa said. "It has to go from youth to the next level to the next, to professional. That has to be all tied in together."

Jason Halpin is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.


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