PASADENA, Calif. — The United States may have fallen short of a Gold Cup title in the final against Mexico on Saturday, but Bob Bradley’s men may have gained something in the process: a playmaking midfielder who has shown he can be a difference-maker on the big stage.
His name? Freddy Adu.
The well-traveled 22-year-old was the shock inclusion in the starting lineup against Mexico, making his first start for the US in several years and just his second appearance in the tournament. Adu was involved in both of the Americans' goals as they took a 2-0 lead early in the match.
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The starting nod in the final proved to be a redemption of sorts for Adu, who was able to showcase his trademark flair once more for the USMNT.
"When I found out I was starting, I was very excited, and I wasn't trying to put too much pressure on myself,” Adu said after the match. “My teammates and coaches have always been behind me and Bob told me to not hold anything back. He said just go out there be yourself, don't worry about anything just be yourself and that's what I went out there and tried to do."
During the early part of the match, Adu played the role of distributor in the center, showing composure on the ball as well as an ability to create space and even draw fouls. He was at the forefront when the Americans scored, providing the cross that led to Michael Bradley’s opener, as well as participating in the passing sequence that led to Landon Donovan’s strike. However, as the match wore on, Adu moved to the flank and began to struggle with the speed and pressure of the Mexicans.
On a night in which the Americans failed to hold a two-goal lead against their archrivals, Adu’s emergence was a bright spot.
“He did well," Donovan said. "I think he’s done a lot since he’s come into camp. You know one thing about him is he wasn’t going to be overwhelmed by the occasion. I thought he did a pretty good job. He got tired a little bit at the end, but he helped us.”
The start against Mexico was the culmination of what has been a whirlwind tournament for the young Adu. After performing well in his latest loan spell with second-division Turkish side Çaykur Rizespor, Adu caught the eye of Bradley, who was only able to follow Adu’s progress via the Internet.
The midfielder was one of the manager's most questioned selections when Bradley named his roster for the Gold Cup. But it was not until the quarterfinals against Jamaica that Adu had even made the game-day roster for the Americans. While Adu had not played a role, he earned praise from his teammates and from Bradley, who pointed to his improvement throughout training.
Finally in the semifinals, Adu made his first appearance in a US kit since 2009, adding immediate energy by helping to play a role on Clint Dempsey’s goal. It was his semifinal performance that earned Adu the right to start the final against Mexico in what could prove to be the biggest match of his young international career.
"This was definitely a special night for me," he added. Personally, it was an amazing feeling. Coming into camp after everything that I've been through and just being around the national team again and work my way into the 18 and then on the field. That's something that as a player, you can be proud of. But I didn't do it alone, I had the help of my coaches and teammates who were encouraging me every day."
In the case of the young midfielder, this Gold Cup run may have been enough to give him something that he has long coveted: a regular place on the US national team. When asked if the impression that he left with the coaching staff during the Gold Cup could be enough for a permanent return, Adu flashed his trademark smile and chuckled.
“I hope so.”
Adam Serrano writes for MLSsoccer.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter: @AdamSerrano