CHESTER, Pa. — Seven years ago, amidst unprecedented hype and unbearable expectations, a 14-year-old boy was introduced to the world, billed by many as the savior of American soccer.
On Friday, amidst considerably less fanfare and far more reasonable expectations, a 22-year-old man was reintroduced to Major League Soccer, hardened by a circuitous path of unfulfilled promise and bearing this simple message:
“I think I’m a better player today than when I left MLS four years ago,” said midfielder Freddy Adu, who signed with the Philadelphia Union on Friday, marking his return to the league where his career began as a 14-year-old prodigy in 2004. “When you’re a teenager, it’s a little bit different. As the years go on, you get better and mature and start to put things together.”
As Adu spoke at his introductory press conference at PPL Park on Friday afternoon, candidly and with humility, he certainly conveyed the kind of maturity that was perhaps lacking during his first MLS go-around.
With tears welling in his eyes, he thanked everyone from MLS Commissioner Don Garber to the Union front office to former US national team coach Bob Bradley to his agent Richard Motzkin for giving him a new lease on life.
He promised to do whatever he’s asked — whether from the starting 11 or from the bench — to help his new club’s championship quest. And, perhaps most significantly, he praised the coaching style of Union manager Peter Nowak, the very style that caused the two to butt heads when Nowak was the stern coach and Adu the temperamental teenager on DC United from 2004-06.
“Sometimes I didn’t handle some of the ways Peter was trying to get the message across to me very well,” said Adu, who played for Real Salt Lake and then five different European clubs after being shipped out of DC in 2006. “When I first came into the league, I was 14, 15, 16 — I was a kid, you know. When I got to Europe, I realized I needed that.
"I always thought that Peter was just on me all the time for whatever reason. But, you know what, he was trying to make me better, he really was.”
Despite their oft-rocky relationship, Nowak and Adu remained in touch over the years, and the two began to talk even more after Adu’s strong performance at the CONCACAF Gold Cup this past June. Adu later admitted it was Nowak — the very coach that contributed to his departure from DC — that helped sway his decision to return to MLS and sign with Philly.
“He’s always been a father figure,” Adu said. “He was always trying to steer me in the right direction. Sometimes you get into arguments with your dad, too, right? … Peter will never let you slack. I love that. Sometimes as a player, you need that. You need someone to be on you, to keep you on your toes, to push you. I’m excited about this opportunity.”
Nowak played the part of the father perfectly during the press conference, celebrating Adu’s newfound maturity, praising his commitment and tempering expectations. At one point, Nowak even bizarrely bristled over a reporter’s question on what kind of impact Adu would make, perhaps the Union manager’s own way of slowing down the hype train that derailed Adu’s first MLS ride.
“We’ve had a lot of conversations over the years after the DC time and we felt like we were coming closer with each other and we began to understand each other more and more,” Nowak said. “I think it’s a great sign he can be part of my team again. I welcome him with open arms.”
Before the press conference ended, as the player and coach posed together for photos, Adu quipped to reporters, “This is one of the few times you’ll catch Peter smiling.” Nowak grinned some more, put the midfielder into a playful headlock, and then walked out of the room with Adu by his side, an unlikely pair opening a door to a world of new beginnings.
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @DaveZeitlin.