D.C. United wunderkind Freddy Adu will jet across the Atlantic for a two-week training stint with Manchester United next week, adding further fuel to the raging rumors of his long-anticipated overseas transfer. It's an ideal opportunity for Adu to showcase his skills for the English giants, who could officially move for the gifted left-footer when he turns 18 next June.
"Honestly, I couldn't stand here and tell you that right now, because there's some serious talks going on, so we'll see," said Adu after United's season-ending loss to New England. "This is my team. I'd like to be back. But my ultimate goal is to go overseas, and if it comes sooner rather than later, I'll take it."
But is the precocious playmaker truly ready to step up to the next level?
United head coach Peter Nowak addressed the issue at length in his final press conference of the season last week, sharing a host of candid observations about his guidance of perhaps the most talented soccer prospect in U.S. history.
"You know, I talk to him and I give him my input in that," said Nowak of Adu's potential move. "The game in Europe is played off the field. It's played in the locker room and it's played in practice. ... If you will not show up, and if you're not going to train at the highest level possible, then you're not going to play."
Nowak built his career in Poland, Switzerland, Turkey and Germany's Bundesliga before coming to MLS for five successful seasons with the Chicago Fire.
"But training that way requires unbelievable toughness, mental toughness," he added. "Because you have to show up every single day. In Germany, and I'm sure in England too, the game must be reward for you. So actually the game is lighter than the practice."
Once a highly-touted teen prodigy himself, Nowak has kept careful watch over Adu's development since he became the youngest professional athlete in modern U.S. history as the first overall pick in the 2004 MLS SuperDraft. The former Polish international has received both commendation and criticism for his handling of Adu, who has been brought along gradually despite being the subject of immense media hype.
"Freddy did everything right during the whole stretch," he said of the Ghana-born teenager's third season as a pro. "He had enough minutes. He was unfortunate not to score goals he deserves -- he hit so many posts this year, I can't even imagine how many. But he needs to ask himself, what is the best for him? Saying, 'oh, this is not my position, I want to play like Christian [Gomez],' then he plays in Christian's position and that's not the way it looks, even at the [MLS] All-Star Game."
With D.C.'s classy Argentinian a mainstay at attacking midfielder, the third-year boss typically deployed Adu on the wing this season, though he was vocal in his preference for a central playmaking role -- to his coach's irritation.
"That was my decision before the season," said Nowak. "I talked to him, I explained it to him, I give him the best possible scenarios what will happen. Why? Because you have only one guy to beat on the outside, when in the middle it is crowded and you've got 6-4 guys in the back, and defensive midfielders like Pablo Mastroeni who are going to eat you alive if you let him.
"So my understanding before the season was, that's the position he can be successful. This is the reason Ronaldinho is a 200 million dollar player and has won [two] times already the FIFA Player of the Year. The best player on the planet, and he's playing outside."
Adu has made no secret of his desire to feature on one of the world's top sides and reports have linked him to Manchester United as well as Premiership champions Chelsea FC and Spanish powers Real Madrid. But his coach harbors doubts about the wisdom of such high-profile destinations.
"I think if he'd like to go, to go to some place where he's not only going to play, but also develop in the right way, the right environment," said Nowak. "I don't think that the clubs with the highest budget in the world will wait for Freddy to develop. Because they can buy another player for $20 million or $30 million. They can do that. If you like it, you will play. If you don't like it, they're going to buy another."
Adu's departure would certainly be a blow for United. But despite his gruff reputation, Nowak is looking out for his young star's long-term interests as well as those of the team -- and he confessed concerns for the youngster's well-being in the rough-and-tumble world of the Premier League.
"I don't think he will go," he said. "But my thing is, the guys who really develop young kids in the right way are the Dutch league and some of the Spanish league. Because it's more technical instead of being hard -- English league is very hard, and as I said, there are guys that cost $20 million sitting on the bench. They just don't care."
Nowak's protective approach has created friction with Adu on several occasions, but he contends that his personal experiences in Europe's top leagues have shaped his stern tutelage of the U.S. youth international. Now Nowak and the rest of the U.S. soccer community are left to wait as the budding star ponders another key crossroads in his career.
"I think Freddy has a great future," he said. "It's just up to him, how he's going to make up his mind. He can achieve great things, if he just knows what to do with his career as a player -- not the guys who are around him, or agents or family. This is what is best for him and he needs to know that."
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.