When people look back on the 2004 Major League Soccer season, one of the foremost talking points will be how a 14-year-old kid became the youngest American professional athlete in a century.
Freddy Adu's addition to D.C. United garnered media attention around the globe. He made his first appearance in the league's opening game of the season in April and if he comes off the United bench in Sunday's MLS Cup, as he did in both the Eastern Conference Semifinals and Finals, Adu will bookend his successful rookie campaign by becoming the youngest player ever to see action in the league's championship match.
The road wasn't always smooth for Adu, who at first struggled to find his attacking form and was often distracted by swarming media attention. He also had a hard time adjusting to playing with athletes much older, bigger and faster than he was accustomed to.
However, his first professional season clearly can be labeled a success, as he finished fourth on the team in scoring (13 points from five goals and three assists), picked up a nomination for MLS Rookie of the Year and bagged the Nickelodeon GaS Play of the Year award for a spectacular goal scored against the Los Angeles Galaxy on May 19.
"It's been a long journey," said Adu on Friday as the team prepared for MLS Cup 2004 vs. Kansas City this weekend. "I'm glad I went through everything I went through because I've learned a lot from it and hopefully that can carry me a long way."
One of the most challenging parts of the season for Adu was adjusting to a new role, as he was often selected by first-year head coach Peter Nowak to enter the match as a second-half substitute, though he did make 14 starts as well.
"I wasn't used to it at all," said Adu. "I was used to playing 90 minutes, starting every game. Coming here -- my first year -- I was in and out of the lineup, starting some, coming off the bench. But I've grown to change my attitude about it, come in the game and make a difference, because that is how you earn the respect of your teammates and that is how you earn yourself a starting job."
Adu entered the league to supremely high expectations and a media frenzy the likes of which no other MLS player has ever encountered. The multitude of public appearances he made seemed to take a toll on the youngster, until near the midpoint of the season when the number of requests that he would grant began to be reduced. The move paid off, as the Ghana native began to find more time to focus on his game rather than endless questions from members of the media, requests for commercial endorsements, talk show appearances and off-field functions.
"It took a lot out of me," said Adu about the media circus. "It's what you do on the field that is most important."
And not only did what he was doing on the field change, but so was location on the field where he was doing it. After primarily serving as a striker early in the season, Nowak moved Adu further back into an attacking midfield role.
He started to play a bit withdrawn from the two starting strikers, Alecko Eskandarian and Jaime Moreno. The move prompted Adu to have more opportunities to not only finish scoring chances, but also to create them for teammates with dicing runs, clever touches and dangerous passes. His production both as a finisher and set-up man increased almost immediately.
On his newfound midfield position, Adu said, "It's me, it's so me. That's where I feel like I belong. I've been playing there my whole life and I'm able to show my ball skills when I play in the midfield. I'm able to also create for other people to score goals or to make runs and score for myself."
The role of the now 15-year-old phenomenon in Sunday's MLS Cup will almost definitely be as a midfielder coming off the bench. Adu believes that Sunday's match will be a tight one and that substitutions could be a key part of the dynamics of the contest.
"My role is to come into the game and inject a lot of energy to the guys," he said. "I'm young -- I'm able to just run a lot. It might come down to one player making the difference. I'm ready for that. If (Nowak) puts me in the game, I'm going to come in and do whatever I can to help the team win."
Jonathan Nierman is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.