Today's teenagers grow up faster than ever, living busy and eventful lives that keep moms and minivans hustling from dawn until dusk. This has only increased the cachet of the 16th birthday, that uniquely American milestone of maturity when most states begin awarding driver's licenses.
It would be difficult to find an adolescent who has had a more intense, action-packed year than D.C. United starlet Freddy Adu, who turned 16 on Thursday. Although he won't be taking his driver's test for some time, thanks to his duties with the U.S. under-20 national team at the FIFA World Youth Championship in Holland this month, the birthday provides an opportunity for introspection about Adu's remarkable progress to this point.
Twelve months ago, he was spending most of his waking hours at the center of a media maelstrom, as one of the youngest professional athletes in history and the new hope of a soccer nation. Since then, he's scored four goals, dished out nine assists and won an MLS championship -- while learning some tough lessons in the process.
"You've got to earn that respect. You've got to keep your mouth shut and do what's asked of you, and that's what I've been doing, ever since the middle of last year. And it's paid off a lot for me personally."
Adu is referring to his public complaints about lack of playing time during a frustrating period in late June 2004, a poorly-timed slip of the tongue that led to stern but patient reprimands on the part of his coaches and veteran teammates.
As was so often the case for the young rookie, a daunting challenge became a valuable learning experience under the watchful eye of United head coach Peter Nowak. Nowak, himself once a teen prodigy in his native Poland, has worked doggedly to transform Adu from a happy-go-lucky youngster into a focused professional.
"He's still a very young kid," said Nowak, "and he knows that this is not about the goals, this is not about the assists, and this is not about the minutes. This is about how he fits into the team, what is his mentality, and how he wants to win his position."
Nowak's uncompromising approach stands in stark contrast to other sports, where talented young players are often coddled or afforded special treatment. Adu has reaped the benefits of his coach's experience, even if he sometimes longs for a greater role or faster development.
"I've learned a lot from Peter," said Adu. "I've learned how to position myself, where I can get the ball and face up, and the right kind of runs to make. It's paying off, and hopefully I can keep that going."
Adu has had to work hard to earn playing time in a United side stacked with accomplished veterans, but he's adapted to a variety of positions, having spent time up front and on both wings in addition to his preferred attacking midfield spot.
He still dreams of finding glory with a top European club like Manchester United or Inter Milan, two of several superpowers who were courting him before he signed with MLS last year, but he's deferred those ambitions while he grows as a player and as a person.
"Obviously, that's the long-term plan," said Adu, "(but) right now I'm not ready to go to Europe yet. It's a learning experience, and the more time goes on, the better you get as a player, if you're willing to learn. And I'm willing to sit back and learn, and listen to my coaches, listen to the veteran players on the team. And you know what? It'll take me places."
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.