CHESTER, Pa. — When Freddy Adu first burst into the league in 2004, it seemed as though he was as much a product as he was a player.
The 14-year-old phenom appeared on Letterman before ever playing an MLS minute. He hammed it up in front of cameras with Pelé. He signed multimillion-dollar endorsement deals with behemoth companies such as Pepsi and Nike.
He was, in almost every way imaginable, the commercial face of Major League Soccer — and MLS Commissioner Don Garber says seven years later, it was simply too much too soon.
“I’m not sure looking back on the whole Freddy Adu experience that we managed it as well as we could have,” Garber admitted while at PPL Park last week for the Union’s first-ever Supporters Summit. “But hindsight is 20-20. The league was very different then. Freddy was different then. He was a very young guy with a lot of attention on him and the league needed it. The sport needed it. Freddy needed it. And I’m not sure he was able to handle it.
“Now that he’s back, at the ripe age of 22, I think he has a lot of soccer ahead of him — and he’s in the right place.”
That right place is Philadelphia, where Adu signed, on a free transfer from Benfica, on Aug. 12. And one reason why it’s the right place is because the Union say they aren’t in the business of using the onetime child prodigy as a marketing tool.
“We didn’t sign Freddy for marketing or ticket reasons,” Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz said. “We signed Freddy because we think he can make our football team better.”
The fact is, the Union don’t need much of a commercial boost. A burgeoning club in an effervescent soccer market, the second-year club is one of the shining beacons of how the MLS landscape has changed for the better since Adu first burst onto the scene in 2004, and even since he left to play in Europe in 2007.
“We’re fortunate enough that we don’t have to sign players for ticket sales,” Sakiewicz said, noting the club has sold out 10 of their first 12 home games this season. “Sponsorship-wise, it could make a difference. But it all goes back to how well the players do on the field.”
For now, the Union are most interested in seeing if Adu can help them make the playoffs in their second year of existence. Currently, they’re on the cusp of qualifying as Adu is still trying to get his feet wet after two league games.
Down the road, Adu may still very well become the face of the franchise while drumming up more national recognition for the Union. But one thing is for certain: The midfielder’s MLS reincarnation will be nothing like the circus surrounding his first couple of seasons in the league.
And that’s just how Garber wants it.
“I think there is a great level of responsibility for the rise and fall of Freddy, and the ultimate rise of him again,” he said. “I think the new Freddy is with a team that is looking at him as a player first and a marketer-driver second — and I think that will be good for him.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @DaveZeitlin.