Hours before the United States national team played arch rival Mexico to a 1-1 draw at Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz gushed about the state of his sport in Philly.
This town, Sakiewicz said, is abuzz with soccer.
That was two days ago. If there was a light buzz then, there will be a deafening roar today when one of the most recognizable names in the history of American soccer Freddy Adu is officially introduced as the newest member of the Philadelphia Union.
Let that soak in for a second: Freddy Adu.
Even the most casual sports fan knows about Adu, who was a household name at 14 years old when he became the youngest athlete ever to sign a professional American sports contract.
That was seven years ago. Since then, the former child prodigy has been on a bumpy road, bouncing around from club to club on tricky European terrain, without ever making much of an impact. Some people have said he was overhyped. Others called him an underachiever. Still others think he may have peaked too soon.
But make no mistake: this is a signing that could pay enormous dividends for Philly and electrify an already outstanding Union fan base.
People from all over the world are calling me and asking me how its possible that everyone is saying soccer is the fifth or sixth sport in the US and theyre watching our games and saying the stadium is packed every single day, said Union manager Peter Nowak, who was Adus first coach, when both were at DC United from 2004-06. For me, I explain with great pride what we did together with our fans in this city and the people who embrace our team. Every soccer game is a great event for the fans and a great celebration. I wish it will continue this way.
How could it not?
Since beginning MLS play in 2010, the Union have sold out almost all of their games, avoiding the sophomore slump that Sakiewicz was concerned about heading into the 11 campaign. The city has hosted three US national team games in the past year, as well as a handful of high-profile international exhibitions featuring marquee teams like Manchester United and Real Madrid. And Sakiewicz hopes to soon bring World Cup qualifying games to PPL Park, which he says would be a daunting place for any of the CONCACAF teams to play because the one thing we can guarantee is that it would be a very pro-American crowd.
Adus arrival will only boost Phillys status as a growing soccer city, while making it even harder for fans to find tickets at cozy 18,500-seat PPL Park. And the marketing possibilities are endless.
But it should be noted that this signing is about far more than selling tickets or finding a face for the franchise. This is not equivalent to the Los Angeles Galaxy and New York Red Bulls signing aging European stars David Beckham and Thierry Henry to monster deals. Unlike Beckham and Henry, Adu isnt in the twilight of his career. Not even close. As hard as it is to believe considering he first burst onto the scene a decade ago, hes only 22 years old. And he still has a lot to prove.
In many ways, Adu is an underdog, a one-time phenom simply hoping to become a full-time starter on a team he can call his own. Hes a born-and-bred American looking to create his own version of the great American comeback story. What better place to do that than in Philly?
Will he find his mojo back in his home country while playing under his first professional coach? No one knows for sure, of course. But if his breakout performance for the US national team at the Gold Cup in June is any indication, Adu is well on his way back to prominence, if not superstardom. And if he can uncork only some of his immense potential while meshing well with Sebastien Le Toux, Danny Mwanga and the rest of the clubs revitalized attack the Union suddenly appear well-equipped to make a championship run this year and beyond.
Oh, and one more thing: soccer in Philadelphia will grow even larger.
We always knew Philly was a rich soccer city but I think it was flowing beneath the surface, Sakiewicz said. Once the Union came in and launched, it really brought out the best in Philadelphia soccer.
With Adu in town, perhaps the best is yet to come.
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com and writes a weekly Union column for CSNPhilly.com. You can e-mail him at email@example.com.