Eighteen months ago, Freddy Adu sat down in front of a microphone and made you believe.
When he spoke, the words were eloquent, honest and thoughtful. He expressed gratitude to everyone who made his deal with the Philadelphia Union possible. He said he matured during his circuitous and humbling journey through the perilous world of European soccer. He promised to do whatever was asked of him from then-Union manager Peter Nowak, Adu’s first coach when both were at D.C. United in the mid-2000s. He said he was a different person than the child prodigy who did a commercial with Pelé and signed his first professional contract with D.C. before he was old enough to drive.
Of course we wanted to believe him. How could we not? Here was a story of this boy-turned-man, trying to emerge from the rubble of unfulfilled promise, in the same league – and with the same coach – where he got his start nearly a decade ago. And he was still only 22 when the Union signed him in August of 2011 – still plenty of time to become the American soccer star he was always supposed to be.
It was almost too perfect. Who doesn’t love a good redemption story?
But the redemption story began with a whimper. The Union’s prized new acquisition never got much traction over the final couple months of the 2011 season, starting in just six games and scoring two goals. It would later be revealed he was playing through a sprained ankle and didn’t want to tell anyone. Combine that with the fact that he didn’t have any kind of real offseason fitness and his output suddenly seemed understandable, if still unfulfilling.
No matter. The 2012 season would be when he’d really make his mark. It had to be, right? Everything seemed to be lining up. For the first time in a long time, Adu had a full offseason to work with his team. He was familiar with the Union coaches and players, and finally felt stable after playing for seven teams in the previous eight years. He was named captain of the U.S. U-23 national team that was seeking a coveted spot in the Olympics. He said he was playing at a level that he hadn’t played at in a while. He was healthy.
But then came more disappointment for the seemingly star-crossed midfielder. Despite playing well for the Olympic team, the Americans were knocked out of qualifying in devastating fashion, failing to make London. When he returned to Philly, he was plugged into the Union’s starting lineup but drifted through many games without making much impact. Nowak, the man he called a “father figure,” was fired in June, and Adu began to bump heads with new manager John Hackworth, who suspended him for a game for a violation of team rules, played him out on the wing instead of in a central attacking role where he preferred, and almost always subbed him out of games in the second half. By the end of the year, a visibly shaken Adu had basically become a high-priced role player. And earlier this week, Adu’s relationship with the Union came to a predictable but sad end, as Hackworth revealed to reporters that the team is trying to unload the ex-wunderkind, who decided he didn’t want to renegotiate his contract.
Adu hasn’t been heard from since the end of last season. He hasn’t tweeted in more than two months. But this much we know: he’ll never again play for the Union, at least while Hackworth is still the team’s manager.
Was this always the inevitable end?
There are many Union fans that would say yes. If you went to games at PPL Park, you’ve probably seen these fans. They booed whenever Adu touched the ball. They thought it was laughable that the team’s highest-priced player was also the team’s most inconsistent player. They noticed his laziness tracking back on defense. They could sense that Adu cared more about personal redemption and paving a path back to Europe than about team objectives. They could see that he didn’t appear to be particularly loved by teammates and never really fit into the blue-collar ideal that made Philadelphians fall in love with players like Danny Califf and Sébastien Le Toux.
And they had a point.
But there are many more who believed in Adu – and still do. They’ve seen the flashes of brilliance when Adu dribbles around defenders like he’s in a video game. They’ve seen the YouTube video of all the assists Adu could have had in 2012 if only his Union teammates were more adept at finishing. They were encouraged by his performance with the U.S. national team in the 2011 Gold Cup and then with the Olympic team last year. They remember the hype and they can see the potential, if only he gets the right opportunity.
If only ...
We’ve been saying that about Freddy Adu for so long now. If only the Union had given him the keys to the car, maybe he could have been better. If only he finds the right situation, maybe he could still live up to the hype. If only this, if only that. But at some point, we have to question there might not be a right situation for someone that’s already played for eight teams in nine years. Maybe there will be no great redemption tale. Maybe he’s just not good enough.
Perhaps the problem is we’ve convinced ourselves of something because we wanted to believe it. The idea of Freddy Adu, after all, has always been pretty alluring: The next American soccer superstar. And through it all, we’ve heard Adu tell us he can still be great and that he’s still very young and that Clint Dempsey was only 21 when he started his professional career and, well, look at the English Premier League star now. It’s always sounded very convincing because Adu is well-spoken and fiercely ambitious. But could part of the reason for that be because he’s also trying to convince himself?
The Freddy Adu saga is not over, of course. He will soon play for another team in another city and he’ll talk about a new chapter beginning when he gets there. He’ll say that he’s been waiting for a perfect opportunity like this. He’ll flash a smile and say that he finally feels ready to become the player he knows he can be.
A lot of people will believe him, too.