He was a prodigy. An American football phenom who came to prominence in 2004 for becoming the youngest person to sign a professional sports contract in the United States since 1887. Freddy Adu was supposed to become America’s Messi at a time when the US was in need of a football legend. Ten years later, all we got was a kid who never reached the dizzying heights expected of him.
Adu joined the IMG Soccer Academy at the age of 12 and by 14, he was being drafted first overall by the D.C. United in 2004. Signing a 14-year-old to a professional contract sounded absurd then and it sounds absurd now — if you forget that time VVV-Venlo signed a toddler to a 10-year contract.
The American football scene was very different 10 years ago and I believe that had an impact of Adu’s growth as a player. The MLS was less relevant then and Adu’s signing made international news. Hell, the only reason the 13-year-old version of myself knew the MLS existed was because of Freddy Adu.
Therein lies the problem.
Adu should have never been rushed to the pitch. His talent at 14 may have been prodigal, but there’s a reason American leagues stopped signing players his age in 1887. His skills were unrefined and his personality hadn’t been given time to mature. Think Mario Balotelli. All the talent in the world, but sometimes needs a swift kick to the ass to get him going in the right direction.
Nine teams and seven countries later, Freddy Adu has become a joke, mentioned with some of the worst flops in American sports history. Adu is football’s version of football’s (the American one) Ki-Jana Carter except Carter can hang his staggering descent into obscurity to being injured in his third game.
Undoubtedly, there are more Freddy Adu-esque American prodigies out there. It’s inevitable. However, we can count our lucky stars that the game in the United States and the MLS has grown up in the last 10 years. The MLS doesn’t like to sign anyone who can’t collect social security these days.
Whether Freddy Adu will ever be half the player we expected him to be can be argued for days, but Adu’s career will always be the warning heeded by the next American phenoms offered a professional football contract when he is still bringing his lunch to school in a Power Rangers lunch box.