Why American Soccer Didn’t Need Freddy Adu

“A lot of people have been hyped up to be great but just disappeared,” Freddy Adu, a 13-freddy aduyear-old soccer prodigy from Washington, D.C., told Sports Illustrated in 2003. “I promised myself I wouldn’t be one of them.”

Earlier this week, Adu signed for the NASL’s Tampa Bay Rowdies, his 13th club in 11 seasons. The move, which will reunite Adu with one of his old youth coaches, represents the latest in a long series of last chances for the forward once hailed as the American Pele. Adu hasn’t played for the United States since the 2012 Gold Cup. In March, after Adu ended a humiliating six-month stint with a team in the Serbian SuperLiga, Grantland’s Noah Davis wondered, “Seriously, what the heck happened with Freddy Adu?” On Monday, BBC Sport labeled him “a journeyman at the age of 26.” 

It’s difficult to overstate the level of hysteria that surrounded Adu in the early 2000s, as he prepared to become the youngest player in the history of Major League Soccer. He was profiled in Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair, as well as SI. He was interviewed on 60 Minutes and The Late Show with David Letterman. Pundits compared him to LeBron James, anointing him “the savior of American soccer.” “He’s in a position to positively affect a sports league more than any other player since Babe Ruth,” Dean Bonham, a Denver-based sports-marketing executive, said in 2004.

On the face of it, the Adu mania was simply a familiar exercise in sports hype. European pundits have pronounced so many young players “the next Messi” that you could fill several rosters with short, skinny, burned-out attacking midfielders. The American media went crazy for New York Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin, before quickly shifting its attention to the next athletic sensation. But the Adu coverage was different. He wasn’t expected to merely score goals and win silverware. He was supposed to singlehandedly transform American soccer, to convert a nation of hotdog-munching NFL fans into true believers in the beautiful game.

We now know that Adu’s mission wasn’t just impossible. It was also unnecessary. His gradual disappearance into the void occupied by once-praised-now-forgotten players – a long, painful journey that took him from from Portugal to France to Turkey to Greece to Brazil to England to Norway to Holland to Serbia to Finland – has occurred against the backdrop of tremendous progress in American soccer. The US men’s and women’s national teams are attracting record TV audiences. MLS has accumulated an impressive array of big-name European players, some of them still in their prime. And American media outlets, from niche publications to the Worldwide Leader, are covering international soccer with an enthusiasm and curiosity that seemed unimaginable less than a decade ago.

Turns out that the United States didn’t need a spectacularly talented American superstar to propel soccer into the mainstream. The game’s rise happened largely on the Internet, fueled by the rise of social media, immersive podcasts and the blogosphere. The FIFA videogames have brought foreign players and the English commentators who shout about them into the living rooms of millions of American teenagers. It was a confluence of interrelated forces, not the heroism of a superstar goal scorer, that finally gave soccer a foothold in the American consciousness.

Still, the US national team could certainly benefit from the services of a transcendently skilled attacker. We are fast becoming a nation of soccer-lovers, but Jurgen Klinsmann’s team, which has looked somewhat jaded in recent games, will not win the 2018 World Cup with Jozy Altidore and Chris Wondolowski leading the line.

That’s just one among many reasons that Freddy Adu, the ex-phenom who swore he would fulfill his country’s absurd expectations, will surely miss out on the naïve-yet-heartwarming goal he set back in 2003. “I see myself in a World Cup final for the USA, playing against a top-notch team everyone picks to win,” Adu told SI. “And we just come out and blast them. One day when I’m holding that trophy, someone’s gonna take a picture. Oh, man. That is going to be huge.”

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