Twelve years ago this week, 14-year-old Freddy Adu was drafted by his hometown club D.C. United, arriving in Major League Soccer with staggering expectations. Christened as the heir to Pele, the wunderkid was the youngest American to ever play professional sports, the highest-paid player in the league, and the prospective savior of American soccer.
Of course, things didn't work out that way. The boy who was called a phenom before he could drive was labelled a bust before he could buy a drink. Despite frequent flashes of brilliance, Adu's professional career mostly consists of vagabond years in Europe and MLS, his potential never blossoming into consistent greatness. Now playing for the Tampa Bay Rowdies of the NASL, one rung lower than MLS, Adu still receives occasional attention, mostly predicated on an unflattering question: What went wrong?
The answer, perhaps, can be found at the very beginning of Adu's story.
Nicholas Scrivens remembers the first time he saw Freddy Adu cry. Childhood friends and club teammates, the two boys were in Raleigh, North Carolina traveling with their team, the Potomac Cougars, in 2000.
"And it's just me and him," Scrivens says, "And I'm like, 'Yo Fred, what's wrong, man?' And he's like, "Everybody keeps saying that I'm not the age that I am. That I'm 20 years-old. Just because I'm black and I'm African, they think that I'm lying."
Most of the time, Freddy could shrug off the doubts about his age, but that night in Raleigh, he cracked. He was 11.
The rumors had started almost as soon as Adu entered the Maryland youth soccer scene. In March 1998, several months after his family won a green card lottery in their native Ghana and moved to the United States, an eight-year-old Adu showed up at a preseason tournament hosted by the Cougars, perennial Maryland state champions at the time. "What I saw was just beyond realistic," says Arnold Tarzy, head coach of the Cougars at the time.
In those days before YouTube and social media, the gospel of Adu spread by word of mouth, with everyone who saw him play becoming unwitting evangelists. "Everything was just, 'Have you seen this kid play? Have you seen him?'" says Scrivens. "But ultimately after you saw it, you started telling your own stories. It was just larger than life."
Every moment of brilliance only amplified the doubts about his age. Coming in the aftermath of Danny Almonte, the Dominican 2001 Little League World Series standout whose birth certificate had been altered, skepticism about Adu's birth certificate hounded the team. "Especially when we got to the national stage, you'd always hear it," says fellow Cougars teammate Sam Empson. "Everybody would try to get into Freddy's head."
Tarzy says rumors began with jealous parents. "The egos of the collective parents would not believe that anyone could be better than their chosen kids," he says. "They had to blame it on something so they said he must be too old."
As rumors spread, so did media interest in Adu's age. "People asked to see his birth certificate, they wanted to take away our medals," says Scrivens. Sports Illustrated even sent a researcher to the hospital where Adu was born in Ghana, but found no evidence that Adu was older than he claimed to be.
While rumors dogged Adu off the field, he was a marked man on it. Opposing parents and fans would shout names ("Freddy Krueger!" was a popular choice) and encourage their sons to hit Adu harder and harder until he was forced to leave matches. The persistent fouling became so severe that U.S. Soccer used videos of Adu to train officials. "Guys would clean out him on purpose, and he would just get back up," Scrivens says. "He had that spirit where it was relentless. Freddy wanted to beat you at everything."
Adu's skill and competitive spirit caught the attention of foreign scouts. In 2000, Inter Milan sent a representative to Maryland to meet with Tarzy and Adu's mother, Emilia. The Italian club offered Adu a spot in their renowned youth academy and $750,000.
"His mom was completely puzzled by all this," Tarzy says. "And she said, 'My son is not for sale.' She was a very principled woman, and clearly didn't bring her family over to the United States ... just to give it all up just by sending her son overseas for an amount of money that would benefit her in the short term."
Despite turning down the offer, Adu's days in the DC area were numbered. In 2001, he led his club team, now known as the Bethesda Internationals, to the under-14 youth national title. At the tournament, John Ellinger, head coach of the United States under-17 national team, invited Adu to join the team's residency program in Bradenton, Florida.
There, Adu no longer was forced to deal with accusations about his age. But he did have to contend with players three and four years his senior, some of whom were unhappy to see a 12-year-old command so much attention. "The nature of a residential environment is social Darwinism," says sports psychologist Trevor Moawad who worked with Adu and the team.
"Freddy is a strong, alpha personality. He's enthusiastic, he's loud, he's energetic, he's charismatic, and that was an adjustment for some of the guys. He was not the easiest player to deal with. He was more like an NFL wide receiver than an American soccer midfielder."
But Adu's performances on the field, coupled with support from the team captains and coaching staff, won over his doubters, and the hype continued to grow. Moawad says the conditions at Bradenton were ideal for Adu to develop his game: "He slept well, he ate well, he trained hard, he lifted. He did all the things that you need to do you know to be successful."
In his second year in Bradenton—before the final of a major international youth tournament, the 2003 Dallas Cup—Adu was becoming increasingly aware of the expectations for him and his career.
"We're getting ready to play Newcastle, and Freddy grabs me and says, 'How many people do you think are here?'" Moawad says. "And I said, 'Well, close to 14,000 people.' And he says, 'It's kind of a weird feeling to know that there are 28,000 eyes looking right at me."
Among those watching were representatives from Nike and MLS. In May 2003, Nike signed Adu to a $1 million contract and the following January, MLS paid him a record-breaking $500,000 per year, making the 14-year-old the highest-paid player in the league.
"The financial offer was so significant that his family really had no choice but to accept," says Adu's former coach Tarzy. "He had the ability to set his family's path in a completely different direction than they were in."
Along with Nike, Adu also scored an endorsement deal with Pepsi, who produced the infamous Pele commercial. That was followed by magazine covers and a 60 Minutes special report. Just six years after walking onto a suburban Maryland soccer field, Adu was now called the savior of American soccer and the crown jewel for a league eager to solidify its standing in the American sports landscape.
For those who knew him best, the attention was deserved. "It was never, 'This is being blown out of proportion,'" says Empson. "It was always, 'Well, duh, obviously Freddy is going to be the next best player in the world.'"
But some also saw a new side of Adu. "You saw his personality change," says Scrivens. "When he was coming back from Bradenton, I would say, 'Yo, Fred come over let's play some basketball.' He was like, 'Yo, are there girls over now?' I think people just took the fun out of it for him."
As the season opener approached, the hype about Adu amplified. On his April 3, 2004 debut, D.C. United drew 24,603 fans to RFK Stadium, almost 10,000 more than their average the previous season. Around the league, attendance numbers ticked up substantially in what became known as the "Freddy Effect."
Despite the attention, Adu was a reserve, mostly coming off the bench for a D.C. United team that would go on to win the MLS Cup that year. Some coaches complained that Adu had been coddled at Bradenton as he struggled to adapt to the rigors of being a professional.
For his part, Moawad says Adu—who really was only 14—required support that wasn't provided: "They had a media plan, [but] they had no other plans. It was just hey let's stick him in the infrastructure. If there was a plan to develop Freddy, I never heard anything about it and I was one of the people that was most significantly involved with him throughout the three years in Bradenton." Adu, through his agent, declined to be interviewed for this story.
When Adu didn't play, the chorus of doubts returned, along with a familiar criticism. In the The Washington Post, popular sports columnist Tony Kornheiser frequently went on the attack:
Do you think Freddy Adu will eventually marry a Spice Girl, like David Beckham did? That would be so cool. But the Spice Girls are almost 40 now. So which one would he marry, Old Spice? Bada-boom.
We have 14-year-old superstar Freddy Adu coming to our rescue. He's driving that 1991 Cadillac Eldorado he bought new, when he was, um, 2 years old.
"When he wore the Bethesda, Potomac jersey, that trash talk motivated him," Scrivens says. "But when it became a bigger stage and people said he wasn't living up to expectations, that would hurt him."
Ultimately, Moawad says, Adu's problem wasn't that he was lying about his age. It's that he was telling the truth. On the suburban soccer fields where he felt most at home, he was jeered and questioned, targeted by birth certificate truthers years before Barack Obama became a household name. People simply didn't know how to handle—let alone how to nurture—someone so young and so good.
When Adu turned professional, no one asked for his papers. But nothing else really changed.
"He would have been zero problem in the American football world. Zero. They'd have known how to deal with him. But soccer saw this guy and they were like, 'Oh my god! This is so challenging!'" concludes Moawad, "I think Major League Soccer, I think our country in general, wasn't really ready to carry the burden of developing his talent."