The most talked-about youth soccer player in the world will be wearing the red and black of Major League Soccer's D.C. United next spring.
Freddy Adu, the 14-year-old American soccer prodigy, has signed a four-year contract with MLS (plus two option years), culminating a fevered three-month-long pursuit that involved such global giants as Chelsea, Manchester United, Inter Milan, PSV Eindhoven and Barcelona.
The deal is a major coup for MLS. An electrifying goal-scorer with remarkable speed, vision and ball skills, Adu has the potential to be the first American male soccer icon, a crossover star who could significantly raise the profile of the eighth-year league.
"Not one person in the world soccer industry, from all the naysayers in this country to every major soccer team in Europe, thought that we would sign Freddy," said MLS commissioner Don Garber. "This says strongly that we are serious about the business of growing the sport of soccer in this country."
Financial terms were not disclosed, but sources tell Sports Illustrated that MLS has made Adu the highest-paid player in the league.
"This is a very important signing for us," said MLS deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis, who spearheaded the negotiations. "Freddy is a supremely talented young player, probably the best young player in the world."
Adu, a Ghanaian-born striker who emigrated to the U.S. in 1997 and became an American citizen earlier this year, is set to travel to New York for a formal announcement on Wednesday.
"It has been a long and diligent process," said Adu's agent, Richard Motzkin. "At the end of the day, Freddy and his family decided that beginning his professional soccer career in the United States was the right decision for him."
Sources told SI that Adu spurned more lucrative offers from Europe to play in MLS. Why? Three reasons. Adu can 1) live at home with his family in Potomac, Md.; 2) play first-team professional soccer as a minor in the U.S., a practice forbidden in Europe to non-EU citizens by FIFA, soccer's governing body; and 3) have a more nurturing environment in MLS than he would in the hothouse of European soccer.
Adu's decision to join MLS was the bolder choice, said Motzkin.
"Had Freddy signed with a European club he would not have been able to play in any sort of club match until he was at least 16, and probably not until he was 18, because of the FIFA restrictions," said Motzkin. "Taking that path, he could have remained a mythical figure who occasionally appeared and dominated in youth competitions. But instead he's choosing to show what he's got right now."
"If Freddy had gone to the superclubs, who were all interested, he wouldn't be as important to them as he is to us," said Gazidis. "For us Freddy is a unique and precious jewel."
Significantly, MLS will retain the sole ownership of Adu's rights, which figures to produce a mega-windfall for the league if Adu approaches his potential and is ever sold to a European team for a multimillion-dollar transfer fee. (To put things in perspective, Manchester United reportedly paid $21.1 million this year for 18-year-old Portuguese wunderkind Cristiano Ronaldo.)
By contrast, the rights to MLS's current top star, 21-year-old Landon Donovan, are owned by the German club Bayer Leverkusen (which has loaned Donovan to the San Jose Earthquakes.)
To obtain Adu, D.C. United has already reached an agreement with the Dallas Burn -- holder of the No. 1 pick in next year's MLS SuperDraft -- in which D.C. will trade an as-yet-undisclosed asset to Dallas. (One source said the transaction would likely include the allocation D.C. would receive if Marco Etcheverry announces his retirement.)
When asked if Dallas fans will be comfortable with the move, Garber said: "Absolutely. Dallas is not a playoff contender. They had one of the worst seasons in the history of our league. They need impact immediately, and they will get that. Dallas needs to have somebody that's going to help them win some games as they get ready for moving into their new complex in 2005."
Reasonable people can disagree about the kind of impact Adu will make in MLS at 14 next year, but MLS is preaching caution. Said Gazidis, "It will take a little time for him to adjust to a fully fledged professional environment. We shouldn't expect him to explode onto the scene in 2004. At the same time, he hasn't been tested to his limits yet, and I would never say never with Freddy."
"Freddy is someone who needs to be carefully developed physically and competitively," said Garber. "He's playing with grown men, guys who are not going to care that Freddy's perceived as the great hope for the sport in this country. They're going to do everything they can to make sure he has a rough time."
For now, though, Adu and MLS, to say nothing of American soccer fans, will celebrate the news. Said Motzkin, "Freddy is excited to begin his professional soccer career in this country, and to participate with the U.S. national teams to further develop and then one day take his craft overseas."
Sports Illustrated senior writer Grant Wahl keeps you up to date with the world of U.S. soccer at SI.com.