Posted: Tuesday May 10, 2005 9:38PM; Updated: Tuesday May 10, 2005 9:38PM
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- Just a year after being hailed as U.S. soccer's superstar-in-waiting, Freddy Adu sits on the sidelines in Washington, a world away from the prestigious European clubs he hopes to one day represent.
Adu, who last year at the age of 14 signed a contract with D.C. United worth $500,000 a year, has started just twice in six matches and scored one goal.
Yet the soft-spoken forward-midfielder maintains he is on track to eventually realise his dream of playing for Chelsea or Manchester United in England's Premier League.
"Obviously, I'm not okay about not starting," Adu told Reuters in a recent interview. "But you have to be able to handle it. You have to be a pro about it. You can't let it get to you and you can't let it take it out of you.
"You just have to keeping working hard to make it hard for the coach not to have you out there on the field," said Adu, whose playing time has been sporadic.
Despite starting Adu in only two matches, D.C. United coach Peter Nowak said he had "never stopped believing in his skills. I never stopped believing he can be one of the best in the world."
Nowak said that while Major League Soccer (MLS) was nowhere near the calibre of the Premier League, it was nonetheless a professional league with quality players.
"Freddy used to go out there and play for fun," said Nowak. "But now he plays against guys who play for a living. Playing for fun is very good. I understand he is a teenager and he still wants to have this passion and this love for the game.
"But you have to be a little harder on yourself and say: 'This is not good enough for the moment right now. I need to do better'."
The Ghana-born Adu was playing regularly a year ago, when, as a rookie, he picked up a $1-million sponsorship deal from Nike and another big-money endorsement pact from Pepsi.
He responded by improving throughout the year, tallying five goals. He has had several scoring chances this year but converted only once.
The 5-6, 145-pound Adu will soon have to split his time between D.C. United -- the MLS champions -- and the U.S. under-20 national team. The FIFA World Youth Championship will be held in the Netherlands from June 10 to July 2.
"Freddy needs to understand how important this year is for him," Nowak said of the MLS's highest-paid player. "The World Youth Championship is coming up and everyone is going to look after him. I want to make sure that he is going to be ready for the challenge."
Despite the slow start to his second season Adu remains a draw and a corporate darling. A just-released soft drink advertisement features Adu with New York Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez and NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon.
Adu, now 15, admits that the pressure to live up to his reputation is daunting -- especially when most of the players he faces are vastly more experienced and a lot bigger.
"It's always tough when you're out there playing against guys twice your size, you know?" Adu said, gazing out at the D.C. United pitch from the baseball dugout at RFK Memorial Stadium.
"People expect me to get out there and score three goals every game. That's not how it works. I'm not going to ride my highs too high and my lows to low.
"I've improved a lot from last year to this year. I have a lot more confidence in my game. Now I want the ball at my feet. Last year I was more of a role player. This year I'm ready to control the ball."
He is a millionaire who still is not old enough to drive a car yet Adu is determined to be as normal a teenager as possible.
"I'm having a blast. Not in my wildest dreams did I think I'd be a professional soccer player at 15, having gone pro at 14. I'm having fun. I'm loving the experience. I know in the long run it's going to help me.
"It's tough sometimes [in the pros] because everything is so serious," he said. "But you still have to have fun. When I come to practice, I put my serious face on. Once I leave I have to be a kid again."