Adu still struggling to establish himself as a starter in Europe
One-time phenom Freddy Adu has become a journeyman -- six teams in six years
Observers at former clubs say that Adu has talent but lacks tactical knowledge
If Adu fails in his lastest stint with Aris in Greece, he might return to MLS
This story appeared in the April 19, 2010, issue of Sports Illustrated.
Stray dogs. Freddy Adu sees them everywhere in Thessaloníki. Scavenging trash in the vacant lot by his practice field. Wandering in packs outside the hotel he called home for two months. Shadowing pedestrians with enough menace to spark visions of giant-needled rabies shots. Greece's second-largest city is beautiful in many respects: the seaside beaches, the bustling restaurants, the sigh-inducing women. But no matter how hard Adu tries, he can't avoid the stray dogs.
They are a constant backdrop to Adu's own fight for survival in the Darwinian world of European soccer. Six years after making his professional debut at age 14 with MLS's D.C. United, Adu is still trying to find consistent playing time with the Greek club Aris, his fourth European team in three years. He lives a dual existence. To mainstream U.S. sports fans he remains one of this country's best-known soccer players. Adu has nearly 350,000 Twitter followers (more than any other soccer star in the world except Brazil's Kaka). He has sat on David Letterman's couch, been the subject of a 60 Minutes profile and gotten a shout-out in a Jay-Z lyric.
Yet barring a major surprise, Adu, now 20, will not be on the U.S.'s 23-man World Cup roster in South Africa. With unproductive stops in Portugal and France before Greece, he has strayed from the path that he and so many others had envisioned when he signed a $1 million Nike deal in 2003 and became the highest-paid player in MLS before he had ever kicked a ball in the league. As a rookie Adu appeared with Pele in a national ad campaign for Sierra Mist and had a sponsorship deal with Campbell's Soup. In '03 former MLS deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis (who now runs England's Arsenal) called Adu "probably the best young player in the world."
There are so many questions. What happened? Why has Adu shown promise in major competitions at the youth level but failed to establish himself professionally in Europe? Does he have a future with the national team? And how many more opportunities will Adu get overseas? "I believe in him. That's why we signed him," says Antonio Calzado, Aris's international general manager. "But is this the last chance for Freddy to get to the top? Probably it is."
Yet if this sounds like a sad story, then why does U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard maintain that Adu "has skills with the ball that not many -- if any -- American players possess"? And why is Adu so upbeat? "I'm only 20," he says, flashing his magnetic smile. "People panic sometimes when things don't go right. I don't. I've still got a long way to go, but I'm on the right track now. I'm finally, finally on the right track."
Game time in Thessaloníki. It's a glorious spring night, perfect weather for the crosstown rivalry between Aris and PAOK, and Aris's Super 3 fan club is leaving nothing to chance. As the players march onto the field, the hard-cores in the east stands ignite a fireworks display that makes it look as though the entire section has been napalmed. Nothing in the U.S. -- or in the rest of Europe, for that matter -- is quite like it. "It's crazy here, man," says Adu. No kidding. Since Adu and fellow American Eddie Johnson joined Aris in January, they've been sprayed by shards of glass after opposing fans shattered the roof over their bench, and scurried for cover in the players' tunnel during a battle royal between bottle-throwing supporters.