Talk about surreal. Just as Freddy Adu was welcoming a visitor to his Washington, D.C., hotel room last week before the MLS All-Star Game, former U.S. star Alexi Lalas was on the TV dialing down the hype on... Freddy Adu. After Lalas had finished pointing out that the 15-year-old Adu is no sure thing and that he'd have to win a World Cup to meet his outsized expectations, Adu shook his skull-capped head and smiled. "I'm going to prove to everybody that I deserve to be here," he said. "I will make a difference in this league, and sooner than anyone thinks."
Halfway into his debut season, Adu is still seeking to bridge the chasm between his promotion and his production. Despite being the league's highest-paid (at $500,000 a year) and most visible (seen those Sierra Mist ads with Pel�?) player, at week's end he had contributed two goals and one assist in 18 games, including seven starts. Though Adu has easily earned his paycheck—with an average road attendance of 22,644, D.C. United is the league's most popular draw—he is still a work in progress. "He's had some brilliant moments," says United midfielder Ben Olsen, "and he's had times when he looked lost."
Adu has the requisite pieces of flair: stepovers, seeing-eye passes and occasional one-on-one dribbling shows, some of which he flashed in his second-half All-Star appearance at RFK Stadium last Saturday. But he's still figuring out the no less important tasks of tracking back on defense, giving constant effort and making runs to avoid contact with stronger defenders. "I could get away with stuff at the youth level that I can't in the pros," Adu says. "These guys are so experienced that the way to succeed is to put yourself in the right spots."
Adu says he's "on track" to meet his goals for the season (cracking the starting lineup, helping United reach the playoffs and scoring five or more goals), but he acknowledges that the pressure has been enormous. Only six games into the season The Washington Times ran the headline FADING FREDDY. After Adu publicly complained about his lack of playing time in June, he got a visit from Trevor Moawad, his mental conditioning coach from the U.S. under-17 residency program in Bradenton, Fla. Moawad reminded Adu of the criticism he received from college coaches upon arriving in Bradenton at 12—and how he was scoring hat tricks against those coaches' teams two years later.
As Adu has discovered, though, the Darwinian world of pro sports isn't like the nurturing environment he had in Florida. "It's not easy when you come in as the highest-paid player and you're 14," he says. "Some people aren't going to be friendly, and some people are. That's just how it is. It was tough for me the first half of the season to adjust because every time I went in, there were negative comments. When I heard that from professionals, it got to me, but I've matured a lot since then, and I don't care about that stuff anymore."
In fact, Adu says, his improvement before the All-Star break has him bullish about the rest of 2004. In a 5-1 loss at Dallas on July 24 he was D.C.'s most dangerous attacker, creating its only goal. "I think I'm really close to breaking through," he said last week "I've gotten better, stronger, faster. And most important, I'm a hell of a lot more comfortable."