Early last year Emelia finally said yes. At the national youth finals in Indiana, Ellinger invited Freddy to join the U.S. Soccer Federation's residency program at the IMG Academies in Florida. There he could train with the top 30 under-17 players in the country while completing his high school studies at an accelerated pace. One year later Freddy's reviews couldn't be better. "He's awesome," says teammate Corey Ashe, 16. "You don't see a 13-year-old doing step-overs and Maradonas and stuff, and he does them. He's a cool kid, too, always smiling, always positive. A lot of the guys have taken him in and looked after him."
That's the thing with Freddy. Everyone—parents, coaches, teammates—wants to protect him. Spend time around Freddy, and you soon realize he's a normal American teenager, one who's constantly joking with his teammates and mixing in as one of the guys on coed field trips to the cineplex. "Your social life is good here," Freddy says. "Before I came, I heard rumors about how this place was boring, but I love it."
At the same time, Freddy remains exceptional in so many ways. In his first organized basketball game two years ago, a jayvee contest for The Heights School in Potomac, Freddy scored 28 points. On the first golf hole he ever played, a 370-yard par-4, Freddy reached the green in two and two-putted for par. In his first art competition as a fifth-grader, his drawing won the top county prize. "This kid is just a freak show," Tarzy says, smiling.
But Freddy is human. "You can tell he's 13," says Trevor Moawad, the mental conditioning coach at IMG. One challenge is to address his occasional habit of swearing when he's frustrated on the field. "Every week he watches a 15-to 20-minute video of himself," Moawad says, "so that he can watch himself get upset. And we ask him: Is that the message you want to send?" In an attempt to connect Freddy with mentors, IMG has also set up hang time for him with Dallas Cowboys safety Roy Williams, retired track legend Michael Johnson and soccer star Clint Mathis.
When Freddy watched himself on tape after an under-17 tournament in December, he no doubt liked what he saw. Easily the U-17s' most entertaining player, he repeatedly bamboozled foes with his sleight of foot (most often his left). Even his teammates couldn't help but yell out, "Woo, Freddy!" "I don't say this to anyone," he says, "but sometimes I'll tell myself, If I get the ball and have two guys on me, I'm gonna take these guys. And then I'll do it." Freddy is also fast improving on his weaknesses, learning to move off the ball and to be even more unpredictable, "to mix up his one-touch and two-touch combinations so he can unbalance a defense," Ellinger says.
Even at this age, however, Freddy is learning one of soccer's brutal realities: Talented players are marked men. It's deeply unsettling to hear him scream when opponents scythe his legs out from under him, a tactic one defender used five times in the first 20 minutes of a December U-17 game (without the referee issuing a single yellow card). "This happens all the time," Freddy said afterward, holding an ice pack on his bruised ankle. "Once your name gets out, people just want to crack you." Sad but true: On the latest CD-ROM issued by the USSF's supervisor of officials, Freddy is cited as an example of how referees need to blow the whistle on persistent fouling.
Now if he could only clear the air, once and for all, about his age. Freddy has heard the whispers. He can't be 13. "I just take it as a compliment," he says. U.S. Soccer officials privately suggest that a bone scan might be in order to erase any doubts, and the family says bring it on, pointing out that nobody has found any evidence that the date on Freddy's certified birth registration (June 2, 1989) is incorrect. Nor did SI, in an effort to independently confirm Freddy's age through sources in Ghana, find any evidence that he's older than he says he is.
Then there's the biggest question: What comes next? If European interest remains after the under-17 championships, Freddy has persuaded Emelia to accept a pro offer this time. "I think I'm ready," he says. "I've played against MLS teams and done the same things to them that I do in every other game. If I go to another country, I'll play with their youth team for a year and then maybe jump into a professional setting." But new FIFA regulations forbid players under 18 from transferring into the European Union (unless they are moving for family reasons), and MLS recently rebuffed the Adus' inquiry about the possibility of Freddy's joining the league this season. ("At some point we'll look at it again, but 13 is just too young," says deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis.) Of course, Freddy could stay in Bradenton another year, earn his high school diploma and train with the under-20 team—or even join his brother on the U-17s. A spot on the 2004 Olympic team (made up primarily of under-23 players) isn't out of the question.
Whenever anyone gets too carried away, though, soccer followers mention the cautionary tale of Nii Lamptey, the forward who won the MVP award at the 1991 Under-17 World Championship with Ghana, only to bounce around several European clubs before dropping off the radar. It's a sad reminder that there are never any guarantees, no can't-miss kids. "A lot of people have been hyped up to be great but just disappeared," Freddy says. "I promised myself I wouldn't be one of them."
As he strives to make good on that promise, he can't help but dream. "I see myself in a World Cup final for the U.S.A., playing against a top-notch team everyone picks to win," he says. "And we just come out and blast them. One day when I'm holding that trophy, someone's gonna take a picture. Oh, man. That is going to be huge."