Troy Dayak is an MLS All-Star defender. Freddy Adu isn't shaving yet. But when they met on a soccer field last spring, in a full-speed scrimmage between MLS's San Jose Earthquakes and the U.S. under-17 national team, a curious thing happened. Taking a pass on the left side, Freddy feinted to his right, then swerved like an X-wing fighter to his left with such a sudden and breathtaking whooosh that poor Dayak nearly fell over. Both benches howled. U.S. coach John Ellinger turned to the Earthquakes, then the defending MLS champs, and deadpanned, "I guess Troy hasn't played against a 12-year-old before."
How good is Freddy Adu, the prodigy of American soccer? Good enough that Ellinger (who helped develop U.S. World Cup stars Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley) says Freddy could play in MLS right now, at age 13. Good enough that one MLS coach predicts he'll start for the U.S. in the 2006 World Cup—when he's 17, the same age that Pel� was when he made his Cup debut. Good enough that some people have questioned whether he's really 13. And good enough that Inter Milan, one of the world's most storied clubs, offered Freddy's family a six-figure package to oversee his development, an unprecedented show of interest in a U.S.-based youngster.
"He has an unflinching confidence with the ball," marveled Dave Sarachan, the coach of MLS's Chicago Fire, after Freddy scored both goals in a 2-1 exhibition win over the Fire two weeks ago. "Speed kills, and if you give him any room, he'll break down your defenders."
Since Freddy moved from Potomac, Md., to the U.S. under-17 residency program in Bradenton, Fla., 13 months ago, the 5'8" forward has added 15 pounds of muscle (he now tips the scales at 140), scored 24 goals and busted enough "holy s—-" moves to become the most talked-about youth in American soccer history. The videotapes don't lie. Here's Freddy slaloming through three Columbus Crew defenders—seasoned pros—on a single run. Here's Freddy blasting a free kick around a Canadian wall into the upper corner. Here's Freddy clowning four onrushing Finns, drawing a penalty kick while two of them crash into each other like punks in a mosh pit.
"I love having the ball at my feet and running at the defender one-on-one," Freddy says, flashing his megawatt smile. "That's when I'm at my best, when I can pull some weird move and get by him and everyone goes, Ohhhhhh. I love that."
It's all so much for a 13-year-old. On March 5, just three weeks after becoming an American citizen, he'll make his official U.S. debut at the qualifying tournament for August's Under-17 World Championship in Finland. Yet even if Freddy excels in those venues, the odds are stacked against his future stardom. Out of 144 players from the '99 U-17 championship who were eligible for their country's 2002 World Cup rosters, only three ( Donovan, Beasley and Brazil's Kak�) made it to Korea/ Japan last summer. "Freddy's without a doubt the most talented kid we've ever seen at that age," says U.S. national team coach Bruce Arena, "but who knows where he'll be two years down the road?" Says D.C. United coach Ray Hudson, who watched Freddy train with his team for a week last fall, "A blind man on a galloping horse can see his talent. He's a little Faberg� egg, and everyone's just trying to protect him."
Including, not the least, his mother. As the offers poured in—from Inter Milan, from Adidas, from all manner of agents—Emelia Adu stood firm in her response: No. "He's just a young boy," says Emelia, who in 1997 brought her two sons, Freddy and Fro, to the U.S. from Ghana after the family won a green-card lottery. (They no longer live with the boys' father, Maxwell, who came with them from Ghana and remains in the D.C. area.) Most perplexing to Freddy's suitors was how a single mother working two full-time jobs could turn down security for her son. "I would get 10 calls a day, even at work," says Emelia, who now toils solely as a cashier at Home Depot. "'Are you Freddy's mom? Why didn't you take the deal?' Sometimes I cried at night thinking about it."
Emelia says education was the main reason the Adus left their home in Tema, a bustling harbor city on Ghana's Atlantic coast. As a six-year-old Freddy would spend hours each day at the neighborhood lot, polishing his skills in barefoot pickup games on a pebbly, sand-covered field against men three times his age. "They'd put me in games, and they would foul me," he says. "It was almost like they were teaching me to be tough."
Since their arrival in Potomac, Freddy and Fro (now 11 and in the U.S. under-15 pool) have thrived in sports and in school. Yet Freddy had never played organized soccer until the day a fourth-grade classmate, dazzled by Freddy's recess exploits, brought him to a tournament hosted by the Potomac Soccer Association. "He had all the instinctive skills to play soccer, as if they had been bestowed on him," says Arnold Tarzy, then coach of the elite Potomac Cougars travel team. "It was beyond imagining." Within 48 hours Freddy had joined Tarzy's team.
Along with Freddy's uncle, Anthony Yeboah, Tarzy has remained the Adus' closest adviser ("the only person I trust in America," Emelia says). It was Tarzy, the owner of a financial consulting firm, who hosted the meeting between Emelia and two Inter Milan reps in April 2000. That month 10-year-old Freddy had traveled to Italy with a U.S. Olympic Development Program learn for an under-14 tournament against the youth squads of such Italian powerhouses as Lazio of Rome and Turin's Juventus. Not only did Freddy's team win the competition, but he led the tournament in scoring and was named MVP. Within days the Adus' phone in Potomac began ringing...and ringing...and ringing. "I told Emelia to get an unlisted number," Tarzy says, shaking his head.