Last week, at a quaint, evergreen-ringed stadium in Lahti, Finland, scouts from Europe's most prestigious soccer teams came to grips with the stunning news: The hottest prospect in the world may be a 14-year-old American. Striker Freddy Adu (SI, March 3) didn't merely score four goals in two games at the under-17 world championship. He did so with a breathtaking whoosh that defied the imagination. "In every other form of art—music, dance, painting—history throws up a phenomenon," said Barry Whitbread, Liverpool's director of youth recruitment "He may be one of them." One Premier League scout simply said, "He's going to be the best player in the world someday"
U.S. under-17 coach John Ellinger thinks Adu will make the 2006 World Cup team, and last week's performance gave no reason to doubt him. Adu's hat trick in a 6-1 win over South Korea included one goal in which he zigzagged through four opposing players on a 45-yard run. In Sunday's 2-1 victory against Sierra Leone, Adu overcame constant fouls and disgraceful refereeing to score the last-second game-winner. "You're getting hit the whole game, not getting any calls, and the opposing team is talking all this trash," Adu said afterward. "The only way to shut them up is to get a goal. It just breaks them."
Adu is about to break the bank, too. He signed a $1 million contract with Nike in May, and by week's end his agent, Richard Motzkin, had met with reps from Manchester United, AC Milan, Barcelona and PSV Eindhoven. But don't ticket Adu for Europe just yet Sensing the Tiger Woods-like buzz that Adu might generate with U.S. sports fans, Major League Soccer launched its own offensive last week, sending deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis to Finland to meet with Adu's mother, Emelia, an employee at Home Depot.
Nobody doubts that Adu will sign a lucrative deal somewhere. But where will he have the best chance to improve? In recent years, player development in soccer has reversed the trend found in basketball; thanks largely to the U.S. Soccer Federation's residency program for top youth players, Americans are catching up to the Europeans. So the debate rages. Should Adu follow the example of Landon Donovan, age 21, who has thrived in his return to MLS after struggling for playing time in Germany? Or should he risk the European route in return for more money and a chance at international stardom? "Adu needs to come to Europe to develop," says Ray Hall, the academy director for the English club Everton. In response Gazidis says, "Our development programs are improving at a pace that is unrivaled anywhere. I think we have some things to teach the English."
Complicating any move by Adu is a new rule by FIFA, soccer's governing body, that prevents players under 18 from transferring to a European pro team from outside the European Union. "The clubs have a way around it. They always do, " says Adu, whose family emigrated from Ghana to Potomac, Md., in 1997. 'We just want to find the best place for me. I don't want to get stuck in some youth system where my development hits a brick wall. I love soccer so much, I want to play on the first team ASAP."
Whether he ends up next spring in Europe or in MLS, Adu has plenty on his schedule, which may include November's under-20 world championship and even the 2004 Olympics. Lest we forget, the boy his teammates call Pheen (short for phenomenon) vows to graduate from high school next May—thanks to the USSF residency's accelerated learning program. Adu's real-world education, however, is about to begin.