"I think I could be an impact player this season," says Freddy, who has trained with United occasionally over the past two years. "When I'm out on the field, I'm not scared of anyone. I'm just going to move the ball—boom-boom, one-touch, two-touch—and when the right time comes and I've got somebody one-on-one, I'll take him. But I'm not always going to have the greatest game of my life. There's going to be games when I absolutely suck. That happens to everybody. So it'll be up to me to regroup and try to find a way to bounce back."
Early indications from D.C. United's preseason training were encouraging. Like any rookie, Freddy carried the ball bags and the water jugs without being told. He said all the right things about needing to earn his playing time and his teammates' respect. His only misstep came when he failed to persuade second-year striker Alecko Eskandarian to surrender his number 11 uniform. "Alecko's been wearing number 11 his whole life," says Adu, who will wear number 9 instead. "Everything's cool. If you want something, you have to work hard for it." It's worth noting, however, that Freddy still signs his autographs with the tagline USA #11.
For the time being, Adu must perform a tricky balancing act, practicing humility on the sideline and go-for-it bravado on the ball. "As much as it has to be a team on the field, it has to be you somewhat," Freddy says. "Because you want to crack the starting lineup, you want to be on the field when April 3 comes." That prospect seems assured. Adu has started every preseason game for which he has dressed, alternating between the withdrawn forward and slashing right-sided midfield positions.
First-year United coach Peter Nowak, a former Chicago Fire star who began his pro career in Poland at age 15, seems ideally cast for overseeing Adu's development. "Freddy's first two weeks were great," Nowak says. "He understands that the team comes first, and that everyone who deserves to be in the lineup will be on the field." If Nowak has a concern these days, it's that Adu has spent too much time in the weight room—he has added 10 pounds of muscle in recent months. "We need Freddy to be Freddy, to be untouchable for defenders," Nowak says. "If he's built up like Arnold Schwarzenegger, he'll lose his speed and defenders will hit him anyway. He needs to grow naturally."
As for Adu's teammates, the adjustment to Freddy Mania has gone as smoothly as they could have hoped. "His ability on the ball is incredible," says 35-year-old veteran Earnie Stewart. "He's a great kid, too. I just hope he still gets to be a kid." Adds 26-year-old United midfielder Ben Olsen, "I wouldn't say he's taking over games, but he's done things that have blown some minds."
Now that Adu has earned the confidence of his team, he can focus on a more imposing challenge: his opponents, many of them veterans earning five-figure salaries, who may resent his newfound wealth and attention. "I'm going to have a big X on my back now, because some of these guys have been in the league a long time, and here comes this 14-year-old kid making this amount of money," Adu says. "But I didn't think it was going to be easy when I made this decision, and I'm ready for it. There's going to be a lot of mouthing off at me and a lot of hacking. That's part of the game."
In some ways, though, Freddy's new environment will make his life easier. For the last two years he has been away from his mother, Emelia, and 12-year-old brother, Fro, who remained in Potomac, Md., when he headed to Florida. Soon all three Adus (they immigrated to the U.S. in 1997 with Freddy's father. Maxwell-who no longer lives with them) will move into a new house in suburban Rockville, Md. The five-bedroom spread includes an opulent kitchen—the better for Emelia to make Freddy's favorite jollof rice, a Ghanaian stew made with meat and tomatoes—and a basement rec room replete with a pool table and enough speakers to turn the place into a 106th & Park set. "That's the coolest part," Freddy says. "I can hang out with my friends, play pool, listen to music and dance. It's going to be awesome, man."
Well, most of the time. Emelia, who won't shrink from assigning Freddy household chores, is setting a midnight curfew. No exceptions.
Back in Tampa, Adu and Pel� are winding up the nine-hour-long commercial shoot, bopping a ball back and forth, showing off all their tricks. Watching them juggle together is a wonder, like seeing two concert pianists playing the scales—until Pel� gamely flubs an easy one. It's part of the script. Adu tears off screaming in triumph, as if he's scored the winning goal in the World Cup final. His seventh take is as energetic as his first. Talk about a natural.