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READY FOR FREDDY?
Grant Wahl
March 29, 2004
At 14, Freddy Adu is already the highest paid and most celebrated player in MLS. Now it's time for him to play his first game
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March 29, 2004

Ready For Freddy?

At 14, Freddy Adu is already the highest paid and most celebrated player in MLS. Now it's time for him to play his first game

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Show me." � Giggling like a teenager, his old-school fade cut glistening in the Tampa sun, Pel�—global soccer ambassador, three-time world champion, ageless Viagra pitchman—lobs a pass onto Freddy Adu's left foot. It's a perfectly weighted ball, as light as a baby's kiss, and yet it also embodies an anvil of expectations. � Show me. � They've only just met, the 63-year-old icon and the 14-year-old phenom, the best of all time and the prodigy whose besotted admirers—from red-ink-stained MLS executives to corporate sponsors to wishful U.S. f�tbol fans—envision him leading soccer's long-awaited charge into the American sports mainstream. On this sun-drenched day a few weeks before Freddy's April 3 debut for D.C. United on ABC, Pel�'s request, playful as it may seem, echoes the demands of soccer observers from Maryland to Madrid.

Show me.

Freddy smiles and springs into action. Pop-pop-pop. Just like that, the anvil melts. It's all there: left foot, right foot, instep, outstep, a quick header and then another pop back to the master. "His left foot is fantastic," Pel� says, marveling at a precociousness that reminds him of his own. "It's like Mozart," he says. " Mozart started when he was five years old. If you are good, you are good. God gave Freddy the gift to play soccer. If he is prepared mentally and physically, nobody will stop him."

When Adu takes the field against the San Jose Earthquakes next week at Washington's RFK Stadium, he will do so as the youngest athlete in U.S. professional team sports in more than a century. A naturalized American citizen by way of Ghana (SI, March 3, 2003), he is fast becoming the first male U.S. player with crossover appeal. Some 2,000 Freddy!-screaming fans greeted the arrival of D.C.'s bus for his first exhibition last month in Tampa, where an overflow crowd climbed trees and fences to watch him perform. More than a dozen football stars, including Heisman Trophy finalist Eli Manning and Dallas Cowboys safety Roy Williams, have requested ADU jerseys after seeing him play on the IMG Academies campus in Bradenton, Fla., where for the last two years he has lived and pursued his high school studies as part of the U.S. Soccer Federation's residency program. Already MLS's highest paid player (a $500,000 salary for each of the next four years, guaranteed), Freddy has been interviewed for 60 Minutes, chatted with Letterman and done that emblem of teeny-bopper cool, MTV's Total Request Live.

To say that advertisers are excited by Freddy's potential, charisma and Magic Johnson smile would be an understatement. It's why Pepsi paid beaucoup bucks to bring Adu and Pel� together for a Sierra Mist commercial, and why Nike chairman Phil Knight, who signed Freddy to a $1 million endorsement deal last year, believes Adu could accomplish more in some respects than (take a deep breath) the Mount Swooshmore of Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and LeBron James. "They have done great things within what you would call established American sports," Knight says. "Freddy has the potential to bring soccer almost for the first time into the public's consciousness. Soccer in the United States isn't really part of the culture. What it needs, I think, is a superhero, and he clearly could be it. Now, that's putting a lot of pressure on him, but the kid's got all the potential to do that."

When the head of a multibillion-dollar corporation speaks of you in such outsized terms, the message is exhilarating—and a little terrifying. "It's pretty hard not to get caught up in it," Freddy admits. "Sometimes I have off days when I get too caught up in it. But that's why I have my family and my friends and my agent, to remind me of that." If that isn't enough, Adu's accelerated high school program set up by IMG, the Edison Academic Center—through which he will earn his diploma next month—has included community service at a child-care center, which requires another form of superhero work: taking three-year-olds to the bathroom.

We've grown accustomed to crowning teenage sports royalty in the 21st century, as if the instant success of our Chosen Ones—19-year-old James, 14-year-old Michelle Wie, 19-year-old Carmelo Anthony—was somehow preordained. It's not. Former Olympic track champion Michael Johnson, who now works as a sports consultant, has met with Freddy several times to discuss the coming storm. "If you're a big star in a small sport in America, then you're going to be even more the center of attention," Johnson says. "I've tried to explain to Freddy that there's a lot of good but also a lot of bad that can go along with the position he's in. He has the opportunity to do what he loves and create a good future for himself and his family. But at 14 years old he's got more responsibility than most adults have. The odds are against anyone in that position, to be honest."

In Tampa, meanwhile, Pel� (who made his World Cup debut at 17) offered Freddy more advice. "Listen, you have become well-known all over the world," he said. "Now things will become more difficult. People will start looking at you. Coaches will look at you. The crowd will ask for more. You'll get a good contract and do commercials, and the people will start to press. So now is the time to be careful."

For all the hoopla, in fact, nobody is sure how good Freddy will be this season. Youth need not be an obstacle to soccer success; Pel�, Ronaldo and Diego Maradona, to name three superstars, were all thriving pros by age 17. (Closer to home, 22-year-old Landon Donovan has led the Earthquakes to two of the past three MLS crowns.) Adu certainly backed up his rep at last year's under-17 and under-20 world championships—dangerous on the ball, he was the youngest player in both—and U.S. coach Bruce Arena said Freddy "didn't look out of place" when he trained with the senior national team for the first time last month.

Questions abound, however. Can Freddy's 5'7", 148-pound frame withstand challenges from defenders more than twice his age? Will the publicity onslaught turn into an unbearable burden? And will fans, no doubt spoiled by LeBron, Carmelo and Michelle, turn on Adu should he struggle as a rookie?

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