There was an extra little kick of something in the air in Washington, D.C., last Saturday afternoon. Sidewalks and subways were crammed with people from all over the world, in town for one of the year's most anticipated coming-out events. Yes, it was Cherry Blossom Festival time in the nation's capital. There was also the matter of Freddy Adu's professional debut. Would the arrival of D.C. United's 14-year-old prodigy herald the long-awaited blooming of Major League Soccer in the States?
There were signs. Outside RFK Stadium, street vendors were selling Freddy T-shirts and scalpers were hawking tickets to the sold-out season opener with San Jose—United declined to open the stadium's 30,000-seat upper bowl, limiting tickets to 24,000. Inside, D.C. mayor Anthony Williams praised the crowd, and United G.M. Kevin Payne promised a new stadium. From the opening kick, raucous fans, many decked out in ADU 9 jerseys, shook the stands. Freddy? He entered the game in the 61st minute to a roar and had a few nice touches in a 2-1 win.
The world didn't reverse its rotation last Saturday...and soccer didn't suddenly leap to the forefront of the American psyche. Nor did Adu's debut interest most of the world's fans. At 5:30 a.m. about 350 supporters of England's top two teams, Manchester United and Arsenal, were packed into Nevada Smiths, New York's preeminent soccer bar, to watch a broadcast of the teams' match. Most had never heard of Adu, and few of those who did know who he was knew he was playing that afternoon. Twelve hours later, the bar was much quieter—the 40 or so patrons were glued to a replay of the Man U-Arsenal game, which was being shown on eight of the nine TVs. Adu's debut was playing on the other, tucked away in a corner. Not a single patron was watching it.
But like Freddy on the field, soccer in the States took some small steps on Saturday. MLS has been around for only nine years, after all. The Cherry Blossom Festival is in its 69th.