- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 24, 2004

BRADENTON, Fla. — He is a shameless academic truant, a juvenile delinquent in red cleats. Around the corner and down the road, his schoolmates at the Edison Academic Center wrangle with electrons and elements; here on the pristine emerald pitch of the IMG sports academy, Freddy Adu basks in the warm coastal sun, nary a textbook in sight.

“Shouldn’t you be in school or something?” Nick Garcia jokes.

Chemistry class, to be exact. Then again, Adu has a pretty good reason for playing hooky: The 14-year-old soccer prodigy from Potomac is making his unofficial debut with D.C. United, absorbing lessons from men twice his age during a preseason scrimmage against Garcia and the rest of the U.S. national team.

As far as excuses go, it’s at least as solid as a doctor’s note. And vastly superior to the proverbial hungry dog.

“It’s OK,” Adu says with a sly grin. “I’m caught up with enough class that I can skip at least one day.”

A day. A year. Adolescence. In Adu’s fast-forward world, the differences are almost moot. The top pick in January’s Major League Soccer draft, the 5-foot-8 striker is widely considered to be the best young player in the world, a potentially transcendent talent to rival basketball’s LeBron James.

Since moving with his family from Ghana to suburban Maryland in 1997, Adu has starred for the U.S. under-17 national team, spurned offers from international powerhouses like Manchester United and signed a six-year contract with MLS that reportedly will pay him $500,000 this season, tops in the league.

Like James, Adu is skipping college; unlike the NBA’s prize rookie, he’s bypassing most of his prep career, too. Adu expects to graduate high school in mid-March before suiting up for D.C. United’s nationally televised April3 opener.

In doing so, he will become the youngest player for a major league American team in more than a century — and perhaps the only pro athlete who can afford any car in the RFK stadium parking lot without legally being able to drive a single one.

“I don’t even remember what I was doing at 14,” United’s Ben Olsen marvels. “I was probably looking for a date or something. Freddy’s a rare talent.”

• • •

Adu sprints toward goal. It’s United’s second day of training at the IMG academy, headquarters of the U-17 team and Adu’s home for the last two years.

“Finish it!” United coach Peter Nowak exhorts, clapping his hands. “Finish it!”

Four attackers close in on a lone ‘keeper. A crossing pass swerves just behind Adu’s preferred left foot. In an instant, he pivots on his left leg, turns his back to goal and strikes the ball with his right heel. The ball pops up in the manner of a champagne cork, dipping below the crossbar before settling in the opposite corner of the net.

“We got it,” crows a cameraman from a local television station. “From two angles.”

America’s elite soccer players tend to be cut from the same overcoached cloth: athletic, well-conditioned and devoid of creative flair like the robotic, pre-Dream Team European basketball players who learned the game through clinics and drills. Adu is different. Iverson-quick, he has a magician’s touch with the ball, a Gretzky-like sense of how a play is about to unfold.

“Freddy has some things you can’t teach,” MLS deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis says. “Speed, touch, imagination, a bubbly personality that translates into the way he plays. It’s just innate.”

Adu honed his improvisational skills playing barefoot pickup soccer on the patchy, pebble-strewn fields of Tema, a harbor city on Ghana’s Atlantic coast. His mother, Emelia, won a State Department visa lottery and brought Freddy and younger brother Fro to Maryland, where a playground friend invited Adu to a local tournament.

“His skills and athletic ability and everything were quite evident,” recalls Arnold Tarzy, then the coach of the Potomac Cougars traveling team. “That would be like saying the Empire State building is sort of tall.”

At age 10, Adu led a U.S. Olympic development squad to a victory in an Italian under-14 tournament, prompting a high six-figure development offer from Inter Milan. Two years later, Parade magazine named Adu its youngest All-American — in any sport. A breakout four-goal performance at last fall’s U-17 world championships produced a half-dozen prestigious international suitors, including England’s Chelsea and the Netherlands’ PSV Eindhoven.

“Freddy’s mom thought the whole thing was totally ridiculous,” says Tarzy, a close friend to the family. “She said, ‘I’m not going to sell my son.’ There were a lot of people reaching out to the family. Their phone rang all the time. But Emelia had a tremendous amount of strength and resolve.”

After nearly signing with Manchester United, the Adus chose MLS. The reasons? European Union rules would have limited Adu to a youth team until his 18th birthday. More importantly, Adu will be able to live his teenage years at home, away from the pressure-cooker of continental soccer.

“That’s the best thing about it,” Adu says. “To be honest, I’ve always wanted to start my career over here in MLS. I mean, it was tempting [to play in Europe]. But you know what? I’ve got a lot of time.”

At January’s MLS draft, league commissioner Don Garber said he hoped to bring Adu along “slowly.” That may prove tricky. As the 81/2-year-old league labors to consolidate its niche in an oversaturated sports marketplace, homegrown stars like Clint Mathis and Zach Thornton are seeking bigger paydays abroad.

With his stylish play and charming personality, Adu could give MLS a much-needed boost — and not simply because he may command a hefty international transfer fee down the road. Already, Adu has crossover appeal: a $1million endorsement deal with Nike, appearances on MTV and “Late Night with David Letterman,” a photo shoot for Vanity Fair.

United will make nine national television appearances this season, tops in MLS. Last week’s preseason match against Kansas City at the University of South Florida drew a standing-room-only crowd of 4,107 — many chanting “Freddy, Freddy!”

“From a business standpoint, what Freddy probably does is attract the attention of people that are not necessarily hard-core soccer fans,” says United president Kevin Payne. “I have no doubt he’ll be successful. The question is, how long will it take? Nobody really knows.”

• • •

The screen goes dark. “Think about being fast” appears in block letters, followed by a close-up of sprint champion Michael Johnson. Fade out. Up comes a shot of Adu, taken before a three-goal outburst against South Korea.

From the flared nostrils to the narrow gaze, the two look almost identical.

“We videotape Freddy in warmups, practice, even the locker room — to see how he acts in pregame preparation and how it impacts the way he plays,” says Trevor Mowad, IMG’s director of mental conditioning. “You can train your mind the way you train with weights.”

Mowad pauses. Into his office walks former LSU receiver Michael Clayton, a likely first-round pick in the upcoming NFL Draft. Clayton is among the hundreds of elite athletes training on the sprawling IMG campus — and thanks to Mowad, one of a dozen who have spent time with Adu.

“[Adu] is one of the most maturest dudes I’ve ever met at that age,” Clayton says. “I hang out with him. And I’m 21. I guess all the stuff that he’s been through in his life has put him on fast forward.”

Adult life can be harsh on prodigies: just ask Mozart or Kwame Brown. Still, Adu may be uniquely equipped to handle the rigors of pro sports, having lived in Florida and traveled the world for much of the last two years.

Besides, he figures, joining United can’t be any tougher than moving halfway around the world at age 8. Especially when you’ve never seen snow before.

“When I first came here, I hated it, man,” Adu recalls. “I just sat at home all day. If I can make it through that and adjust to the lifestyle, hey, I can make it through anything.”

Adu wasn’t always so confident. He arrived in Bradenton homesick, anxious to justify his hype and upset by taunts that he was older than his stated age (a subsequent Sports Illustrated investigation found no evidence that Adu’s certified birth registration of June2, 1989, is incorrect).

Weekly sessions with Mowad helped. So did sit-downs with Dallas Cowboys safety Roy Williams, Arizona Cardinals receiver Anquan Boldin and Johnson, all of whom spoke with Adu about the potential pitfalls of pro stardom.

“[Michael Johnson] told me it’s not going to be easy but don’t make it too hard, either,” Adu says. “Don’t think of it as bigger than you are.”

Almost everyone in MLS will be bigger than Adu, who doesn’t stand much taller than the extra-large Puma ball bags carried by United’s equipment manager. Add in Adu’s shifty skills and outsized salary — well more than the “official” league max of $270,000 — and there’s little question he will be a marked player, even with the 10 pounds of extra muscle he has added this year.

“As they say in basketball, people don’t want to be posterized,” Olsen says. “Freddy’s going to have a lot of people looking to get him, saying, ‘This kid’s not ready at 14.’”

Adu is still very much a boy. He listens to rappers Eminem and 50 Cent. He’s a devoted fan of “Family Guy,” a cartoon television series, and scary good at a Tiger Woods golf video game. He plans to “pimp out” the basement of the new house his family is building in Rockville.

“[My mom’s] fine with it,” Adu says with a smile. “As long as when my friends come over, they don’t disturb her.”

In Nowak, United hopes it has a coach who can relate: the former MLS All-Star turned pro in his native Poland at age 15. Likewise, the club has experience with adolescent players, drafting Santino Quaranta and Bobby Convey at 16. Convey, one of the team’s rising stars, even lived with Payne’s family for 20 months.

“As a father of two kids who aren’t a lot older than Freddy, I understand that there’s a real responsibility,” says Payne, who plans to connect Adu with Darrell Green, Cal Ripken and perhaps Pele. “We’ve been through this before. We understand how to provide a certain type of support.”

Adu’s goals for the upcoming season are modest: He hopes to earn the respect of his teammates and maybe “score a goal.” By 2006, however, he wants to play for the U.S. national team in the World Cup, which starts a week after his 17th birthday.

“I don’t think he’s going to step on the field and lead United to a championship and then we win the World Cup,” national team coach Bruce Arena says. “Kobe Bryant, at 18, wasn’t ready. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school team. It takes time. Hopefully, there will be the right formula of patience and letting Freddy get on the field to take his knocks.”

Meanwhile, Adu has homework to finish, 10 exams in subjects ranging from world geography to British lit. Fittingly, he already has passed his economics final.

“That helped out a lot,” he says. “Because economics is what I’m going through right now.”

• • •

A dusty access road runs along the back end of the IMG campus. Adu sits on the rear lip of a golf cart, killing time. To his right, a handful of his U-17 teammates are horsing around; to his left lies an empty field, where Adu is supposed to have his first practice with United. The team is running late, still checking in to a nearby apartment complex.

“Man, I got out of class at 12:30,” Adu says, checking his cell phone. “You’d think they’d call me.”

Nowak arrives. He greets Adu with a handshake and a playful rub on the head. Adu vanishes. He reappears with the team trainers, lugging a jug of Gatorade.

“I’m the new guy,” he says later. “I’m going to do it. If I don’t, I’m gonna hear it from the guys. It’s a team thing. I’m not complaining. Whatever it takes.”

The afternoon sun slips behind a palm tree. Adu jogs with his new teammates, with them but not exactly of them. His red cleats look like slippers. School is almost out. The education of Freddy Adu is just beginning. Some things you can’t learn in the classroom.

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