- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 8, 2006

The talk now is more modest, the profile lower.

Freddy Adu entered Major League Soccer as a 14-year-old prodigy, a marketer’s dream and the next face of American soccer.

D.C. United gave him a $500,000 contract, making him the league’s highest-paid player at the time. He signed a $1 million endorsement deal with Nike, appeared on “Late Night with David Letterman,” “60 Minutes” and was the subject of numerous gushing profiles.

But three years later, expectations have waned.

Despite ranking sixth in the league — and first on United — in shots taken, Adu has scored only one goal this season — his first as a regular starter.

Adu, who for his career has 10 goals and 15 assists in 72 games, didn’t score that goal until three months into the season.

“I’ve just been really unlucky this season, but I just kept doing it,” said Adu, who shares the team lead with six assists. “It made it easier that the team was winning. But if the team was losing and I wasn’t finishing my chances, then I’d get really frustrated about it.”

D.C. United (11-1-5) owns the league’s best record and leads the Eastern Conference by 17 points. It will look to extend an 11-game unbeaten streak tonight on the road against the Columbus Crew.

“I’m pretty happy with how things work for him,” coach Peter Nowak said of the 17-year-old. “I wasn’t frustrated that he didn’t score a goal, because he played very well. He created the chances and hit a couple of crossbars and posts. For me it wasn’t a problem. The problem is when he’s not going to create the chances. … I think he is going in the right direction.”

But Adu’s novelty seems to have worn off with marketers.

His face appeared on cereal boxes and billboards when he entered the league. Now he has disappeared from Nike, Campbell’s soup and Sierra Mist commercials.

“He’s just not been able to live up to that hype that followed him when he entered the league,” said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. “The good news is, he’s a young kid and still has time to develop. But looking back on those who invested the types of dollars they did in him, they wouldn’t consider it a success yet.”

Although Adu also has been relegated to a minimal presence in league marketing materials, MLS spokesman Will Kuhns said Adu remains a major part of the league’s marketing strategy.

Said Bob Philp , a senior director for talent marketing with 16W Marketing, which represents athletes such as Cal Ripken Jr. and Chris Simms: “I don’t necessarily think it’s because he’s not performing. In most sports, when guys first hit the league they are going to get their faces on everything. Once that wears off, it takes time to prove themselves. I think it’s unfair to judge Freddy performance-wise. He’s on a pretty good team with some potent goal scorers.”

Adu said the commercial drought doesn’t bother him.

“I just want to concentrate on playing,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of time. If I keep playing well and keep doing the same things, more [ads] will come. … First and foremost I am a professional soccer player and everything else that comes with it is second to that.”

And some companies remain interested in Adu.

Philp said he believes many companies investing in Adu are not looking for a quick hit, rather they are calculating his star potential to develop in the future.

Adu is featured in the latest Got Milk? advertisement, which debuted in last week’s Sports Illustrated.

“Freddy Adu is one of the most recognizable superstars on the U.S. domestic soccer scene and at just 17 years of age, he’s a great teen role model,” said Victor Zaborsky, spokesman for the Milk Processor Education Program, which runs the Got Milk? campaign.

But rather than dwelling on his own hype, Adu has developed a stronger love for soccer.

“For me just being out there on the field is the greatest thing for me,” he said. “That is when I’m at my happiest. I’m out there on the field just doing my thing, having a good time. I don’t have to score three goals to enjoy myself. Just doing the little things — taking people on, getting touches on the ball, moving. All of that stuff. The game is beautiful.”

Adu’s appreciation for the game grows as he further defines his goals. Among the goals is his desire to play for a European team.

“I was just stating that I would love to play in Europe,” Adu said of comments he recently made on ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption” about a rumored departure from United. “I’m not saying it’s going to be a definite. I’m not saying I’m going to get called, get an offer, you never know.

“The most important thing is playing with D.C. United and playing well. I mean, that’s it. If you play well for D.C. United and the team is winning, all of a sudden you might have other teams looking and saying, ‘OK, he’s an important part of his team’s success and we want him on our team to help us out.’ And when I get the offers, I’d love to go to Europe.”

But Adu has a full season left on his contract and then MLS holds a two-year option. If a European team shows interest in the next three years, they will have to purchase his MLS contract.

Adu hopes to play in the 2010 World Cup, whether it be for the United States or his birth-country, Ghana. Although Adu appeared in an international friendly between the U.S. and Canada on Jan. 22, the game was not officially recognized by FIFA. So Adu is still technically able to play for Ghana.

“It is honest and understandable that he has ties to his homeland, but I think he has made some strong gestures towards which team he wants to play for,” said Adu’s agent, Richard Motzkin, referring to the game against Canada and his role on the under-20 U.S. national team at the FIFA Youth World Championships in 2005.

Adu has responded to the swirling talk about international play with maturity — a welcomed development for United fans. In the past, Adu has criticized his coach for a lack of playing time and his teammates for not giving him the ball.

But he seems to have taken on a more humble outlook.

“I watch the World Cup and I want to be there some day,” Adu said. “Those guys do the little things right. The simplest of things, those guys will do. And that’s what I got to do. I’ve got to work on everything. … I am nowhere close to where I want to be. I am just going to keep working hard and keep my head in check. I’ve said I can’t go against either [the United States or Ghana], because I love both teams. So we’ll see when the time comes.”

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