- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 1, 2004

All hype aside, teenage phenom Freddy Adu has earned the right to start in D.C. United’s season opener tomorrow against the Major League Soccer defending champion San Jose Earthquakes at RFK Stadium.

New coach Peter Nowak has said repeatedly that the 14-year-old must earn his spot, and he seems to have done so. The club scored five goals in nine preseason games, and Adu was involved in two.

“Just because you’re young doesn’t mean you can’t play with the big boys,” Adu said.

In the three-game preseason inaugural Carolina Challenge Cup, Adu scored one goal, set up Bobby Convey’s game-winning free kick goal in the first game by getting fouled and drew a penalty kick that was subsequently botched in the third game, preventing United from winning the Cup.

While forwards Ronald Cerritos and Alecko Eskandarian did not score a goal in United’s nearly three-month preseason, Adu could have been responsible for three. Nowak played Adu sparingly — 19 minutes — against the Division III Wilmington (N.C.) Hammerheads in the second game of the Cup, and the only goal United could muster was an early penalty kick by Jaime Moreno against highly inferior competition in a 1-0 win.

“Sure, I’d rather start — I’m sure every player wants to start,” Adu said of his playing prospects in his professional debut.

Put it this way, a capacity crowd of 24,603 will not be not coming to East Capitol Street to see a United forward line consisting of Cerritos and Moreno. With a national television audience, a sold-out stadium and a large media turnout, it appears there is almost no way Nowak cannot start the Potomac prodigy.

But the coach said he is not worried about a hostile reaction from United’s fans if he chooses not to start Adu.

“It’s still like as I said, even before the preseason, if he deserves to be on the field and there is no one better than him, then he’s going to be there from the first minute,” Nowak said. “As I said, it’s a process. We cannot expect him to jump in and be the main guy. The season is not going to be only this game; the season is going to be very long, and we have to be sure that he’s going to be ready for the next eight months.”

Conversely, Nowak could be looking for maximum impact from Adu, both on the field and the reaction he gets if he comes in as a substitute. All preseason, Adu has come off United’s bench and delivered for an ineffectual forward line. If Adu warms up along United’s sideline for most of the first half and then enters the game as a second-half substitute, his professional debut would be met with thunderous applause if not a standing ovation.

Also, Nowak said he is not feeling any outside pressure from the league office or the major television networks to start Adu.

However, the statistics say Adu should start. Of United’s five preseason goals, midfielders Convey and Kovalenko have one apiece, Adu has one and Moreno has netted two goals with one coming on a penalty kick.

Injuries to two of San Jose’s backline defenders might make a decision to start Adu a bit easier. Veteran defender Troy Dayak is questionable with a neck injury, and defender Jeff Agoos has a bad ankle and is listed as probable.

The Earthquakes’ back line isn’t very speedy to begin with and now is less than 100 percent — a perfect combination to break out Adu’s attacking instincts and blazing speed.

“Adu is a very talented player, but I don’t expect to let him run by me,” Earthquakes defender Craig Waibel said. “I know that I don’t want to get burned by him and have him score a goal and then that could be me in the background of his poster.”

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