- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 4, 2004

I have seen soccer’s future and it’s name is Freddy Adu.

But maybe not just yet.

I’ve wanted to write that opening line ever since a Boston reporter wrote something similar after watching a young Bruce Springsteen. That journalist, Jon Landau, went on to become Springsteen’s manager.

Of course soccer is not rock music and one person doesn’t make a team, but Freddy Adu certainly had RFK Stadium rocking yesterday when he came off the bench with 29 minutes left as D.C. United defeated San Jose 2-1.

It was a pity we didn’t get to see more of Adu, and because of that, the show didn’t live up to its billing — even though it offered a great soccer game. Though the pressure of the 14-year-old’s pro debut is behind him, it won’t get any easier for Adu, because now everybody will be waiting eagerly for his first goal.

Yesterday the youngster from Potomac looked a little lost on the field, as if he didn’t want the ball. He said afterward he was nervous, and no wonder. There were 21 other players on the field, but everyone was looking at him.

“I felt I was a step slower than normal,” Adu said. “I didn’t get a lot of touches, but I will correct that in the next game.”

For the first game, there seemed to be more media at RFK to see Adu than when the World Cup came by in 1994.

“This is a work in progress, and he’s under tremendous pressure,” said Alexi Lalas, who was America’s soccer poster boy a decade ago and now is general manager of the Earthquakes. “The attention is great for the league and soccer in this country, but my concern is that it’s too much pressure and he might not live up to it. But, hey, he took the gig and he took the checks and that’s how it goes.”

It remains to be seen whether Adu can rescue United after its four depressing seasons, but he certainly has the ingredients for greatness. The tactical awareness, speed, close control, vision, deception, dribbling skills, well-placed center of gravity and confidence — it’s all there.

“He’s not the savior of soccer — the sport doesn’t need to be saved,” said Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber.

Yeah, Don, but he can only help a league whose losses amount to $200million over eight seasons.

The fact that a 14-year-old could draw so much attention at the pro level and create such a buzz speaks to the uniqueness of the American game. This would never happen in the European leagues, where tradition and cynicism flow thick.

“I don’t know if this is unprecedented, but it’s close,” said MSL deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis. “We are not trying to start a trend here of playing 14-year-olds. It speaks more to [Adu’s] uniqueness.”

MLS is more than willing to allow a child to lead it, hopefully toward greater solvency and respect, but there is a risk involved.

The great Diego Maradona didn’t make his First Division debut until 10 days before his 16th birthday. And at the 1994 World Cup, Brazilian star Ronaldo was deemed too young at 17 to leave the bench although he was a proven commodity at the pro level. But if Adu can keep a steady head, he should become an inspiration to 30million other youngsters playing the game in the United States.

“I’m going to keep my mouth shut and just play,” Adu said.

Let’s hope so, but the media attention is stunning. Old-timers are scratching their heads. U.S. pro soccer hasn’t seen this kind of furor since Brazilian star Pele came out of retirement to play for the New York Cosmos from 1975 to 1977 and score 37 goals in 64 games. If Adu could match those stats he would certainly earn his pay.

For now, though, Adu has done what’s been asked of him — merely show that he belongs on the field against men old enough to be his father. His mother, Emelia, who drove him to the game, thinks so.

“He did very well,” she said. “I made him his favorite meal — jollof rice — before the match.”

The future of soccer is in good hands.

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