Wednesday, March 31, 2004

D.C. United’s marketing department never had it so easy: Come see the kid play.

After four forgettable seasons, the team that won Major League Soccer’s first two championships finally is back in the spotlight, thanks to 14-year-old phenom Freddy Adu.

“He’s in a position to positively affect a sports league more than any other player since Babe Ruth,” said Dean Bonham, the president of a Denver-based sports marketing company. “There’s never been an American soccer player that’s received this kind of attention, it’s not even close. He paid for himself once he signed the contract.”

Adu will be paid $500,000 this season, the highest salary in MLS.

With United’s season opener three days away, Adu is drawing unparalleled national and international attention — by U.S. standards for the sport, anyway — to the capital’s professional soccer team.

On Sunday, Adu appeared on “60 Minutes.”

On Monday, a crew from the British television network ITN showed up at practice, hoping the prodigy from Potomac would say he plans to play in the prestigious English Premier League when he turns 18. (Adu declined to comment.)

Last week, there was a four-page spread in Sports Illustrated. He is featured in the current issue of Vanity Fair. He appeared on the “Late Show With David Letterman” and MTV’s “Total Request Live.” The British Broadcasting Corporation is on the way.

Adu recently filmed a Sierra Mist commercial with soccer great Pele — to whom he is frequently compared — and he already holds a $1million endorsement deal with Nike.

No player in the nine-year history of MLS has made as much money, or generated as much attention.

“We were walking down the street with him in D.C. yesterday, and like every other person knew who he was and stopped him and said hello,” United president Kevin Payne said yesterday. “I don’t think we have seen anything quite like this. … I’ve never seen anything quite like the reaction that he elicits from people.”

Not bad for a teenager who has yet to play in a real professional game. That comes Saturday when United plays host to the San Jose Earthquakes, the defending MLS champions, at RFK Stadium.

United officials are predicting a sellout, and ticket sales for Adu’s pro debut already have reached about 20,000.

But for all the publicity and financial investment Adu has generated, one question remains: How well will he compete?

So far, so good.

In three games in the Carolina Challenge Cup, Adu scored a goal, set up a game-winning goal on a Bobby Convey free kick and drew a penalty kick (that Earnie Stewart missed) in United’s 0-0 tie with the Columbus Crew last Saturday.

If Stewart had converted that kick, Adu would have been involved in three goals in three games.

“Sure, but he has to be better,” said first-year coach Peter Nowak, acknowledging Adu’s preseason contributions. “Sometimes he turns off and just focuses when he has the ball at his feet. Of course, the things he did are great and great for the team, but we still need to make things better.”

If the 5-foot-8, 140-pound Adu has a weakness, it’s on defense. Forwards aren’t required to play defense at the youth level and perhaps even on the various U.S. national teams, U.S. Under-17 and U-20, that he starred on this past year.

“I’m not perfect. Sometimes I do take plays off on defense, but most other times I am there helping the team,” Adu said. “Critics can keep talking, and I’m just going to keep playing.”

Adu’s United teammates welcome the attention the league’s youngest player is receiving. They know that when the world’s biggest soccer powers come to watch Adu play this season they, too, will have an opportunity to make an impression.

“It’s fantastic for soccer in general that a kid this talented can compete at this level,” defender Ryan Nelsen said. “It gives a bit of attention to us, and more clubs are going to watch our team. It might help out some players who play beside him.”

The burning spotlight on Adu has helped United and the league in marketing the upcoming season, but the club plans to limit his appearances once the games commence.

For example, the club is requiring reporters to sign a pre- and post-game interview request list to ensure that Adu’s first priority is the team and that not too much of his time is spent answering questions.

“We’re going to try and manage that smartly from the beginning,” Payne said. “We’re not going to try and overwhelm him and then pull back. We’re hoping that we’re going to find the right balance making use of his notoriety, but not overwhelming him.

“We’re really committed to ensuring that he has plenty of time to be a kid and enjoy his life with his family and his friends.”

Landon Donovan, the star forward of the Earthquakes, recalled his own experiences and said there will be a point in the season when all the hype will hit Adu.

“I’ve spoken to Freddy a couple of times but never at length,” Donovan said. “Fortunately for him, he’s a lot farther along … than I was when I came into the league. He’s a lot further along at 14 than I was at 18 from a mental and emotional standpoint. I think he’ll be OK.

“There’ll be a point this season when it will get to him a little bit in one fashion or another, but he’s confident, he knows what he’s good at and he has the people around him to help him. He’ll be fine.”

For now, Adu says he’s not worried about the pressure. In fact, he’s not even thinking about it.

“If I did care about it, that would put a lot of pressure on me. So, I try my best not to worry about it too much and go out there and play and just have fun,” Adu said. “I made this decision because I wanted to challenge myself. I’m going to go out there, play my hardest, and whatever happens, happens.

“The same people that are going to raise you up are going to be the same people that will bring you down if you’re going through a tough stretch. You don’t worry about it and just play and focus on helping your team win.”

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