- The Washington Times - Friday, April 29, 2005

Freddy Adu will not plead with his parents to buy him a car when he turns 16 in June. There is no need: Adu plans to give himself the gift of mobility.

“I am going to get something nice,” he said with a grin. “Maybe a BMW.”

The driving force behind Major League Soccer’s marketing efforts soon will be behind the wheel for real, a soccer prodigy coming of age in a public way.

The D.C. United forward plans to get his first ATM card and his driver’s license soon, acquisitions he expects to pay immediate dividends: For starters, mom Emilia won’t have to drive him to practice every day.

Adu is growing up as a player, too.

After a difficult debut last season, he is trying to move beyond his place as a reserve role player to one as a steady contributor. He is trying to make a name for himself on the field, rather than just as a promoter of the sport off it.

“He is more involved in the game right now,” said United coach Peter Nowak. “He can decide the games for us. The team sees that. The physical part is better.”

Adu remains the highest-paid player in the league, earning $500,000 a season ($200,000 more than anybody else). He also has a slew of commercial endorsements, including a $1 million deal with Nike.

And though the Potomac resident (by way of Ghana) still is the face of Major League Soccer, the spotlight is not as blinding in his second season.

“I don’t know who was taking care of his stuff, but the focus went away from soccer and went into publicizing and stuff like that,” said teammate and friend Alecko Eskandarian. “That took away from the team and took away from his play.”

Adu says he doesn’t mind the decrease in attention. Last season he routinely jetted off to appear on MTV or David Letterman’s show, cut another commercial for Pepsi or Campbell Soup or do one of countless interviews.

“I just want to be one of the guys,” said Adu, who now turns down some invitations and interview requests. “I just know my role on this team. I come in, work hard. The first couple games I was brought in [off the bench] to make a difference, to be a spark. I did that. I started. I was a pest on the field. That is what my teammates want me to do.

“Off the field, they want me to be quiet and be a humble person. That’s what I have been doing.”

Humble is a word no one used to describe Adu last season. He angered his teammates at times with behavior that was like that of, well, a teenager.

His teammates saw that behavior as disrespectful. Adu riled Nowak with his me-first mentality — he criticized the coach for not playing him more — and inconsistent practice habits.

“We spent six months trying to get him to understand what the team was all about,” Nowak said. “This year it is a different story. It was difficult for him to accept that besides him, we had 23 other guys and were going to make sure the best team was going to play.

“I think at the end he was a big part of this team because he understood. He was not only Freddy Adu for himself; he was part of D.C. United, championship team.”

Nowak was criticized for benching Adu but led United to a championship with Adu in a supporting role. Adu said he finally understood about halfway through last season what it takes to prepare and act like a professional.

That has carried over to this season. Nowak said he has noticed a difference in Adu but isn’t ready to put him in a starting role.

“Why should I [treat him differently]?” Nowak said. “I feel like he is mature enough to take some heat. I am fair to all my players. If somebody is not happy with that, we can talk about it. But I am not going to make any exceptions, whether it’s Steve Guppy, who is 36 years old, or Freddy Adu, who is 15. Everybody is treated the same.”

And the coach still is trying to temper the outside pressure on Adu.

“People have expectations that he is going to provide miracles,” Nowak said. “He has all these skills and all these tricks and all this nice stuff. But actually we play soccer here, and this is not a circus.”

Adu says he has learned from his turbulent rookie season and that he is now better prepared to handle all the hype.

“It fills your head,” he said. “I was really frustrated. Here’s a kid who is being marketed as the face of the league and doing all this stuff, and he’s not even getting enough playing time. That stunk. It made me feel [bad]. That’s why I blew up.

“People are saying, ‘Why are they paying him all this money to go out and play 15 minutes?’ I also had to worry about my sponsors. I am being paid to endorse their stuff but also to go out and play well. It was selfish, but you do have to look out for yourself. That was the reason I ran my mouth off. It won’t happen again.”

Adu still is seeking more playing time. He started only one of the team’s first four games and has taken three shots, gotten one assist and scored no goals. He also plays for United’s reserve team, which uses backup players in what is essentially a junior varsity contest.

The 5-foot-8 Adu gained 15 pounds in the offseason and hopes his bulkier, 147-pound body will help him better cope with bigger, more experienced defenders who want to punish him physically.

Adu, who scored 29 goals for the U.S. under-17 team in 2003, now is trying to downplay his flash and focus on results.

“It was more about playing to please the crowd than playing to help the team win,” Adu said. “The most important thing is how well the team does. I toned it down a little bit. I am learning how to pick my spots. You don’t have to do it all the time, but you pick and chose where to do it.”

Nowak gives Adu the freedom to create on offense and expects more discipline on defense. Adu now understands the concept better and looks to cut off passing lanes.

Teammates have noticed the maturation.

“He makes better decisions now and plays more to win,” Eskandarian said. “A lot of times before, he might do something incredible, but it wouldn’t amount to anything. Now he is learning that it is sometimes better to make a simple play that will lead up to a goal instead of doing something crazy.”

Off the field, Adu’s life has gotten much quieter — even boring sometimes.

He already has graduated from high school under an accelerated program in Florida, but he doesn’t go out much during the week because he can’t drive and because his friends must go to school.

He lives with his mother and younger brother Fro, a member of the U.S. under-15 national team, and spends time playing his Tiger Woods video game and listening to rap musicians like Eminem and 50 Cent.

He hangs out with friends on free weekends but not at places like nearby Montgomery Mall, where he is quickly recognized and followed by fans.

While parts of his personal life resemble those of a typical teenager, Adu is anything but. He is learning the rigors of pro soccer, being schooled to play at the highest level. There is speculation that eventually he will play with a top club somewhere in Europe.

“It is not going to be about Freddy Adu anymore when he goes to [English power] Chelsea,” Nowak said. “It is going to be about [Manchester United star Ruud Van] Nistelrooy. It is going to be about [Manchester’s Wayne] Rooney, who is going to be a bigger name than Freddy Adu. He is going to understand you have to fit in the system and the team.”

Adu appears to be listening.

“I want to be one of the greatest that ever played the sport,” he said matter of factly. “This is a good start for me. I couldn’t ask for a better situation — to be able to live at home, play on a team like this and play in an environment like this.

“I am learning to grow up and this is going to prepare me one day if I go to play in Europe.”

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