- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Just in time for his 16th birthday, Freddy Adu has the perfect cure for his teenage blues — getting away from adults.

For the next several weeks, Adu will leave Major League Soccer — where his playing time is inconsistent and his team isn’t tailored around his considerable talents — and join the U.S. under-20 team for the world youth championships in the Netherlands.

“Right now, I don’t know how to put it. I feel like I’m in a funk,” Adu said after D.C. United’s lifeless 2-0 home loss to FC Dallas on Saturday.

Adu started for just the fourth time this season, but he was a bit player. Asked to play along the right flank, he didn’t get a chance to do much because the lethargic United attack rarely sent the ball his way. Only late in the game, when his team was desperate for a goal, did Adu get to move into the middle of the field and help spark the attack.

It won’t be that way with the U-20s. Even though he still will be the youngest player on the roster, Adu will be the American team’s undisputed star when it opens group play against Argentina on June 11.

“With that team, I’m more of a leader and everything goes through me. I’m ready for that,” Adu said. “That helps your confidence, when you go out there and you know you’re moving and getting a lot of touches on the ball. Bam, bam — you do your thing. And the great thing is I am allowed to do my thing on that team.”

That Adu doesn’t get a chance to do his thing in MLS has been a source of debate since United made him the No. 1 overall draft pick last year at 14.

Although critics and fans wanted to see Adu play every minute possible, coach Peter Nowak was given credit for bringing the youngster along slowly. The rookie coach’s methods were vindicated when Adu improved during the second half of the season — and when United won the league’s title for the first time in five years.

This year, with the hubbub fading and a year of learning how to be a pro under his belt, Adu appeared poised to become more of an impact player, but Nowak continues to take a cautious approach. Adu is averaging just 51 minutes a game, only slightly better than his average of 48 minutes for all of last season, even though he has either scored or assisted on five of United’s last eight goals. Adu’s four assists rank among the MLS leaders.

Adu complained openly about playing time last year, but he’s more diplomatic now that he’s older. It never was going to be easy to claim a starting spot on a team that just won a championship, even if that team has won only three of nine games this season.

“I’ve come a long way. My teammates trust me a lot more with the ball,” Adu said. “You’ve got to earn that respect. You’ve got to keep your mouth shut and do what’s asked of you, and that’s what I’ve been doing since the middle of last year. I’ve improved. Right now, I’ve got to find a way to use that improvement and help the team. I’m still learning. I’m still not there yet.”

For now, though, Adu can enjoy the camaraderie of the U.S. youth team. The only drawback is that the team leaves for Europe tomorrow, one day before Adu turns 16. Instead of a big birthday party at home, he will have to settle for getting playfully beat up by his teammates on his special day.

“We have this thing called birthday punches,” said Adu, hitting his shoulder with his fist and wincing at the thought. “Everybody gets a shot in. It’s going to hurt.”

When he returns to the United States, he will be a year older and nearly ready to get his driver’s license — and perhaps out of his playing funk after a good performance overseas.

“That’ll get my confidence back,” Adu said. “And hopefully when I come back I’ll be in good form.”

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