- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 20, 2007

SALT LAKE CITY — Now that he’s 18, Freddy Adu is eligible to fulfill his dream of playing in Europe.

U.S. soccer’s former prodigy is still a member of Real Salt Lake and is preparing to play for the U.S. national team in the FIFA under-20 World Cup this summer. After that, he could be saying goodbye to Major League Soccer for a shot at playing on the elite fields of Europe.

Hello? Hola? Bonjour? Anybody over in Europe still interested?

“You want to challenge yourself. That’s where everybody wants to go,” Adu said. “For me to get to the next level, that would be really going to Europe and continuing my learning curve at the next level.”

Adu turned 18 on June 2, making him eligible under the regulations governing international soccer to transfer to a club outside the United States. To get the attention of European clubs, he will have to perform well as captain of the U.S. national team at his third under-20 World Cup.

U.S. coach Thomas Rongen said no other American has played in the tournament more than twice simply because there aren’t many 14-year-olds who are ready to face the world’s top prospects as Adu did in 2003.

“It’s very remarkable,” Rongen said.

Four years ago, Adu was the future of American soccer. This summer Adu is a veteran — if that can be said of an 18-year-old — who can re-establish himself as a phenomenal talent and shake the label that has been building for three disappointing years in MLS.

Rongen wants Adu to relax and not worry about whether the teams abroad are as interested as they were when Adu was a 14-year-old phenom.

Adu believes his feet are every bit as nimble as they were four years ago. He just hasn’t had many chances to show it lately.

Playing in the smallest market in the league, Adu’s profile has faded some since he was traded to Salt Lake by D.C. United in December. Through 10 games, Real Salt Lake was the only winless team in the league. Adu has just one goal, and his teammates have combined for only six.

A good showing against the world’s top youth soccer players in the U-20 World Cup in Canada may revive interest in Adu. His MLS career so far hasn’t lived up to the hype since D.C. United took him with the No. 1 draft pick when he was 14.

“I’m not going to worry about anything else right now but to focus on playing and let my agent deal with the other stuff,” he said.

In his first 96 MLS games, Adu had 12 goals and 18 assists. His relationship with D.C. United gradually deteriorated. Adu wasn’t happy with the way United was playing him, mostly on the wing instead of his preferred position in midfield. He also had some public clashes with his coach.

Real Salt Lake went after the frustrated teen, knowing his 18th birthday was coming and he would be eligible to transfer to a European team if there was an offer. Two months after the trade, the team finally worked out some messy negotiations over public funding to build a new stadium in the suburbs. Real Salt Lake got a headliner before the contentious deal was completed, though maybe not permanently.

“Hopefully things go the right way. Hopefully we’ll be able to work everything out with MLS and these teams from overseas,” Adu said.

“Everybody wants to go to Europe because that’s where the sport is No. 1. Here it’s about sixth on the sports scale,” he said. “It’s where the passion is. Everything.”

Adu’s agent, Richard Motzkin, said there is nothing on the horizon. He said there are always talks with international teams involving players with a profile like Adu but wouldn’t say who is interested.

“I still think there’s a lot more to be written in Freddy’s story and in the future,” Motzkin said.

Adu worked out last fall with English Premier League club Manchester United.

Although he hasn’t met expectations, those expectations may have been a little unrealistic. Adu is still barely an adult. When he joined Real in December, Adu said he still hoped to play for a European team. He said he expected to play the season with Salt Lake, then see what kind of offers he had.

After taking a short break to celebrate his birthday with friends and family at his home in Potomac, Adu wouldn’t say whether he intended to finish the season with Real Salt Lake once the U-20 World Cup wraps up in late July.

RSL coach Jason Kreis said he will have Adu for as long as he can.

“I think Freddy has been pretty clear that if an opportunity comes, he wants to take it,” Kreis said. “Listen, I was a player. I wanted to go to Europe too. All of the players do. It’s just like if you’re in Europe playing basketball. Where do you want to be? You want to be in the U.S.

Kreis and Adu were teammates when the season opened. Then Kreis suddenly retired one month in to replace John Ellinger as coach after the team’s winless start. Ellinger was Adu’s coach on the national under-17 team, which Adu was playing for at age 12.

Adu said he was disappointed when Ellinger was removed as coach and given an administrative job, but that wouldn’t be a reason for him to leave Salt Lake.

“It’s been great so far. I’ve really enjoyed myself,” Adu said. “I really enjoy being in an environment where I’m allowed to be myself and I have that respect of the guys — we have that mutual respect. I couldn’t have a better group of teammates at the moment. These guys are great.”

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