Saturday, November 13, 2004

CARSON, Calif. — This was Major League Soccer’s moment to glow, a moment for which the league’s administrators were hoping.

MLS Cup 2004 would provide a showcase for the future of soccer: a teenage star who would impress everybody with his precocious talent and effervescent personality.

Problem was, D.C. United’s 15-year-old Freddy Adu could not have cared less.

“I’m not here for a media freak show,” he said, referring to tomorrow’s MLS Cup against the Kansas City Wizards. “I’m a soccer player first. That’s the bottom line.”

After an overwhelming publicity campaign that nearly overwhelmed him, Adu achieved the emotional perspective that allowed him to find his place in a man’s world this season.

“We make mistakes to learn from them, and I’ve grown up a lot,” he said. “It’s been a long journey to this point, but I’m glad I went through everything.”

Team captain Ryan Nelsen described Adu’s attitude adjustment as “major,” adding, “It’s amazing. From Day One ‘til now, he’s twice the better player. He’s probably not seeing as much playing time as he did early on, but he’s improved so much. I think he came in thinking he was just going to light it up.”

Certainly, many others did. Before he played his first game for D.C. United, Adu was endorsing products and appearing on “60 Minutes” and late-night talk shows. His presence boosted attendance around the league. His playing time — or lack of it — became a popular topic.

“I wasn’t used to it at all,” he said of not starting early season games. “I was used to playing 90 minutes, starting every game.”

Even when Adu wasn’t playing, fans asked him for autographs.

“It’s tough when you’re that age,” Nelsen said. “Every cat and dog, every media person, is blowing sunshine up his wrong end. I suppose you start to believe some of that stuff.”

Adu apparently did. After coming off the bench in his first five games, Adu publicly demanded more playing time, annoying coach Peter Nowak. Yet that demand proved to be Adu’s emotional turning point.

“I shouldn’t have said all that in the public eye,” he said. “I sat down and talked to Peter about it, and we resolved everything. I changed my psyche right there. I swallowed my pride. This is my first year; I’m not going to get a lot of playing time. I’ve just got to come off the bench and make a difference when I get the opportunity.”

Making a difference meant reducing a demanding publicity schedule that was taking its toll.

“All the media stuff was getting in the way,” Adu said. “I was tired in practice, I was tired in the games and I wasn’t able to play to my capabilities. So I shut them all off. This media stuff can wait. It can take care of itself.”

After the All-Star Game, Adu asked his agent, Richard Motzkin, and United vice president of communications Doug Hicks to limit his appearances and interviews.

“They respected my wishes, and they did a great job in handling it,” Adu said.

The teen’s newfound concentration rejuvenated his relationship with his teammates.

“I earned a lot of respect, and they trusted me a lot more with the ball,” Adu said. “For me to be the player that I am, I need people to trust me with the ball.”

Novak responded by making Adu an offensive midfield substitute instead of having him compete with forwards Alecko Eskandarian and Jaime Moreno for minutes.

“It’s me — it’s so me,” Adu said of his new role. “That’s where I feel like I belong. I’ve been there my whole life, and I’m able to show my ball skills. When I switched to midfield, I had three goals and three assists.”

But to be effective, Adu had to expand his view of the field.

“As soon as the ball came to him, he floated to it, no matter what the situation,” Nelsen said. “He was like a moth to light. I tried to make him think outside of just the ball at his feet. If you want to get to that next level, you’ve got do a lot of thinking without the ball.”

After enduring an emotional obstacle course during his rookie season, Adu feels confident about meeting any challenge — on or off the field, inside or outside himself.

“I’ll be a much better player next year,” he promised. “You can count on it.”

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