Saturday, October 22, 2005

Poor Peter Nowak. He just wants to coach D.C. United and win another title, but he is constantly distracted by a young soccer prince who thinks he should be king.

Poor Freddy Adu. He has been told he’s the best player since Pele, but he can’t understand why he doesn’t get to start every game.

What are they to do?

Last night, they suspended the 16-year-old Adu for the opening match of the MLS playoffs.

He had a temper tantrum earlier in the week, and the media came rushing down to RFK Stadium. Hey, where have those guys been all season?

“Is something going on,” joked United midfielder Ben Olsen, noting the TV cameras in United’s normally vacant media room.

Despite all of Nowak’s efforts — he restored United’s glory after four bleak years — the focal point since he arrived in the District, always has been Adu, Adu and Adu.

From the first day of his coaching career, Nowak has had to face the numbing and tireless question — mostly from people who don’t follow the game closely — of why Freddy doesn’t play more.

One senior scribe even called for Nowak’s resignation because he didn’t start Adu in the 14-year-old’s first game last season. The Polish coach probably thought he had calmed the storm over his handling of the prodigy after winning a title, but the controversy emerged again this week.

Of course, Adu has gotten to play for United. He hasn’t always started, but he’s a major part of the team. And Nowak always emphasis “the team.” It’s the team that wins trophies, and its Nowak’s job to find the right balance on the field that wins games.

Adu is a multi-talented player, but he doesn’t easily fit in. He’s a little unique. And while that uniqueness may one day make him a star, for the moment, he’s a player that Nowak feels can’t simply slot into one of United’s coveted starting roles.

Adu is not a typical striker like Jaime Moreno or Taylor Twellman, and he’s not a typical midfielder — he’s somewhere in between, a sort of withdrawn forward, and that’s the dilemma. His best position for United may be as a central attacking midfielder, but that role is held by Christian Gomez, 31, an experienced Argentine player who is having another stunning season.

Adu is a good player. One day he may be a great player, but he’s not there yet. He has moments of brilliance, which seem to confirm everything that has been gushed about him, but he can also disappear from a game and look lost. The reality is that if Adu were now on the roster of one of the big European clubs for which he wants to play, he would be cutting his teeth with the reserves. If he were at Chelsea, he would be on the youth team.

American soccer is indebted to Adu, a charming and engaging young man. Adu brought unimaginable media coverage to an often misunderstood sport in America, and drew the fans like no other player since Pele when he played for the Cosmos. But he is still very young and needs to tow the line. Even Diego Maradona and Ronaldo had to wait their turn.

Nowak is burdened or blessed — take your pick — to have Adu on his team, and that’s the challenge for the coach. Can he help mold Adu — and will the youngster let him — into a great United player, or does Adu need new pastures, say up Interstate 95?

Nowak never waxes profusely about individual players as did former United coach Ray Hudson, who said of Adu: “A blind man on a galloping horse can see his talent. He’s a little Faberge egg, and everyone’s trying to protect him.”

Nowak always will be a team man, first and foremost. Some may think he is an old-fashioned coach in an age when sports prodigies, who are listening to sycophants, agents and hangers-on, need extra special care. But the bottom line is this: Soccer is very much a head game, and if Adu wants to take home another championship medal next month, he should be listening very closely to his coach and teammates.

Adu should study the case of an American-born boy who left New Jersey to play in Italy when he was 12 and joined up with Parma at the age of 16. In 2004, he graduated to Manchester United, the biggest club on the planet. The kid worked hard, making headlines on the reserve team.

Last week, that 18-year-old — Giuseppe Rossi — came off the bench in the world’s toughest league and scored a stunning goal in his debut for the Red Devils. That’s how its done in the world of soccer.

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