Freddy Adu: Can't-Miss Kid

Twelve-year-old Freddy Adu may turn out to be the greatest soccer player in U.S. history

by Gary Drevitch
Copyright 2002 Time Inc.
Sports Illustrated For Kids
March, 2002

Freddy Adu's life is all about choices. On the soccer field, the 12-year-old striker sees nothing but possibilities as he dribbles around gangs of defenders. Should he attack the goal? Angle a blistering shot past the goalkeeper? Lob a sweet pass that leads a teammate to a perfect position to score?

Last fall, Freddy faced a different and more difficult set of possibilities: Should he join the U.S. Under-17 team and make them instant international contenders? Stick with his local club team and school team? Sign a six-figure contract with a European pro club?

The choices seem limitless for the kid from Ghana, whom many call the most talented prospect ever to come to the United States. But one thing is for sure: Everyone in soccer wants to know what Freddy will do next.

"It's weird," says Freddy. "All of a sudden people are talking about you and pointing at you. It doesn't bother me. I just go ahead and play."

And dominate opponents. When Freddy is on the field, it's easy to see why he has caused such a buzz. During the fall season, he scored 25 goals and had 12 assists in 16 games as a freshman playing for the varsity team of The Heights School, in Potomac, Maryland. He also led The Heights to a Maryland state independent-high-school championship.

Freddy is a solidly built 5' 8" and 140 pounds. He is so fast and so skillful that he dribbles around defenders like a skier slicing through the gates of a slalom course. Opponents often have to foul him just to slow him down. He can whistle a shot into the back of the net in the blink of an eye, but his talent for spotting opportunities on the field really sets him apart.

"He has incredible vision," says coach John Ellinger of the U.S. Under-17 Men's National Team. "He can look one way and spot a teammate streaking down the other side and hit him with a quality pass."

Humble Beginnings

Freddy was born in Tema, Ghana. As a little kid, he did what almost every boy does in Tema: He played soccer whenever and wherever he could. "My mom told me I started playing at two," says Freddy.

The Adus [uh-DOO's] moved to the United States in 1997, when Freddy was 8. Freddy, his mother, his younger brother, Fredua, and two older cousins settled in Potomac, Maryland. "My family thought it would be good for us to go to school in the U.S.," says Freddy. "We weren't even thinking about soccer."

One day when Freddy was a fourth-grader, he was playing pickup soccer with schoolmates. A friend was so dazzled by Freddy's footwork that he invited Freddy to play on his club team. After a few games, the 8-year-old was recruited to join an elite Under-14 club, the Potomac Cougars.

A Star Is Born

Over the next four years, Freddy's game and his reputation grew. The left-footed wonder led a team of select all-stars to back-to-back titles at a major youth tournament in Italy in 1999 and 2000. He was the team's youngest player but was named the tournament MVP both times. Freddy also started working with the U.S. Under-14 program in 2000. And last July, he helped the Cougars win a national championship.

His performance in Italy attracted a lot of attention. Last summer, Inter Milan, a top pro team in Italy, talked to the Adus about a deal involving Freddy's future as a pro. The team reportedly offered the family $ 750,000.

But Freddy's mom said no. She says she still gets calls from agents who can't believe she turned down the money. "People call me even at work," says Emilia, who is a cashier for Home Depot. "They ask why I didn't take the offer. They say that if I can't take care of Freddy, they'll take care of him for me."

Freddy's mom felt her son was already well cared for. He received a scholarship based on financial need to enroll at The Heights in sixth grade. His excellent grades earned him a promotion to eighth grade the following year.

Making the Big Move

Last fall, the U.S. Under-17 team offered Freddy a new choice: Leave The Heights and move to Bradenton, Florida, to train. Freddy had hoped to join the team in September 2002, with an eye toward playing in the 2003 U-17 world championship. But he wasn't sure he was ready to leave home at age 12. (Freddy turns 13 in June.)

After working out with the team several times last fall and discussing the move with his family, Freddy decided he was ready to go.

His mom gave the okay after a trip to Bradenton in December. She talked with Coach John Ellinger and visited Bradenton Academy, the school Freddy would attend. He joined his new teammates in January.

Freddy misses his family and friends back in Maryland, but he'll be able to go home for several weekends during the year.

He will face bigger, tougher players at the international level and will get fouled more often. To build his strength, he has started lifting weights. "I don't want to worry about all those big guys pushing me off the ball," he says.

Outside of America, the U.S. men's soccer team is looked down upon. The team finished last in the 1998 World Cup, and very few of its stars are offered a starting job in the elite European leagues.

Someday, Freddy could change the fortunes of U.S. soccer. He has already impressed U.S. team officials with his skills and attacking instincts. "It's too early to know where this kid will be down the road," U.S. men's coach Bruce Arena told The Washington Post. "If he continues to move forward, and other kids grow and catch up to him, that will be the real test."

Jump-starting the U.S. soccer program is a lot of pressure for a 12-year-old, but Freddy is learning how to deal with all the attention.

"Sometimes a huge crowd would turn up [at The Heights] just to see me play," he says. "It was like I was supposed to be Superman. Even if you play well, you think, But I only had one goal. You get down on yourself. It used to bother me, but my family and coaches helped me not to worry about it."

For now, developing his talent will be a full-time job for Freddy. He has morning classes, daily practices, and soon will be playing tournaments in Brazil, France, and other countries.

What's in store for Freddy after the 2003 U-17 world championship? He will be only 14, but he may decide he's ready to sign with a top European club, where he would most likely be assigned to a development team.

"I'd like to play in Spain," says Freddy, whose favorite team is Real Madrid. He studies the moves of the team's star midfielders, Luis Figo and Zinedine Zidane, on his soccer videos.

Freddy doesn't have to decide about turning pro for a while. But wherever he goes, his talent guarantees he'll make a big impact.

"A lot of times you get these young phenoms and you wonder, 'Are they going to pan out?' " says Coach Ellinger. "But I'd say that Freddy is a can't-miss player."