No fear factor

April 1, 2004
By Marc Connolly
(Archive)

When Freddy Adu first stepped onto the field with the Under-20 National Team last October, his teammates saw what he was all about the first time he touched the ball in an intra-squad scrimmage.

Rather than keep it simple with an easy square pass or by playing a conservative ball back to a midfielder while he assimilated himself to a higher level of competition, the 14-year-old sensation took off, as he always does, running at the defense. Before the other team knew what hit them, Adu had blown by two players off the dribble.

"When we saw that," said U-20 teammate and Los Angeles Galaxy rookie midfielder Ned Grabavoy, "we knew he wasn't afraid of anyone, and he's going to play his game no matter what."

That's one of the reasons his professional debut today (ABC, 4 p.m. ET) with D.C. United is so highly anticipated.

Adu won't simply be trying to prove that a 14-year-old boy can hold his own with men -- many twice his age and older -- at the professional level, but that a 14-year-old boy can make an impact on the game in hopes of gaining a victory for his team over Major League Soccer's defending champion San Jose Earthquakes on Opening Day.

As of now, D.C. United head coach Peter Nowak has said Adu will definitely play, but hasn't announced whether he will start.

Adu said he desperately wants to start, yet he will not judge how well his afternoon goes by how many minutes he plays, whether he scores a goal, or base it on how many oohs and ahhs he inspires from the sellout crowd at RFK Stadium.

"I just have to play," Adu said on Wednesday afternoon. "I've always set high standards for myself every game. I don't necessarily have to score to have a good game. If the team wins, I'll look at it and be like, 'Hey, you did something to help the team win.'"

For the U-17s, as well as his short stint with the U-20s, that meant beating people with his speed, his wide array of moves, and mostly off the dribble, before unleashing punishing shots with his left foot, that's as powerful as it is accurate.

The question is: Will Freddy Adu have to adjust his game to succeed at this level?

Opinions are varied.

When you talk to players around the league, you won't find anyone who shows a bit of jealousy or anyone that isn't happy for Adu, for the league as a whole and for soccer in this country.

Everyone likes Freddy. It's practically impossible not to like him.

He's respectful, quick to smile, attentive, polite and is someone who seems to know his place as a rookie. He carries water jugs, the team's soccer balls, and is quick to give a teammate props in an interview even when the question asks for him to talk about his own game.

Preview Week
Marc Connolly will continue to look at the season ahead:

Wed., March 31: L.A. newcomer Jovan Kirovski; Kicking It with ... John Harkes
Thurs., April 1: Fearless Freddy Adu; The Other Rookie
Fri., April 2: D.C. debut for Adu; Chat at 5 p.m. ET

What you will find, though, are players who think that Adu will have trouble adjusting to the physical play seen in Major League Soccer.

Many of those players want their comments to stay off the record, while others are willing to discuss the topic, knowing they are not putting down the teenage wunderkind, but just telling it like it is.

Kansas City defender Nick Garcia trained with Adu while the National Team was in Bradenton, Fla., and was impressed with what he saw. At the same time, as a defender, he knows just how tough the game can get out there, particularly in the battles that take place between strikers and backs.

"He has a lot to learn," said Garcia. "The guys here are physically stronger, so he will get thrown around. If he's not careful with how he handles himself in clusters, I think he might get crushed ... he'll get his fair share of bumps and bruises."

One of Adu's teammates, Ryan Nelsen, said much of the same.

"I'm scared that some of the things he does with the under-17s, with the step-overs and that kind of stuff that you can get away with against players that age, won't work against MLS defenders," said the 26-year-old defender, who was named to the league's Best XI in 2003. "They will see red and get mad. They have egos as well, and they won't like that. You kind of have to tell him that, but then again, you don't want to get all of that out of him because it's his natural way of playing."

According to Nowak, that's where the messages to Freddy have been mixed.

"I've heard people say he cannot physically handle Major League Soccer because he's going to be kicked and bumped," said the first-year D.C. United head coach. "People talked to him about those things, so then he started to lift weights five days a week. Who came up with this idea? He's supposed to grow naturally.

"He's supposed to be the Freddy that everyone knows. The Freddy with speed, with quickness, with skills, and with his dribbling. He's supposed to be a ghost to defenders."

It's after saying this that the former Polish international and Chicago Fire standout points down to his legs that show no scars or deformities whatsoever.

"I played twenty-three years professionally, and I didn't have any surgeries," he said. "Not even one. And I told Freddy that. I was too fast for those guys to get a solid hit. You might get scratched, so maybe you get two weeks off. If you build yourself up too much, you're going to be slower."

Adu has put on 10 pounds of muscle over the winter after hitting the weight room most every night after dinner while finishing up his studies -- he completed the equivalent of three years of high school in just two years -- in Bradenton.

It was something he said he would do after the league signed him to a $500,000-a-year contract in November. Yet, at the same time, Adu doesn't really plan on altering his game too much to deal with the physical play of bigger and stronger men.

"I'm just moving the ball a little faster," he said. "If I had to say one thing, that'd be it. These guys are professionals and they're very smart and they're good. You can't get away doing some of the things I did with the U-17s."

That doesn't mean you won't see him take players one-on-one when it's called for.

"I have to move the ball, and when the right time comes, take somebody on the dribble," he said. "I'm not going to beat five guys at a time to score a goal."

Then again, nobody in the league does that. Not Landon Donovan, the league's best player. Or Preki, Major League soccer's reigning MVP, who has a magical left foot of his own.

While the media crush will probably never exceed what is expected at RFK this weekend, judging Adu will have to wait for a few months. And when it happens, it has to be as a player, not as a teenage player.

"I would encourage all of us to judge him on face value, and how he performs," said former U.S. National Team star striker Eric Wynalda, who will be calling the San Jose-D.C. game as an analyst for ABC Sports. "That doesn't necessarily mean that any rookie is going to rev it up their first season, at any age. I've always been very critical of the announcers when we constantly say how old Preki is because he's forty-one years old and he's still able to do great things on the soccer field.

"There are good players, and there are bad players. There are not old players and young players."

Wise beyond his years, Adu has already seemed to grasp that concept. But there are other facets of the game and being a professional that he'll learn in time.

He needs to learn about the opposing teams, especially the other nine defenses around the league. (He said he didn't know much about San Jose's back four three days before D.C. opens against them.)

Adu also needs time to experience it all for himself, rather than continue to get advice from a myriad of advisors, counselors and fellow professional athletes -- both in and out of soccer -- that have taken an interest in him since his signing.

"Sometimes, if you have too many advisors, you lose your head," said Nowak. "I've spoken to Freddy about this. He's smart and intelligent already, and will figure things out."

Perhaps by going through the School of Hard Knocks, like every other rookie.

"He's gotta get whacked to the ground a few times," said Nelsen, a powerful centerback who knows a little something about knocking strikers around. "He has to get cursed at. He has to be told, 'No.' That's how you learn. Not by having everyone tell him how great he is.

"He'll start the learning process when he gets smashed or gets six studs from Jeff Agoos in the first game. That's when he'll learn."

Grabavoy, for one, believes this learning process will come sooner rather than later, too.

"He's going to help D.C. United out this year and come along just fine," he said. "And I don't think it'll take as long as everyone thinks, either."

Nowak said he's not worried about how his young superstar is going to play, and thinks that his skills and speed will make him dangerous regardless of his age.

"Things will not happen overnight, but he is already very smart on the field and mobile and fast," he said. "We will help to make him better and he will help make our team better.

"I just want him to be Freddy Adu. The one who loves to play soccer."

The one who took on two defenders at his first U-20 camp.

The one who plays without fear.

Marc Connolly covers American soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at: shaketiller10@yahoo.com.