The youngest player ever to sign with a professional sports franchise in the United States has left the team he started with. Major League Soccer player Freddy Adu was traded from D.C. United, his hometown club, and reunited with his former U-17 national youth team coach, John Ellinger, at Real Salt Lake.
Though D.C. won an MLS championship (2004), a Supporter's Shield regular season title (2006), and made the playoffs in every season since Adu first signed three years ago, it hasn't always been smooth sailing for him at United.
In his second year, Adu complained about his lack of playing time to the media. United coach Peter Nowak benched the young star for a playoff match, saying his complaints were a distraction to the squad. Though the two appeared to smooth things over at the start of this season, it was hard to believe all the issues had been swept neatly away.
At United, it appeared that Nowak was bringing Adu along too slowly, limiting his development with an overly cautious approach. Instead of his natural position as an attacking midfielder, Adu was pushed out to the wing and forced to improve his defensive play instead of utilizing his creative ability with the ball.
Nowak's decision to sub Adu out in D.C.'s final playoff game this season was downright baffling. Adu had been playing well, and D.C. United needed only a goal to tie the match.
It didn't help that Adu was playing on the same team as the league's MVP, Christian Gomez, and unlikely to beat him out for the center midfield spot. So far, Adu's career in MLS can be summed up as solid but not spectacular, tallying 11 goals and 17 assists in 87 career matches.
Not quite the Tiger Woods-like performance many hoped for. Many different things have to go right for success in a team game, though. Perhaps that's why Adu was looking to make a change.
About three weeks ago, Adu and his agent ran into Ellinger at a soccer event. There, Adu clued his former coach in to his readiness to make a move.
"We started to maneuver and tried to figure out if we could make it work," said Steve Pastorino, Real Salt Lake's general manager.
Proof of how badly Adu's relationship appeared to have deteriorated with Nowak was evident in his desire to join Ellinger in Utah.
"He's going to be playing for a coach he's happy to be playing for," said Pastorino. "His itch to go abroad might lessen."
Pastorino was willing to gamble on that being true, though speculation around Adu indicates that he will attempt to land an offer from Europe during the summer transfer window of 2007, his first such opportunity after he turns 18 in June.
"We really don't anticipate that he's going anywhere anytime soon," said Pastorino.
"Obviously, we enter this deal knowing what Freddy has said, and that Freddy was just over in England, but we also have had conversations with Freddy and his agent," said Pastorino. "I'll go as far as to say we expect Freddy will be on the field when we open up our new stadium in the summer of 2008. I think that's a pretty good return on investment, provided that we get a couple of seasons out of him."
If Ellinger gives Adu free rein in the midfield, the league might finally see his true potential on the field.
"One of the advantages of having Freddy at this point is that he has become a seasoned pro," said Pastorino. "He's not 14-years-old anymore. He's no longer a teen phenom. He's a player."
Adu might no longer be a teen phenom, but as a player, there's still a lot to prove.
Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She also writes for topdrawersoccer.com, lasoccernews.com and soccer365.com. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.