Adu: I never played my natural position in MLS
Following a highly successful U-20 World Cup tournament, former MLS phenom Freddy Adu decided it was time for him to try his luck in Europe.
He spoke with ESPNsoccernet about his decision to choose Benfica and the Portuguese league.
ESPNsoccernet: Why the Portuguese league, and what sold you on the Benfica move?
Freddy Adu: Benfica are one of the top 10 biggest clubs in the world. I've always said in many interviews that I wanted to play for a big European club, and Benfica gave me the opportunity. They were the first to come to the table with an offer after the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Canada, and that just says a lot about how bad they wanted me.
When you are wanted somewhere, it makes you feel good and confident to go there and perform by working hard. All I needed to hear was that Benfica was interested in me.
ESPNsoccernet: This is a fresh start for you; plus, you do not have the weight of the team or the league on your shoulders. How do you approach this new experience?
FA: Obviously, just going in there with a different mentality than I did when I first came into MLS. That mentality is going in and working hard and keeping your mouth shut. I know the team and the coaching staff will have my back, but my positive attitude also matters. I need to show everyone on the team that I am ready to contribute right away, and you only do that by how hard you work at practice.
ESPNsoccernet: How much did you know about Benfica before now?
FA: It is one of the biggest clubs in the world. Eusebio played there and they have about 20 million fans worldwide. I know in America we get to see more of the EPL and Spanish league. People know of the team, and I know they knocked Liverpool out of the Champions League two years ago when they [Liverpool] were the defending champions.
ESPNsoccernet: You've practiced with your new team, the third team in less than a year; how was it and did you feel welcome?
FA: It was great; they welcomed me with open arms. When I got to the airport, there were tons of fans and press waiting to welcome me to the country and the city. It makes you feel good that they really appreciate you and your talent. They want to have me there and the guys, half of them speak English, which makes it even better and easier for me to fit in and communicate with them.
They told me they have been watching me, they watched the U-20 World Cup and they were very impressed, and such comments make you feel a little bit comfortable with the guys.
ESPNsoccernet: Speaking of [the] language barrier, you'll be in a different country: Any chance of Freddy speaking Portuguese soon?
FA: Oh yeah, I'm definitely going to learn Portuguese, and I want to learn the culture. I'm excited about the process of learning a new language, and it will be great.
ESPNsoccernet: Lets talk a little bit about some of the details of your contract; how many years is it and what does it entail?
FA: I've signed for five years, and obviously I'm excited about that. Benfica is one of those clubs that allows young talent to grow. It's a great environment for me because the coach's strategy fits my style of play -- I'm more of a skillful type of player, and that's the type of league I'll be playing in. We were able to agree on all the terms; no financial terms will be disclosed at this point, though.
ESPNsoccernet: You talked about the team's love for young talent. Angel Di Maria of Argentina, eventual U-20 champion in Canada, will join you at Benfica. What should we expect from both of you?
FA: Di Maria is a great pickup for us, one of the best players in the [U-20] World Cup period. I was there for a couple of days in Lisbon, and just watching him, the kid is just brewing with confidence.
I know he is ready to rock and roll when called upon, and same here. You should expect us to play some entertaining soccer. Benfica has a lot of skillful players, and we balance it out with speed, from the veterans and youth; that's where Di Maria and I come in. We will play some good soccer for all Benfica fans.
ESPNsoccernet: Was there any truth to the rumors about you joining Celtic FC in Scotland?
FA: They were interested. They were one of the teams that showed the interest, but nothing obviously happened there. I couldn't be happier about being with Benfica right now. I mean, wow! Who would have ever thought that I would be in Benfica colors, getting an opportunity to play in the [UEFA] Champions League? All this after 3½ in MLS, it's unthinkable.
ESPNsoccernet: Real Salt Lake acquired you last year from D.C. United knowing that Europe was on the horizon when you turned 18. Were you surprised they made a move for you?
FA: I was not surprised they made a move for me. I didn't know what the future had in store for me, though, and what was going to happen. I didn't know I would be leaving this summer. The plan all along for me was to make a move after this season, which they knew. They knew of my intentions and desire to play in Europe. I would say the U-20 changed all those plans right away, and I just wanted to take advantage of it.
|• Adu on his move to Benfica
ESPNsoccernet: I'm going to play devil's advocate. If Freddy could not succeed in MLS, how is he going to perform and start on a more competitive level in Europe?
FA: [Laughs] Here is a response to that. I have never gotten to play at my natural position in MLS, and it sounds like I'm making excuses. My whole life I have always been an attacking midfielder/support striker. Ever since I joined MLS I've played outside midfield. Somewhere along the line people started thinking I'm an outside midfield, but I'm not and I never was. I tried to make the best of it, but I wasn't as effective compared to if I played in my natural position in the middle.
Most people that watch the games knew I scored most of my goals and picked up most of my assists when I got the chance to play in the middle, whenever Christian Gomez was out of the game at D.C.
I got that opportunity at the U-20 and I took full advantage of that. I hope I get that opportunity at Benfica, which I'm pretty sure I will, because I talked to the coach [Fernando Santos]. We talked about positions; he felt I did very well at the attacking midfield spot and he will give me a chance there, it's up to me to take advantage of that.
ESPNsoccernet: This team plays a 4-3-3 formation; the attacking midfield position already has a legend in Rui Costa, and former captain Simao Sabrosa just moved to Atletico Madrid. Would you prefer Sabrosa's position?
FA: At this level I don't really mind playing a left forward since the team plays a 4-3-3. This team plays in a certain way that you are involved more, even if you play left or right forward. Rui Costa is Rui Costa, a legend like you mentioned, and it will be great to learn from someone like that, as well.
The coach has made it clear along with the president that I will be a big part of the team. All I have to do is work my butt off and show that I can contribute immediately.
ESPNsoccernet: Lets talk about your U-20 team in Canada. Describe the emotions when you guys beat Brazil.
FA: It was a great victory. Brazil is Brazil regardless of who wears that jersey. We were definitely the underdogs going into that game. I had always said all along that we had the talent to beat anybody in the tournament, and we proved it on that day.
They have some great players in Pato, [Leandro] Lima, Jo and all these other guys that are probably going to be sold for about $20 million each. It said a lot about our team, and I was very proud to captain a U.S. team in a game of that magnitude and go on to win.
I think I did myself a lot of good in that aspect, and my overall performance in the competition -- like the hat trick against Poland -- proved doubters wrong and renewed interest from Europe.
ESPNsoccernet: Did your team need the Brazil win to prove that you were one of the teams to beat in the competition?
FA: Yes! We wanted that game. Its not every day you get a chance to play a Brazil in a competition of that level, and we wanted to take full advantage of that. Everybody wanted to prove we were for real and not here to add to the numbers. We needed that for the team confidence as well, and also to prove to ourselves that we can play against anyone.
ESPNsoccernet: How far in the competition did you guys think you could go?
FA: I thought we could win it all. Honestly, we could have with a little bit of luck against Austria. On that day, the chances did not go our way, but that's soccer. You just live with it, learn from your mistakes and move on. I thought we really had the talent and should have at least made it to the semifinals.
ESPNsoccernet: Now back to Europe, you've seen Champions League on television. Describe the feeling you get when you think of playing with or against some of the biggest names in the world of club soccer?
FA: You have no idea how happy and pumped I am right now, especially to play at Estadio da Luz in Lisbon. This is a dream come true, and I have been dreaming about this and talking about it in interviews for a long time. Finally it is here, and I want to take full advantage of this and I cannot wait for my first Champions League game. I'm ready for the challenge.
Sulaiman Folarin is a regular contributor to ESPN The Magazine and covers MLS and world soccer for ESPNsoccernet. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.