BRADENTON, Fla. -- Freddy Adu shrugged at the suggestion that he's growing up much faster than other kids his age.
The 13-year-old soccer phemon is the star of the U.S. under-17 team, on schedule to graduate from high school at 14. He has already caught the eyes of pro clubs eager to make him wealthy.
``That still really hasn't hit me yet. I still want to be a kid and kind of have a normal childhood,'' said Adu, whose family rejected a six-figure contract offer from an Italian team when Freddy was just 10.
``But there's going to be a point, and I know it's going to come pretty soon, where I'll have to make a decision as to whether to go pro or where I want to play, in Europe or here. But whatever offers I get, we'll just look into it. I trust my family to help me out with this. When the time comes, I know they will be there for me.''
The native of Ghana became a U.S. citizen in February, just in time to become the youngest player ever to compete for the Americans, helping them qualifying for the FIFA Under-17 World Championship.
The speedy, 5-foot-8, 150-pound scoring marvel had two goals and two assists in three games in Guatemala, helping the Americans earn their 10th straight berth in the tournament, to be played in August in Finland.
Adu said the most difficult transition he had to make from practice and exhibition games was to the aggressive tactics of opponents determined to shut him down.
``It really was more physical than I imagined. Teams will do anything to win the game,'' he said. ``My coach told me to expect that going in and that's exactly how it was. ... I felt like everybody was out to get me. That was fine with me because they didn't know anything about my teammates, and we ended up abusing them in certain areas of the field.''
Adu is the youngest player on the U.S. team by two years, but has benefited from practicing every day against older players. Coach John Ellinger also prepared the squad for the qualifier by playing games against college, club and pro teams.
Even without Adu, the United States would have one of its most talented under-17 teams ever. The Americans defeated Jamaica and Guatemala, and tied El Salvador to qualify.
``I just have that feeling that we might be the team that's actually going to go on and win it all because the individual and team mentality is so good right now,'' Adu said.
``Everyone's so prepared and everyone has their head on straight. I personally can't wait because we want to show the rest of the world how good Americans can really be because they still give us no respect, in my opinion, when it comes to soccer. ... That's our motivation, basically, to earn respect for this country.''
Ellinger can't imagine any 13-year-old dealing with stardom better than Adu.
In addition to being in an accelerated academic program that may allow him to finish high school before his 15th birthday, the bubbly youngster is well-liked by older players whose contributions to the team are often overlooked by the media.
``There's no jealousy, there's no animosity,'' Ellinger said. ``There's no question we all want Freddy with us instead of having to deal with him against him. He's that kind of player.''
Adu laughs when he talks about his relationship with teammates. He has a cell phone and talks to his mother in Potomac, Md., regularly, but also has learned to lean on his extended family.
``They don't treat me like I'm a little kid,'' Adu said.
``They treat me like one of them and give me the same amount of respect as they give everybody else on the team. And I'm kind of happy they're doing that because it helps me just mature faster and grow up, being away from home and all.''
With school and soccer taking up most of his day, there's little time to feel homesick. And if all goes well, there could be even more reason to feel comfortable in Florida by this fall.
Adu's 11-year-old brother, whose first name is also Fredua, is a soccer player who may be headed to the IMG Academy to train with the under-14 national team.
``He's the big kid of the family. He's already like 5-foot-10,'' Adu said, smiling at the thought.
``He has to kind of deal with everybody asking: `Are you going to be as good as your older brother?' I don't think he really cares about that yet, but I'm sure it will get to a point where he's going to start caring. Hopefully, he doesn't get too carried away with it.''
Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press