PRETORIA, South Africa -- Freddy Adu is heading back to Greece this week, his mind already on Brazil.
Though disappointed to be left off the U.S. roster for the World Cup in South Africa, the 21-year-old former phenom is focusing on the 2014 tournament after starting to revive his career this year at the Greek club Aris Thessaloniki.
"I really wanted to be a part of this World Cup team," Adu said in a telephone interview this month from his home in Maryland. "That didn't happen, but now I have to look forward to the next one. The preparation really starts now for me. You have to become a regular on the national team and keep helping the team and make a difference out there. But 2014, hopefully I am one of the players that is important."
Adu moved to the United States from Ghana with his family when he was 8, quickly started showing his soccer ability and starred for the United States at the 2003 FIFA under-17 world championship. He scored three goals against South Korea and a game-winner against Sierra Leone in the tournament, where Spain's Cesc Fabregas was the MVP.
Just a few months earlier, national team coach Bruce Arena had singled him out, saying, "I'd love to have 20 potential Freddy Adus at 14, hoping that one of them eventually surfaces into a great player" before admitting, "I think the hype is a little overdone at this point."
It sure was.
That November, Adu signed with D.C. United in a much-heralded deal that immediately landed him on David Letterman's "Late Show." Adu even held out hope of making the 2006 U.S. World Cup roster. His MLS debut in April 2004 was given showcase treatment on ABC, and he played the final 29 minutes of a 2-1 win over San Jose. He became the youngest player on a major U.S. pro team since a 14-year-old Fred Chapman pitched for Philadelphia of the American Association on July 22, 1887, his only appearance.
Looking back, MLS officials said Adu wasn't ready to play then and only was put in the game because of the pressure created by all of the expectations. He struggled during the first half of the season but started to become more comfortable and finished his rookie season with five goals and three assists.
He didn't become a regular starter with D.C. United, but he did finish his second season with four goals and six assists, and earned his first invitation to a national team training camp in January 2006. At 16, he became the youngest player in U.S. national team history when he entered as an 81st-minute substitute against Canada on Jan. 22, 2006.
Manchester United gave him a two-week trial in November 2006. A month later, D.C. United traded him to Real Salt Lake, where he was reunited with John Ellinger, his former coach on the under-17 team. He had a $550,000 salary by then, and captained the U.S. at the 2007 FIFA Under-20 World Cup, where he played alongside Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore. He scored three goals against Poland, and assisted on Altidore's goal in the 2-1 overtime loss to Austria in the semifinals.
Then his career came untracked.
Within weeks of the U-20 World Cup, Benfica paid $2 million for his transfer from MLS. Adu made his debut in a Champions League qualifier against Copenhagen, but the coach who signed him, Fernando Santos, was fired after just two games. Adu made just two starts that season, and Benfica loaned him to Monaco the following July.
He played 110 minutes at Monaco.
That's 110 minutes for the entire season.
"The first season at Benfica was really good, but there were so many coaching changes. I was just unlucky at the time. Sometimes you just fall out of favor, but I kept working hard," Adu said. "Monaco was not a good situation because I was lied to a lot."
He scored his first goal for the U.S. team on Nov. 19, 2008, in a 2-0 win over Guatemala in a World Cup qualifier, and added his second the following July against Grenada in the CONCACAF Gold Cup. But he was loaned to the Portuguese club Belenenses for the first half of the 2009-10 season -- a team en route to finishing 15th in the 16-team first division and getting relegated.
"That was probably for me the worst situation I could have been in," Adu said. "Everything about it was not good. We were in last place. I was not playing. I sat down and I really thought hard about where my career was going. In a way, it was blessing for me to go to Belenenses. After going through that and seeing that, it really woke me up."
In January, he was loaned to Aris, becoming teammates with fellow struggling American Eddie Johnson. Under coach Hector Cuper, who as coach of Inter Milan had inquired about signing Adu as a 10-year-old, Adu started to see regular playing time in left midfield. He scored in consecutive games against Aris and Xanthi in February, and assisted on a Johnson goal against Olimpiakos in the Greek playoffs.
"I was encouraged a lot to go one-on-one against people," Adu said. "I don't remember the last time I was encouraged to do that and use basically my weapon, which is going at people. Defensively, I got much better. I wouldn't be playing if I didn't get much better defensively. It's a lot tougher league than people give it credit for. I definitely learned to be a man in that league. They don't mess around there. They're in your face, hard-nosed. They want to distract you from playing your game. I'd put it somewhere close to the Portuguese league."
It's hard to tell where Adu stands in the U.S. player pool. Because he's not in South Africa, he's a forgotten man,
"Now isn't the time," coach Bob Bradley said Tuesday.
So Adu is looking ahead to the start of the Greek season on Aug. 14. There is the Gold Cup next year, and World Cup qualifying starts in 2012. He's also switched back to his original agent, Richard Motzkin, who also represents Landon Donovan.
"The fact that I'm not going to this World Cup, I'm not letting it take away from the fact that I was in Europe on a good team, a UEFA Cup team," Adu said. "My confidence has been pretty high."
Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press