Freddy Adu exclusive: ‘I lost my love for the game but I’m ready to get out there again… I’m still young’
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It's been a while since Freddy Adu played a competitive game of football. Four years, one month and 25 days, to be exact.
On the evening of October 13, 2018, a man that single-handedly catapulted 'soccer' into mainstream culture in America made his final appearance for the Las Vegas Lights –– an unspectacular 56-minute cameo against second-tier Sacramento FC.
Since then, the much-travelled Adu hasn't played a single minute of football at professional level. But why? It's a question that has entered my train of thought more often than I'd care to admit. So a few months ago, without much hope or expectation, I decided to send Freddy a DM on Twitter. The likelihood of him seeing it? Unlikely. But why not, eh? There's always a chance.
The message read: "Hey Freddy. Do you fancy having a chat about what you're up to now? It would be great to talk soon. Hope you're good."
A day went by and as expected, no reply. A week went by; still nothing. And then, on a soon-to-be momentous Thursday afternoon, my phone vibrated across the office desk. "If you are still interested in doing it, let me know."
A week later, over a Zoom call from his home in Maryland, the incredibly-likeable American would open up about signing a record-breaking million-dollar sponsorship deal with Nike at 14, the expectation that followed and his biggest career regret.
Looking back, Adu has been through a lot. Some say too much for someone so young. But even after everything, the former Benfica forward says there's still another chapter to write. “I haven't technically retired yet," he tells SPORTbible from the get-go. "I took a few years off after I lost my love for the game. Believe it or not, I'm thinking about getting out there again and playing. I'm still young enough.”
At 33, it almost feels like he can't bring himself to end a career that promised so much. But you’ll soon understand why.
Life has come full circle for Freddy Adu. After playing for 15 clubs in nine different countries over a 17-year period, he is back home in Maryland — the place where he grew up. “I take care of my family now,” Adu tells us. “A lot of people don't know this but my mom had surgery this year and it was pretty significant. I've been taking care of my mom."
Freddy owes so much to his mother, Emelia.
Every year, the United States grants around 50,000 permanent resident visas as part of the Diversity Visa Program and in 1997, she won a Green Card lottery, meaning the Adu family would emigrate from Ghana to the city of Rockville, Maryland.
Emelia would soon work two full-time jobs to support her family. She'd wake up at 5am, work an eight-hour shift at McDonald's before clocking another eight hours in the evening at an office building; all while a young Freddy was making a name for himself at local side Potomac Cougars, who were in disbelief at his technical ability.
Jim Escobar, one of his former coaches at Potomac, was convinced he'd found a gem. Arnold Tarzy, the Cougars' manager at the time, said he’d never seen a player like it. In fact, after seeing him play for the first time, Tarzy couldn’t get to sleep that night; such was his talent.
Emelia, meanwhile, protected her son at all costs. Plenty of European clubs were sniffing around, including Inter Milan, who sent a representative to Maryland to meet with Adu's mother. They offered the teenager a spot in their youth academy and a $250,000 fee that soon escalated to $750,000. But he wasn't for sale.
At the end of the day, money wasn't the be-all and end-all. Emilia was desperate for her son to get an education, so he took an accelerated programme at Bradenton’s prestigious IMG Academy in order to graduate from high school early. The ultimate goal was to one day make it professional while completing his studies.
Throughout his time on Florida's Gulf Coast, Freddy's stock was rising. Everyone knew his name, including representatives from Nike and Major League Soccer. At the age of 13, he signed a $1 million sponsorship contract with Nike and eight months later, at the age of 14, Freddy became the MLS’ highest-paid player.
It was a deal that made him a household name throughout America and beyond. He was handed a record-breaking $500,000-per-year contract by the MLS at FOURTEEN — a figure that, to this day, seems astronomical, even with the copious amounts of cash being volleyed around in 2022.
To pile even more pressure on his young shoulders, Phil Knight, the chairman of Nike, said he had the ability to accomplish more than Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and LeBron James. Again, and I can't stress this enough, Adu was just 14-years-old at the time. Can you imagine?
Most kids that age were playing Pokemon on their GameBoy. Freddy was playing against fully-grown men.
A number of sponsorship deals followed, including an endorsement with Pepsi, which would soon elevate his brand globally. Remember that iconic picture of Pele carrying the so-called future of world football in his arms? It still lives fresh in Adu's memory.
“We were in Bradenton, at the academy, and I had to shoot a commercial for Sierra Mist," he remembers, 19 years on. "So we're at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers stadium. I'll always remember this, man. So I'm there, juggling the ball and stuff. The cameras are following me around and all of a sudden, someone taps me on my shoulder.
"I just think it's someone from the camera crew but when I turned around, I saw Pele. I'm like, holy sh*t.
"I remember saying, 'What is this... what is happening? Why is Pele here?'. They didn't tell me he was shooting the commercial with me. I was just flipping out and he carries me. And that's when they took all these pictures. It was one of the greatest moments of my life. To me, Pele is the Michael Jordan of our sport. I will never forget that moment. I was only 14 at the time. It was so cool, man.”
After the commercial was wrapped up, one of the all-time greats praised Adu's "fantastic" left foot and compared him to world-famous composer Mozart, of all people. "God gave Freddy the gift to play soccer," he said. "If he is prepared mentally and physically, nobody will stop him."
That's certainly a big "if" and soon, Pele would send a stark warning to America's most talked about prodigy.
“Now things will become more difficult," the former Santos forward added. "Coaches will look at you. The crowd will ask for more. You'll get a good contract and do commercials, and the people will start to press. So now is the time to be careful.”
Even before meeting his idol, Freddy was being called the next Pele; a label many people in their 20's would struggle to live up to, never mind a 14-year-old boy who was preparing to make his MLS debut after being drafted as the first overall pick by D.C. United in the 2004 SuperDraft.
Was he feeling the pressure? “At the time. I don't think I even saw it like that," Adu says. "I was just so happy to be playing. I guess I was just naive back then. But I was just so happy to be a professional at that age. I was enjoying it. I didn't really think of it as pressure. That beginning part was just all euphoria, to be honest with you.
"I made it at 14. I was taking care of my family. I was getting to live out my dream. That's what it was really all about. People are going to say what they're going to say. Sometimes they put unrealistic expectations on you that are just out of this world. But I had no control over that. All I could control was just trying to achieve my goals.”
Five months after becoming the youngest athlete ever to sign a professional contract in the United States, the hype to see America's new golden boy was at an all-time high ahead of D.C United's first game of the 2004/05 season against the San Jose Earthquakes.
Attendances would just about spill over 10,000 throughout the previous season. For this game, DC sold out the RFK Stadium's downsized capacity of 24,603 within days.
Dickinson Gould, a resident of Washington, admitted he was only there for one reason. "I'm definitely here to see Freddy,'' he told The Gainesville Sun. "I'm not a huge soccer fan, but I've heard and read so much about Freddy that I was really interested to see what he's all about.''
Adu, meanwhile, was starting to feel it. "I was very nervous because there was just so much expectation that went with it," he tells us. "I mean, it was on every channel. At the time, soccer wasn't on TV in America but it was everywhere. Everybody was talking about it. The traffic to get into the stadium was ridiculous. It was a packed house. I was really nervous, I'm not gonna lie."
He wasn't named in the starting lineup to face defending champions San Jose that afternoon; a decision that must have deflated the capacity crowd. But fans soon gave their teenage prodigy the loudest ovation of the night when he was brought on in the 61st minute."I settled down a little bit after that and took everything as it came," Adu says.
A couple of weeks later, the renowned ‘wonderkid’ in America would become the youngest player in MLS history to score a goal during a 3-2 loss to MetroStars. He would go on to feature in all 30 regular season games for D.C, notching five goals and three assists. It was a respectable debut campaign all things considered.
Away from the pitch, Freddy was overwhelmed. The MLS wanted him to be front and centre before every game to promote the struggling league, while Nike were keen to promote their brand. Every city he went to, there were conference calls, interviews and lengthy meet and greets with fans. For Adu, it was exhausting.
“Being the highest-paid player in the league at 14 and having that contract with Nike comes along with a lot of responsibility," Adu says. "When we would travel to games, for example, I would have to go earlier than the team because I had to do all these meet and greets.
“I didn't think of it back then but now, when I do think about it... can you imagine a 14-year-old coming in, having to do all this? It was tough. It didn't help, let's put it that way. It was just a lot of distraction. Doing that stuff put extra pressure on me to perform right away."
He stops for a moment before making a great point. "When you are 14, you’ll often get time to develop as a player, but I didn't have that. It was like, 'You have got to perform right now.' And when I didn't, I was on the bench. I wasn’t playing and that sort of stunted my growth as a player. You get better by playing first-team games. Training is one thing, but getting game time is different. That’s what takes your game to a whole other level.”
Adu notes that his D.C teammates had "grinded their whole lives" to become professional. Some were even old enough to be his dad, while he just rocked up one day with the biggest contract in MLS history. It probably didn't rub off very well among the senior pros.
"At the end of the day, I was so young that I didn't really have a lot in common with most of the guys on the team, because many of them had kids, wives and stuff like that," Freddy says.
He would spend two years at D.C United before joining Real Salt Lake in December 2006 after expressing his wish to play a more attacking role in games. Things, however, could have been very different for the teenager, who was invited to England — a place he always wanted to visit — a month earlier.
Adu’s agent at the time, Richard Motzkin, was the deliverer of good news. Manchester United wanted to take a closer look at the boy everyone was talking about. With a mixture of excitement and nerves, he made the eight-hour trip to Carrington and spent two weeks with the Premier League giants.
To this day, he plays down that it was a trial.
“It's weird," he said. "Everybody says trial, trial, trial but the way it was explained to me was that it wasn't a trial at all. I was going there to have the opportunity to train with some of the best players in the world. I couldn't go on trial because I was only 16 and I was already signed to DC United. I was signed to MLS long term. So unless MLS were ready to let me go, which they weren't at the time. It wasn't a trial."
But still, this was a massive opportunity for Freddy to demonstrate his talent against some of the world's best players. And he didn't look out of place alongside the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney. In fact, manager Sir Alex Ferguson confirmed they would monitor his progress in the coming months.
"Freddy has done all right," Fergie said after his spell in Manchester. "He is a talented boy. He’ll go back to the US and we’ll keep a check on him. When he is 18, we will have to assess what we can do next”
At the time, Adu was still a good way off his 18th birthday, which meant he couldn't be snapped up by a club outside of the US. He was eligible to join a European club when he turned 18 but United eventually decided against offering the American a deal.
Still, he looks back at that experience with great memories. "They [United] wanted to see how I interacted in that environment," Adu says. "It went well, man. I played well when I was there. I was just so young at that point. Sir Alex Ferguson said that they were going to keep an eye on me."
Just seven months into his time with Salt Lake, Portuguese side Benfica would come knocking after he impressed for the United States at the 2007 FIFA U20 World Cup. They managed to secure Adu's rights from the MLS for a fee of $2 million. This was it. The big step he needed.
But soon, the biggest regret of Freddy Adu's career would take place. A loan move to French side AS Monaco.
"I felt that when I was at Benfica, I had three different coaches in my first year there. It was a little much," he says. "I'm thinking it would be better going to play for a different team and hopefully, that would give me more stability. But it turned out that was the wrong decision."
Freddy goes on: “For me, it was my biggest regret. I wasn't mature enough to handle all the distractions at the time in Monaco. In turn, my play suffered big time. That was basically the beginning of me having to go on loan to different teams because I just wasn't playing well enough.
"I don't blame anybody. I blame myself because I made that decision. I did. Nobody forced me to. I was the one who decided to move."
At the time, Angel Di Maria, who linked up with Adu throughout his first season in Portugal, was becoming a first-team regular at Benfica. He would eventually earn a €25 million move to Real Madrid before spells at Manchester United and PSG.
"The crazy thing is, during my first year there, I actually played better than Di Maria," he explains. "I got on the field more. I scored more. I had a better season but he stayed and I went on loan. He then became a regular starter and took off from there. I went to Monaco, didn't play and from there, I went on loan to Belenenses. That hurt me a lot."
Adu was contracted to Benfica for four years between 2007 and 2011, but he'd spend the majority of that time on loan at Monaco, Belenenses, Greek side Aris FC and Caykur Rizespor in Turkey, where he would score three goals in 11 games
If he could go back and change one thing, it wouldn't be turning pro at 14, or the contract obligations with Nike and Major League Soccer. It would be those detrimental loan spells in his early 20’s — the ones that squeezed the enjoyment out of a game he once adored.
It's here, in our chat, when I feel for Adu most. He says the public interest around his brand, and everything that came with that, was being prioritised over talent. He was only 21.
"All of those teams I went to... Most of those were just for show. I'll be honest with you," he says. "I felt like most of those were just, 'Hey let's bring Freddy in so we can get some publicity and try and get some attention onto our team.' They never really had any intention of me being there long term. Unfortunately, I figured that out too late. That's when I lost the love for the game.”
Four years after leaving, he would return to the league where it all began, reuniting with his first professional coach, Peter Nowak, at MLS side Philadelphia Union. Many expected Freddy to be playing at the highest level in his 20's. Unfortunately, that never came to fruition.
In the next decade, he would play for clubs in Brazil, Serbia, Finland, Florida and Las Vegas to try and find his forever home. It never quite materialised. But then, after a three-year hiatus, it looked like he might have found a glimmer of hope when Swedish third-tier side Osterlen FF made a move in 2021.
When the deal was announced, Adu wrote on social media: “Missed this sport so much and just happy to have the opportunity to be playing again, one step at a time. Skipped a lot of steps in the past but now I get a chance to do it right. I’m excited and never been more ready!”
Two months after moving to a village in southern Sweden with a population of just 400 people, Osterlen would terminate his contract. Adu never played a single minute at the 1,000-capacity Skillinge Idrottsplats stadium.
"I only had three or four training sessions with the team," he says. "I was hurt when I got there. I wasn't there long enough for them to even tell me that I wasn't fit. The injury part of it was the main problem but the coach also wanted to bring in his own players and I was brought in by the sponsorship group. That was the disconnect.
"My salary was being paid by the sponsorship group, as well. Yeah, I was there for like, maybe six weeks at the most. At the end of the day, I was injured. The sponsorship team and the coach were clashing at the time. It was a weird setup."
A year later and here we are, over 1,500 days since his last televised game. Adu is "itching" to get back out there and give it one last push. Coaching kids for the last couple of years, and seeing the hope in their eyes, has brought back his joy for the game.
But there hasn't been any training of late. Getting back into a routine will be hard, especially after a lengthy spell on the sidelines. "You've got to have your mind right and be determined to get it done... but if anybody can do it, I can do it.”
At this point, you've just got to admire his determination to get up and do it all again.
If you look at all the setbacks, it's easy to see Freddy Adu as someone who failed to live up to his potential. Type his name into Google and you'll find article after article on the subject. “It hurt seeing it in the past," he says when asked about those stories. "But, you learn to block out the noise and control what you can't control."
He admits to making decisions that contributed to his downfall but ultimately, he was thrust into the limelight at 14-years-old. "Imagine this, he says. "I’m five years into my professional career and I'm 19. I was a five-year veteran. It’s crazy."
He goes on: "Some of the decisions in my career weren't entirely my own, too. I did have people that were advising me or saying, 'You’ve got to do this and you've got to do that.' They weren't always right. I'm not blaming anybody in particular. All I know is that there are some decisions I made that weren't the best and they always came back to bite you."
There's a lot of 'what ifs' in Freddy Adu's journey. What if he didn't accept the $1 million sponsorship deal from Nike? What if he decided against turning professional at 14? What if he accepted that $750,000 offer from Inter Milan at the age of 10? It's easy, with hindsight, to make such judgements.
Freddy, on the other hand, wouldn't change a thing from those early days.
“A lot of people say, 'If you had the opportunity again, would you have not gone pro at 14.' And I'm like, of course I would do it again," he says with intent. "We were poor. You get a chance to go pro at 14 and get paid millions of dollars. What are you gonna say? No? That's definitely one of the things that I wouldn't change."
It's all about perspective. “Some people are going to say I didn't live up to my potential. But I'm asking by whose standards?" Adu continues. "I had my own standards, my own dream. if I'm disappointed that I didn't live up to my own standards, that's fine. But I'm not trying to live up to anybody else's standards right now.
"I get it. But for me, just being able to be a part of the history of soccer in this country, and help elevate the sport, is incredible. I will always be proud of that.”
Step away from the disappointment of failing to reach the unfathomable heights of becoming America’s next big star and you find an individual who played an integral part in bringing millions of eyes to a previously unpopular sport in America.
He inspired a generation to follow their dreams.
“That's the one thing I'm extremely proud of," he says. "I was able to do something that the soccer community here in the States had been trying to do for a very long time, which was bring the sport into the mainstream.
"To this day, I will randomly walk into places and people that don't even follow soccer anymore will say, 'Hey, you look like Freddy Adu, man!' And I'm sitting there like, 'Yeah, my name is John...' I like to mess with them.
"People that don't know much about football still know who I am because that was their introduction to the sport.
“I'm really, really proud of that.”
Featured Image Credit: Twitter/@FreddyAdu - Alamy
Topics: USA, Football World Cup, MLS, Manchester United, Spotlight