In last week’s Sports Illustrated, Tom Verducci argued that baseball fans need to back off and give 18-year old phenom Bryce Harper room to make mistakes and grow.
When Freddy Adu was 18, he was already the highest paid player in MLS and agitating for playing time. His coach, Peter Nowak, famously responded, “Nobody is above this team.”
And now, two years and about two starts after he left MLS for Europe, Freddy Adu is back. He was announced as the newest member of the Philadelphia Union today.
From Boy Wonder to Wonder-where-he-went
Freddy Adu was Beckham before Beckham. He was an MLS glamour project sold as something he wasn’t. Becks was never a game-breaker; Adu was not nearly a finished product. By the time he left MLS for Europe, Adu had become polarizing. He had a selfish reputation, and, though his size and speed suggested otherwise, Adu thought himself more a goal-scorer than an offensive lynchpin.
In his first stint as Adu’s manager, Peter Nowak obviously thought there were lessons the young star never fully comprehended. That Adu’s place on DC United was taken by an out-and-out playmaker speaks volumes about the type of player Nowak saw in him.
That Adu returns to a Nowak team in need of an offensive spark from midfield says everything about what the coach sees now.
What did Adu teach Nowak?
But while Adu has changed since leaving Nowak’s tutelage, one wonders what the coach took from The Freddy Adu Experience. The then-DC United manager brought Adu on slowly, repeatedly saying that the young star needed time to figure out how to use his talent in a team setting. Freddy Adu is the reason Peter Nowak acts like he’s heard all these Danny Mwanga questions before.
So, strange as it sounds, one of Freddy Adu’s biggest contributions to the Union as a 22-year old may be his long-term vision. He is in the rare position of being able to speak to Danny Mwanga, Roger Torres, Jack McInerney and Amobi Okugo about patience and trusting the Nowak Way. The player who defied the coach as a teenager is back to preach the coach’s word.
Where will he go? What will he do? Is he more than the next Fred?
The signing of Adu is surprising only in that it seems like one of those rare instances where the on-field fit is so perfect that it feels like a fantasy sports move. A creative attacker who can distribute and finish has not worn a Union jersey since Sebastien Le Toux waved goodbye to 2010. As a result, the team finds most of its goalscoring opportunities from fast counterattacks or a moment of Mwanga genius. Kyle Nakazawa, Roger Torres, Keon Daniel, Veljko Paunovic and Michael Farfan: All have taken brief turns in the attacking role. None have shown the consistent threatening presence needed to make a defense back off and worry about getting beat. In the absence of a playmaker, the Union have relied on Justin Mapp to link defense to offense in what can now be called a failed experiment.
Adu should slot into the midfield with Brian Carroll, forming a partnership that will allow both of them to play to their strengths. Carroll will remain in a deep-lying role. But now his first option will be clear: Find Adu’s feet. Unlike Carlos Ruiz, Adu doesn’t need an offense to be built around him. He should simply make the Union’s current offense operate with greater speed and better spacing. He may also spend time at striker, if for no other reason than Peter Nowak seems to enjoy playing people slightly out of position.
Telling it like it is
The Adu signing makes clear something most of us already know: The Union rarely tell you what they are really thinking. When John Hackworth says he’s happy with the build-up play but the team needs better finishing, you expect a mature striker to be signed. Instead we get a big name signing who should help with the build-up.
Unlike his first time in MLS, Freddy Adu was not signed to be the Union’s superstar. He will most certainly be paid superstar money, but on the pitch the young American merely fills the team’s pressing need. He doesn’t have to carry them to the playoffs (they could have limped along fine without him) or do anything more spectacular than keep possession long enough for the team to get out of their defensive shell effectively. The circuit is in place and the switch is on; Adu is supposed to be the power source.
MLS will not let this go unmarketed
Well, maybe it’s too much to say Adu wasn’t signed to be a superstar. That may not be why the Union want him, but MLS will feel differently about the situation. As Nowak and Hackworth watched Adu reemerge on the international stage, they saw a player who could breathe life into an offense that survived on the scraps left by mistake-prone MLS defenses. As MLS watched Adu, they saw a second chance to sell a marketing force to a nation that had just watched Giovanni dos Santos chip Tim Howard and peel off to celebrate a comeback win over Mexico’s biggest rival. In short, while European teams salivate over Brek Shea, expect MLS to once again sell Freddy Adu as the future of US Soccer. This time it will be the near future though.
So while US Soccer has nobody on par with dos Santos or Chicharito, there is Freddy Adu. No longer the savior of the US game, he will now be sold as the player who saved himself. It’s the American sports story that never gets old: They thought he was done, but he was just getting started.
All of the lights
The big question is no longer whether Freddy Adu is ready for MLS, but whether the Philadelphia Union are ready for the attention, coverage and distractions that come with The Freddy Adu Experience. For a team that has used its star striker off the bench and repeatedly insisted that designated players are not part of their team philosophy, the Union have suddenly made themselves the center of the American soccer world.
And for a manager who hates answering to the media, Peter Nowak finds himself in an unenviable position. The press conferences will be a bit longer now, and the questions will all be some variation of, “Talk about Freddy Adu.”
The massive, unavoidable truth in signing Freddy Adu is that it changes nearly everything about the Philadelphia Union. Unless another major deal is made, it means Danny Mwanga is in line for a starting role. It means Kyle Nakazawa and Roger Torres are officially not ready for prime time. It means Amobi Okugo will continue struggling to find minutes.
It means changed perceptions about everyone’s role on the team.
From protected to protector
“A blind man on a galloping horse can see his talent. He’s a little Fabergé egg, and everyone’s just trying to protect him,” Ray Hudson said in 2003. Eight years down the road, Freddy Adu can stand on his own. In fact, he may have to act as a guardian himself.
Because this signing means Peter Nowak thinks it’s time for his team to grow up. Freddy Adu has returned to Nowak because he thinks it is the best way to make the next World Cup. Whatever he does in a Union jersey, that will remain his personal goal. And make no mistake: All the Union’s young players, whether they have a real shot or not, have that same goal in mind. To achieve it, and to achieve any playoff success in MLS this season, the Union’s young core need Freddy Adu to be more than the best offensive player on the team.
They need him to be a leader.