Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz
Freddy Adu played his first game with Philadelphia Union a year ago this month.
The honeymoon is long since over.
Today, Adu is a lightning rod for the Union. When he loses the ball after a series of stepovers, fans boo him. If the next series of stepovers results in an inch-perfect cross, people say that’s what he’s supposed to do.
This is life for Adu.
“When I score goals and assists, I’m not playing defense,” Adu told me last week in the visitors locker room at RFK Stadium after the Union’s 1-1 draw with DC United. “When I play defense, I’m not getting goals and assists.”
It’s clearly a frustrating time for Adu. He carries the scorn of those who view him as the failed American soccer prodigy. That’s made worse by the fact that many now view him as a failed designated player, with an undeserved salary that dwarfs most of his teammates’ paychecks.
Sure enough, Adu hasn’t produced at the level expected of designated players. He has three goals and one assist this year. The number of great matches he’s played has been outpaced by the number of mediocre ones.
But there’s a clear, simple fact his critics often overlook: He has rarely played the position most view as his best.
“I thought I was going to play the No. 10 when I signed,” Adu said. “I talked to Peter Nowak. That’s what he said.”
Adu said he doesn’t understand why he never got that chance.
“I don’t know,” Adu said. “I’ve talked to the coaches about that. That’s my natural position. You see the ball more. I wish I played No. 10.”
To Adu’s credit, he didn’t bring up the issue that day in Washington. I did. It’s something I’ve wondered about, because I’ve followed the Union enough to realize Adu, whatever his own faults are, may also be one more broken toy that Peter Nowak left behind.
A No. 10 in a No. 7′s world
It’s something we’ve said so many times about so many Union players that it’s easy to overlook when it comes to Adu because, quite frankly, he’s Freddy Adu.
How many other players did Nowak deploy out of position, only to see them flourish when returned their comfort zones? Andrew Jacobson, Sebastien Le Toux, Michael Orozco Fiscal, Michael Farfan (at right back) — the list goes on and on.
Just because Adu has the fatter paycheck doesn’t mean he got a pass on Nowak’s lineup lunacy. He didn’t.
Adu was never a traditional winger. Yes, he might send in a beautiful cross from the flanks, but that doesn’t make him a winger. For one, he lacks the speed. And he lacks the comfort zone, much like those other Union players Nowak played out of position.
What he has is great passing vision, when he looks to pass. He has great ball control, when he plays within himself. He provides good dead ball service that will only get better with time. PSP’s Adam Cann made a David Beckham comparison (or contrast?) that was very apt and worth reading.
How long did it take for Gabriel Farfan to develop into a good left back? He’s still getting there, and if he ever does, he could end up the only intentional Nowak position switch that ever works. (Don’t count Amobi Okugo. That was an emergency position switch forced in the US Open Cup because the roster was devoid of center backs.)
If he’s not the only one, then the other will be Michael Farfan. And if you’re looking for a reason why Adu hasn’t gotten a shot at the No. 10 role this year, look no further than the current No. 10.
As good as Michael Farfan has been as a central attacking midfielder, however, many still feel he belongs back on the wing.
It might seem ridiculous to say Adu hasn’t gotten a fair shot on the field with the Union.
But he hasn’t, in the same way so many other Union players didn’t, because Nowak played them out of position or buried them on the bench.
Some of those players have broken through under Hackworth. For others, it’s too late. They’ve been released, traded, or otherwise sent off.
It could be too late for Adu too. Michael Farfan is just that good.
Adu was a good signing, but …
Adu was a good signing when he played his first game for the Union in August 2011. The Union needed a central attacking midfielder. Adu had shown well with the U.S. national team and in Turkey’s second division.
He just wasn’t worth what the Union agreed to pay him. A $400,000 base salary with a fat signing bonus for a fringe international who last played in Turkey’s second tier? That’s far more money than comparable players get in MLS. Benny Feilhaber was available for less.
But Nowak chose Adu at a salary that is superstar level for MLS. The pressure on Adu rose accordingly.
Had he come in with a $175,000 salary, then the Adu acquisition — independent of his teenage hype — would not be a disappointment. He’d be just another young Union player with an upside not yet fully tapped. Instead, he’s the team’s first designated player, with a salary high enough to pay two good MLS veterans, who is not performing to that level.
Expectations of superstars
What prompted me to talk to Adu after that D.C. United game was a conversation with John Hackworth. I had pulled Hackworth aside in the locker room to ask him a few questions about the game, and the conversation turned to Adu. Hackworth gave an example of a play I only vaguely remembered, around the 35th minute, when Adu had tracked back to make a good play on defense. People don’t notice those plays, Hackworth said, but they matter.
So I asked Hackworth if he thought Adu’s salary prompts more scrutiny on Adu. Hackworth shook his head.
“I think it has to do with the expectation of, ‘He’s Freddy Adu,’ that he’s going to be the superstar,” Hackworth said.
Hackworth said he thought Adu put in a good shift that game. “Freddy fits into our system because we want players who have technical ability,” Hackworth said. But as Hackworth has said to others — and Adu clearly recognizes — he wants more. “I want Freddy’s work ethic to be the same every day,” Hackworth said.
Adu then sat on the bench till the 82nd minute in the Union’s next game.
The first, right coach ever for Adu
Adu was right to return to MLS. He was right to view Philadelphia as a good fit because they needed a central attacking midfielder.
But unless he gets a chance to play in an optimal situation for him and legitimately prioritizes the team’s performance over his own, everything else about his signing will prove wrong. A failed tenure in Philadelphia doesn’t just hurt Adu. It also hurts the Union, MLS and American soccer.
Adu will never be the American Messi. There’s nothing wrong with being the next Brad Davis though. Adu is too talented and expensive to produce this inconsistently.
Good coaches put their players in situations in which their strengths are accentuated and weaknesses downplayed. They set their players up for success, rather than failure.
Adu never had such a head coach during his first eight years as a pro. In Hackworth, he may finally have one.
Hackworth has tried to give his young team some semblance of consistency and normalcy after Nowak’s chaotic and despotic tenure, so the fact that Hackworth hasn’t swapped Adu and Michael Farfan is very defensible.
If Hackworth is (deservedly) retained next year, however, expect him to think long and hard about where Farfan belongs on the pitch and then sort it out in next year’s training camp. If it’s in the center, Adu is expendable. If it’s on the flanks, Adu gets his shot.
At 23 years old, Adu still has plenty of time. Sooner or later though, his time is going to run out.
(NOTE: And yes, I intended to finish this post last week, but life got in the way.)