Early in the second half Saturday at Arrowhead Stadium, Freddy Adu popped off the D.C. United bench to begin warming up and preparing for entry into the scoreless match against the Kansas City Wizards.
A few minutes passed, and then a few more. Other reserves joined him behind the goal to stretch. Adu kept waiting for the signal from the bench. Finally, with only about 13 minutes remaining, he was summoned by Coach Peter Nowak to replace Christian Gomez.
ADU Has played fewer minutes than 13 of his teammates
Adu struggled to get involved in the lifeless game, and when a golden scoring chance emerged in the final moments, he couldn't put it past the Kansas City goalkeeper, thus ending another frustrating afternoon for United's 15-year-old forward-midfielder.
Asked if he was surprised he didn't enter the game earlier, Adu said: "You'd have to ask Peter. I can't answer that. It's up to the coach. I felt like I was warming up forever. But whatever is asked of you, you've got to do it for the team and you have to respect the coach's decisions."
It has been a quiet early season for Adu, who has made just one start in five matches, played 191 minutes (13 teammates have played more) and hasn't scored a goal. In the Champions' Cup, an international tournament in which United advanced to the semifinals, Adu started one game, didn't play in another and was a second-half substitute in the last two matches.
He has tried to stay positive and say the right things publicly, but it's clear from his demeanor that he is disappointed in his lack of playing time.
With two attacking players out with injuries Saturday, it seemed to be an ideal time for Adu to start. Instead, forward Santino Quaranta and rookie defensive midfielder Clyde Simms were chosen.
Nowak, who successfully integrated Adu into the playing rotation during his wildly anticipated rookie season last year, when United won its fourth MLS title, said he is pleased with Adu's progress. Yet he isn't ready to make him a regular starter.
"It's been a pretty good couple weeks," Nowak said. "We need to be patient. He's doing better, but defensively and the whole package that we want to create with him, it's not there. In time, in time. Is he supposed to be a starter? I don't think so.
"He starts to understand his role on this team. You cannot say, 'I want to be a starter.' I say, 'I want to be the coach of Real Madrid.' So what? This is the reality and you've got to live with that."
United President Kevin Payne has fully supported his coach's handling of Adu.
"Freddy has to earn his way onto the field, just as everybody else does every week," he said. "It really is a pretty democratic process -- if you play well enough and consistently enough in training, you're going to get on the field.
"It's not that Freddy's not starting because Freddy's not good. Freddy's not starting because there are guys with a lot of experience and talent who are starting. If Freddy rises to the point where he deserves to start ahead of one of them, I'm sure Peter will start him. This isn't show business or a gimmick. He needs to be seasoned in the fire -- and that's what's happening."
Although he has played many positions, Adu is most effective in central midfield, just behind the forwards. The starter there, however, is Gomez, a 30-year-old Argentine who joined the team late last year and was instrumental in United turning around its wayward season.
Overall, though, United's attack has been lackluster this year. In its last three games, D.C. has been shut out twice and, although it produced three goals against New England on April 23, two came on penalty kicks.
When Adu has been in the game, he has failed to capitalize on his scoring opportunities. He narrowly missed near the end of a 1-1 tie with Pumas of Mexico at RFK Stadium, came close to tying the New England game late and had a great chance Saturday at Kansas City.
"If he buries the shot in the last minute, he's the hero," Nowak said. "These chances make you great. He missed the chance, but I'm sure if he gets another one, he'll do it."
However, Adu will soon have to turn his attention to the U.S. under-20 national team. After MLS games the next two weekends, he will split time between United and the national squad in order to play in a pair of exhibitions and prepare for the FIFA World Youth Championship in the Netherlands in June.
He will be available for United games May 21 and 28 before leaving with the U.S. team for Europe. During his time away, he will miss at least four MLS matches.
"It's going to be busy," he said. "I've just got to keep working hard and everything will fall into place. That's all I can do."
United Notes: The team has tentatively agreed to play Colorado in the Hall of Fame Game on Aug. 29 in Oneonta, N.Y. The Sept. 24 match at Chicago has been rescheduled to June 29, a Wednesday night, because of NFL scheduling conflicts at Soldier Field.