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The Emergence of a Prodigy

D.C. United's Adu Deals With Demands as a 15-Year-Old Sensation

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 31, 2004; Page D01

For Freddy Adu, there are no passing drills on this midsummer day. There are no corner kicks, not even a header. There are, however, bright lights, production crews, make-up artists and stylists. On this morning, directors and producers are Adu's coaches, extras are his teammates, his agent and mother are the spectators.

Never mind practice -- America's soccer prodigy has chicken noodle soup to sell.


Adu, with his arm around Ray Trifari, D.C. United's director of team administration, draws a crowd as he exits the tunnel for an exhibition game in Rochester, N.Y., where 14,000 turned out. (Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)

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"I'm so full," he groaned after a grueling 10-hour taping at RFK Stadium. "I've been eating soup all day."

In the extraordinary life of the barely 15-year-old Adu, kicking around a soccer ball for D.C. United was, for a long while, only a part of the game. Through the end of June, Adu had done hundreds of interviews, chatted up Shaquille O'Neal, dined with Daniel Snyder, taken a cell phone call from Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, greeted John Ashcroft, mingled with Will Ferrell and Robert Duvall, charmed David Letterman, flirted with Fox starlet Mischa Barton and the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders, and rocked with David Bowie.

But concerns that his outside commitments were hurting his development as a player, according to MLS Commissioner Don Garber, led to a decision to cut back Adu's schedule. Only now, as Adu enters the final few months of his first pro season, is he starting to find his way among players twice his age. He has started the past four games in central midfield but still has scored only three goals despite having played in all 23 games.

"All the hype and his situation weren't handled properly by the league, by the team and by Freddy, but he's the least at fault," U.S. national team coach Bruce Arena said. "And because it was mishandled in some ways, there have obviously been a lot of peaks and valleys, but mostly valleys. He'll get there, but it's going to take time. It's all part of the learning curve."

There's little doubt that Adu's financial impact on Major League Soccer has been profound. After a wildly hyped arrival that included Adu getting the biggest contract in MLS history ($500,000 per year), United is averaging 17,301 fans at home, up 11 percent from last year. Thanks to sellout crowds in Los Angeles and Columbus, Ohio, and big turnouts in Denver, Chicago, Kansas City, Mo., and East Rutherford, N.J., United is by far the biggest road show in the league with an average of 22,000 per appearance, a 45 percent increase over United's away attendance last year. MLS games not involving United have drawn an average of 14,000.

Adu has drawn crowds for clinics and autograph sessions but admits the outside demands have intensified the pressure on him.

"There was just so much of it," said Adu, a native of Ghana who moved with his family to Montgomery County seven years ago. "When you're 14 [when he entered the league in April] and you go and be a pro and get all the media attention in the world, it's a little crazy. You're getting pulled in a hundred different directions, it's not the easiest thing. . . .

"I never expected anything like this -- no way. It's been crazy everywhere we go. I just try not to let it affect me. I just want to play soccer."

Commitments, Commitments

Novelty usually isn't in the daily lineup for pro athletes, most of whom follow a predictable routine of practice, down time and travel. For Adu, however, his rookie season has brought a dizzying number of obligations and experiences.

At the end of April, a few weeks after his debut at RFK before a national television audience, United flew to San Jose for its fifth game.

The game, however, was only a 90-minute slice of Adu's weekend. The day before the match, after United held a light workout at Spartan Stadium and returned to its downtown hotel, players scattered to their rooms for some rest before the team meal.

But Adu was escorted to the mezzanine level of the hotel, where local TV crews and reporters congregated. Like most weeks early in the season, Adu participated in a teleconference on Monday or Tuesday to help satisfy the media in awaiting cities, but the demand for interviews and fresh comments is so high, he is often made available for on-site appearances the day before a match.


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