On His Own, Adu Has Grown

By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Freddy Adu's bedroom is a mess. Like any other 18-year-old coming home for the Christmas break, the teenager has stacks of video games next to the television and clothes strewn across the floor, eliciting a stern glare from his mother, Emelia.

But this is no ordinary scene, as haphazardly clustered amid the tower of boxes is a golf game autographed by Tiger Woods ("Keep kicking butt," reads the inscription) and the garments on the floor all bear the crest of famed European soccer club Benfica, with Adu's name and No. 30 on the back.

Christmas came a little early for the Adus this year, as the teenager came back to Rockville for the first time since leaving Major League Soccer for Benfica in late July, returning bearing gifts for family and friends. Adu proved a quick study in one of the world's premier leagues, earning playing time from the outset and becoming an important substitute for Benfica by chipping in goals and assists. Perhaps more importantly, he says he is at ease with the Portuguese language and lifestyle, and his love of the game has never been greater.

"It's just been amazing the way things are going right now," Adu said while reclining in the office of the house he built for his mother after turning pro with MLS. "Hard work and believing in yourself, I think it can take you a long way.

"I know there are some people out there who already wrote me off before my 18th birthday, and there were some hard times and reading those articles and things like that. But I've been able to survive that -- for now -- and I know there'll be some times when I'm not playing great and there will be some articles that won't be pleasant.

"But I think I got a lot of the hard part of my development out of the way and I'm working hard and I've found something that works for me. I'm in a place where I'm really wanted and where I'm treated well and my teammates have accepted me and I've found coaches that bring out the best in me. It's been a blessing."

The last six months have been a whirlwind for the Ghana native, whose family immigrated to the Washington area in 1997 after winning a green card lottery. Burdened with the expectations to be the "savior of American soccer" from roughly age 12, Adu endured what some considered to be a less-than-scintillating four years in MLS -- including his first three seasons with D.C. United -- before his strong outing in the Under-20 World Cup last summer cemented European interest in him.

He entered MLS at 14 and struggled for a regular starting spot during his time with United, clashing at times with authoritarian coach Peter Nowak, who now coaches the U.S. Olympic team and assists the men's national team. In hindsight, Adu considers the experience in MLS to have been ideal conditioning for Europe. He says he learned valuable lessons about professionalism and maturity, with his missteps and growing pains lacking the overwhelming media glare that comes when playing the world's game in Europe.

"Sometimes me and Peter didn't always see eye-to-eye," said Adu, who had a long heart-to-heart with Nowak in October before playing for the national team in Switzerland. "But that made me grow up, some of the mistakes I made and especially when I went to media and said some things, it's something I should have taken care of in the locker room.

"Some mistakes I feel like I made as a 15, 16-year-old obviously I wouldn't repeat now, because I learned a lot from it and it helped make me a better person and player and I'm benefiting from it right now to be honest with you."

Indeed, Adu has made no waves in Portugal since moving to Benfica on a $2 million transfer fee and signing a five-year deal worth about $1.25 million annually. He embraced his nescient status and prepared to earn his roster spot, even though a frenzied throng of fans awaited his initial arrival at the Lisbon airport.

Benfica is a consistently strong club within Portugal's top division; the team is a distant second place in the standings behind FC Porto at the winter break. Benfica was vying for qualification into the Champions League -- the most prestigious club tournament on the planet -- when Adu began training, but just two weeks later he entered a qualifier against FC Copenhagen in the 37th minute and earned praise for his play and composure in that victory.

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