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On His Own, Adu Has Grown
The club's coach, who played a role in Adu's procurement, was fired in August after just two games, however, and Adu steeled for another period of adjustment. He gradually won over new coach Jos¿ Antonio Camacho, a dictatorial taskmaster who has coached Real Madrid and the Spanish national team. After a few weeks out of the lineup, Adu scored his first goal during a Portuguese tournament on Sept. 26, tying the game in injury time with a penalty kick.
"I went in and, wow, played 45 minutes in that game," said Adu, who is averaging one goal for every 60 minutes played. "And it was my first minutes since that Champions League qualifier and I went in and played well. I played very well. I was really surprised and I ended up topping it off by getting the game-tying goal and us winning on penalty kicks and after that I was like, 'This is it.' That was the turning point for me. It was like, 'I can play, I've got the talent to do this.' It's all about working hard and having confidence."
Three days later Adu, whose younger brother, Fro, just completed his first season for the George Mason soccer team, appeared in his first Portuguese League game. He has made regular late-game appearances since, often with the game on the line.
Troy Fitrell, a Washington native and assistant to the U.S. ambassador to Portugal, attends most matches, and said the applause and standing ovations for Adu are matched only by the salute to midfielder Rui Costa, one of Portugal's all-time legends, and American flags are waved in earnest at home matches, a rarity in Europe these days.
"Average fans start shouting 'O Americano' shortly after halftime at most games, when, sadly, Benfica is usually scoreless," Fitrell wrote in an e-mail. "When he starts to warm up they start cheering in a way they never do for Angel DiMaria, Nuno Gomes, or the other strikers."
In October, Adu scored two goals in an eight-game span and also became the youngest American to appear in a Champions League game as Benfica defeated Scotland's famed Celtic at home. Adu is also the youngest to play for the U.S. national team.
"It's hard for American players to earn any kind of respect in Europe," Adu said. "So I had to prove that I belonged to be there and I can make a difference."
Fitrell wrote that after Adu's third game-winning goal for the club the papers were filled with headlines like "The American Hero" and "Freddy Saves Us Again." The next day Fitrell had 40 e-mails congratulating him on Adu's success, "as if I had anything to do with it," Fitrell wrote. Fitrell's favorite post-game message came from a Communist Party member of parliament there, which read simply: "I love America."
Adu said he spends as much time as possible hanging around Benfica's stars; sublime playmaker Rui Costa, rumored to be a candidate for team presidency in coming years, has become a cherished mentor. Adu said his teammates have embraced him wholeheartedly, taking time to give him pointers and suggestions. He spends as much time as possible at the training facility and found an apartment in a ritzy part of Lisbon tucked between a resort and the U.S. Embassy, of great comfort to his mother.
Emelia visits every six weeks or so and stacks his freezer with home-cooked food, including his Ghanaian favorites, and for a few days this week both her boys are back under her roof. Adu, who earned his first start for the U.S. national team in a defeat of South Africa last month, leaves Thursday to return to training with Benfica, where he is navigating the responsibilities of independence with the rigors of elite soccer.
"In the United States there were so many people around Freddy that it was just convenient to let people do things for him -- friends, relatives, coaches, parents, agents, publicists," said Arnold Tarzy, his close family friend and former coach. "Over there he's on his own and it's made him do more regular stuff -- learn how to handle money and pay bills and things like that.
"It makes you grow up and be a lot more responsible -- not that he was ever irresponsible -- but he just has to pay attention to things everyone else normally has to. He's had to act completely like a self-sufficient adult, and I think it's made him a better person and it's made him more focused and businesslike about what he does."
Keeping a tidy room back in Rockville, it seems, will have to wait.