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.
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.