For a few seconds, teen soccer player Freddy Adu was everything D.C. United had hoped he would be.
In the closing moments of the United's game with the Los Angeles Galaxy last week, the fleet-footed 16-year-old gathered the ball at midfield, sprinted past a defender and blasted a left-footed shot past the startled Galaxy goaltender. Adu's goal turned a ho-hum 0-0 game into a thrilling United win.
But one play does not make Freddy Adu a superstar.
When the United signed Adu last year, many people thought he would be the next Pele, the high-scoring soccer legend. In the 11/2 seasons since, Adu has struggled. He plays only part time, often as a reserve. While he has shown flashes of brilliant play, Adu has scored only seven goals in 45 games.
Any comparison to Pele is nonsense. Sure, Adu is young, but Pele scored five goals in the last two games of the 1958 World Cup when he was 17 years old. Pele netted three goals against France in the semifinals and scored two more in Brazil's championship win against Sweden. His teammates carried him from the field in triumph.
In other words, when he was just a year older than Freddy Adu, Pele was a star on soccer's biggest stage. To be honest, Adu is a second-stringer in a third-rate soccer league.
Adu is getting better, though. He has been more consistent and sure of himself on the field. His sprinter's speed and magician's feel for the ball might make him a world-class player and goal-scorer someday. But as another United season slips by, I wonder if Adu turned pro too soon. He might never be as good as people thought he would be.
This happens to kids all the time. Not the turning pro part, but being asked to "play up." That means playing in tougher, more competitive leagues with older kids, the way Freddy Adu is doing with D.C. United.
Playing up works for a few kids, but most should stay and play with kids their own age. Sometimes it is better to play more minutes and be a more important player for a recreational team than to come off the bench for some travel or all-star squad. Playing up can cause some players to lose confidence.
So, think of Freddy Adu the next time you get a chance to play for a "better" team or in a "better" league. Ask yourself: Am I really ready to play against tougher competition? Will playing for a better team now make me the best player I can be in the long run? Or will it only make me a part-time player and sometime star like Freddy Adu?
Fred Bowen writes KidsPost's sports column and is the author of sports novels for kids.