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.
"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."
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.
Although the season was still young, the questions had become painfully repetitive: Did you make the right decision signing with MLS? Do you feel you can play at this level? Are you frustrated not starting? How do you get to practice every day? Do you have a girlfriend?
Adu answered every question with patience, grace and sly humor that belies his age before dashing off to join his teammates.
On game day, the team arrived at the stadium about 90 minutes before kickoff. While most of his teammates inspected the field or began stretching, Adu was ushered to the far corner of the stadium to film a video-game commercial with Earthquakes star Landon Donovan, U.S. soccer's previous teenage idol.
When the starting lineups were distributed, Adu was on it for the first time. Coach Peter Nowak, who hadn't bowed to pressure to start Adu, said he felt it was time to give his young player a bigger role. Adu had a decent game, nothing spectacular, as the teams played to a 1-1 tie.
"Oh, man, I was so happy," he told 20 reporters in a small, open-ended tent erected between the locker rooms and a cluster of fans chanting his name from behind temporary fences and a line of beefy security guards.
But Adu's postgame activities weren't limited to media and autograph responsibilities. He and a few other players from both teams went to a private area to meet a terminally ill fan who was flown in from Idaho. Next for Adu was a chat with former Olympic runner Michael Johnson and his family, who had come to see him play.
His teammates boarded the bus, but Adu stayed behind for a formal autograph session set up by the Earthquakes. An hour later, he finally left the stadium.
Adu generally enjoys making appearances and interacting with the fans, but admits he sometimes feels the strain. "You've always got something to do," he said. "I don't always necessarily like it, but you've got to do it. It takes a lot out of you."
The demands on that weekend were just beginning. After a red-eye flight from San Jose to Washington and a much-needed day off, United was back at work Monday morning. Following practice, while his teammates went their separate ways, Adu and his mother, Emelia, headed to the airport. Destination: Manhattan.
The scene that night was a historic ballroom a few blocks from Times Square. The event was a glitzy party held by a publishing conglomerate and a foreign automaker. Bubbly music, chic hors d'oeuvre and paparazzi greeted the thousand or so guests on the cool, rainy evening. David Bowie was backstage preparing to play. William H. Macy, the actor, arrived, as did stars from "The Sopranos," recording artist Moby, fashion models and New York hipsters.
In one corner, behind a tall, curved curtain, Adu was surrounded by soccer memorabilia and an endless video loop highlighting his finest moments as a youth national team player. He was flanked by his mother; his Los Angeles-based agent, Richard Motzkin; United's head of communications, Doug Hicks; and a collection of public relations specialists and event coordinators.
Adu, along with Bowie, Macy and Iranian-born author Azar Nafisi, was being honored as part of an Audi marketing campaign.
Adu had never heard of the 57-year-old Bowie. Neither had his mother. Garber told Adu just before the concert started, "You might not appreciate this now, Freddy, but one day you'll be able to say you saw David Bowie in concert." Adu, a fan of rap and hip-hop, nodded appreciatively.
He seemed to be having a good time, sipping on water and greeting all sorts of well-dressed strangers, but it had been a long day and practice was only 12 hours away. So as Bowie's 45-minute set neared an end, Adu and his mother ducked out of the party and returned to their hotel.
Very early the next morning, they were off to the airport. Soon, Adu was back at RFK Stadium, an hour before his teammates began arriving.
As practice neared, staff members wandered into the locker room to find Adu's 5-foot-6, 145-pound frame curled into his locker stall. He was fast asleep.
A Coach's Perspective
Nowak, who has served as coach, mentor and father figure to Adu, has shown concern about the demands on his young star.
"Sometimes it's too much, but I think it's all right," said the Polish-born coach, who began his professional career at age 16 but without media attention. "Sometimes he is tired and we understand. But I have to say to all these people who criticize him and say he is overrated, 'Put yourself in his shoes and spend so much time doing the other stuff and try to concentrate on soccer, which he loves to do.'
"You can see the kid is coming to practice and working hard, and whatever he's going to do the rest of the time -- commercials, interviews, everything else -- every single day he shows up and trains like he did nothing yesterday. He does fantastic stuff. It's not an easy life."
Perhaps the most important day of Adu's rookie season came far from a soccer field. On May 21, in Bradenton, Fla., he donned a cap and gown and received his high school diploma, three years ahead of most of his peers. As an elite athlete, Adu had been placed in an accelerated academic program at a private school while he was in the U.S. Soccer Federation's under-17 national team residency program at IMG Academy. At the insistence of his mother, he finished his course work before joining United full time in March.
"He's my guy," said his mother, who attended the ceremony with her youngest son, Fro, and other family members and friends.
Following a reception, most of the group headed back to Washington. Freddy, however, got on a plane to Denver to rejoin his teammates. After the 2-1 loss to the Rapids, in which he nearly scored on two occasions, Adu was ushered to an autograph area for an hour-long session. While he was signing, the team bus pulled out of the Invesco Field tunnel for a trip to the ranch owned by the team's investor, billionaire Phil Anschutz.
When he finished, Adu and a staff member hopped in a private car for the long ride into Colorado's high plains and two days of golf, horseback riding and skeet shooting.
The following weekend was the start of the Memorial Day getaway for many Washingtonians. For United, it was just another road trip. The team was booked on a flight to Boston for a game against the New England Revolution in Foxboro, Mass. The terminal at Reagan National Airport was jammed. As usual, Adu was quickly recognized and surrounded by travelers.
The plane is usually a safe refuge for him because passenger mobility is limited, but on this day, a private emergency door would've come in handy. With the jet stranded on the runaway because of bad weather, the pilot announced that passengers were free to walk around. For a group of schoolgirls on vacation, this was their cue. Adu and his neighbors were quickly buried in a tangle of arms and pigtails reaching across the aisle and over seats for the next hour.
Once the team arrived in Massachusetts, there were more crowd-control issues. The suburban hotel where the team was going to stay also happened to be headquarters for a big youth soccer tournament -- Adu wannabes everywhere. Word spread that United would be arriving soon. As the bus neared the hotel, team staffers, tipped off about the fans, were on their cell phones trying to figure out the best way to get through the mob. Both the front and rear entrances were swelling with kids. The solution: Call the police and have them form a human passageway into the lobby.
Adu made it through the crowd and quickly got to his room. A pair of security guards monitored the team's wing. Adu, however, felt bad that he had been whisked past his young admirers. So with a security official at his side, he made his way back to the lobby unannounced and spent a half-hour greeting fans.
"He's the prince of Tiger Beat Nation," said Hicks, the team's communications expert, who has accompanied Adu to many appearances. "I've seen girls crying, one girl almost fainted. It's like that everywhere we go. Everyone wants a piece of Freddy."
The Adu phenomenon has also reached smaller, non-MLS markets with equal force.
After an afternoon game in Chicago in early June, he and his teammates headed to O'Hare Airport, but instead of going back to Washington, Adu was at the other end of the terminal with his agent, Motzkin, and a Sierra Mist representative awaiting a trip to Des Moines for an appearance at a minor league soccer game that night. A crowd of more than 6,600 helped the local team set an attendance record.
Similar scenes have unfolded in Charleston, S.C., where United held a portion of its spring training, in Rochester, N.Y., where 14,000 turned out for a midweek exhibition, and in Richmond, where the minor league Kickers set a franchise record with 8,776 fans on July 21.
"Freddy-mania took on a life of its own," Garber, the league commissioner, said. "He connects in a way that is extraordinary. There is something unique about this kid and people really caught onto that and made it into something far bigger than we thought it ever would be."
At times, however, Adu has been clearly worn down. The roughest part, he said, has been making appearances when he hasn't been playing well. "I still had to put on a nice face and be a nice person, but inside it didn't feel right because I didn't feel like I deserved it," he said.
In midseason, his schedule was cut back. Under the new plan, interviews were granted every few days instead of every day and his promotional calendar was lightened.
"We have to get back to the commitment we made to him and his family that we would help develop him as a young soccer player," Garber said. "We're still going to manage his appearances and let people get close to him, but we've got to take a step back and let Freddy start growing and getting on the field and doing what everybody believes he can do."
A Learning Experience
On the field, Adu's maiden season has not been perfect. In June, he slipped into a rut and was noticeably unhappy. His playing time was inconsistent and, when he was in the game, he sometimes looked like a kid lost among grown-ups in a busy department store.
His frustration peaked after a game in Dallas on June 26, when he played only the last few minutes. He told the Dallas Morning News that he was tired of coming off the bench and having only limited time to make an impact. Upon the team's return to Washington, according to sources, a stern Nowak told the players that they should refrain from airing their complaints through the media. Nowak and Adu then had a long talk, and Adu admitted he had made a mistake by going public.
"I wasn't thinking," he said. "I was mad, that's all. Peter's here to help me, he's on my side, and I need to communicate with him and let him do his job."
Since then, Adu seems to have revived his joy of playing.
"I've rediscovered myself all over again," said Adu, who always seems to be smiling now. "For a while there, I wasn't me and things weren't going great and I was complaining about having to do all that stuff. But it's just normal now. I'm having fun again and I'm playing well. I feel great and hopefully I can keep that going."
His contributions on the field have picked up. He went nearly three months between goals, but these days he looks more comfortable with the ball and at ease around his teammates.
"I was thinking too much when I first came in here," Adu said. "I was worrying about what people thought of me and what my teammates thought of me. I was trying to fit in too much. I wasn't being myself. Now I'm being myself. After one game [in May], I said to myself, 'You've never played this bad in your whole life, what is going on?' I sat down and thought about it, watched game tapes and realized some of the things I was doing were terrible."
Adu has a good relationship with most of his teammates, but a few of the veterans haven't fully warmed to him. Early in the season, some seemed irritated by the attention heaped on an unproven player and questioned privately whether he belonged on the field during a tense match.
Jaime Moreno, a Bolivian-born forward who has been in MLS since its inception in 1996, appeared to be the most frustrated with Adu, who is still learning where to move without the ball and when to take the initiative on the attack.
"We try to do our best to help him, but it hasn't been easy for him," said Moreno, 30, United's all-time leader in points. "I think he has realized how hard the league is. He's learning and taking something from each time he has stepped on the field. He's going to be a good player."
Nowak dismissed suggestions that there was a rift between Moreno and Adu, saying: "I think Jaime wants to make Freddy better -- tough love. This is what it's about; it's not personal."
Adu has become more comfortable around his teammates as the season has progressed but realizes it's sometimes best to tread lightly.
"The guys accept you much more when you work hard day in and day out in practice and just be humble and let your play do your talking," he said. "I know who I can joke around with and who I can't. I've learned that. The guys have accepted me a lot better now, I think, because I'm working hard and I'm contributing."
Some opponents also seem annoyed by the presence of a 15-year-old in their league and try to throw Adu off his game.
"They'll say, 'This isn't a boy's game, this is a man's game, you better be ready to play, kid,' " Adu said. "I just say, 'Okay, pops!' "
But those same players are almost unanimous in their opinion that Adu will become a special player someday.
"You can see he absolutely holds his own at this level, and that's incredible," said Donovan, the San Jose star who became an almost instant success in MLS at age 19 after toiling in Germany for a few years. "I can't even fathom that."
Said Adu: "I don't want to be an average player. I want to be a great player. I want to be the best player I can be and I know I have the potential to become the best player, if I really put my mind to it. . . .
"I look at this year as being just the beginning for me. It's been good and bad, but there's a lot more to come, I can tell you that."