Freddy Adu rejoined his D.C. United teammates this week after a disappointing performance in the World Youth Championships in the Netherlands that did little to enhance his case for more playing time in Major League Soccer.
Adu missed two penalty kicks and acknowledged playing poorly as the United States was eliminated in the round of 16. He has started only four of nine games for United and many viewed the under-20 tournament as a chance for Adu to prove that Coach Peter Nowak should play him more.
Instead, Adu boarded a plane yesterday for Chicago not knowing if he will play when D.C. United faces the Fire tonight at Soldier Field. United (5-4-4) went unbeaten in four games while Adu was in the Netherlands. D.C. has scored six goals in the past two games.
"I didn't play as well as I would've liked," said Adu, 16. "In the previous two youth tournaments, I played very well. In this one, I was poor. There is no other way to describe it."
Nowak was loath to discuss his possible lineup for tonight -- his stock answer is that United will field 10 players and a goalie -- but he said he was monitoring Adu in practice.
"I think he learned one thing: This is a team sport," Nowak said. "You have to be part of every team you play with. . . . He was part of a team that didn't succeed [in the Netherlands]. He realized how important it is to be part of the D.C. United team, to have success with your club first before you have success at the international level."
U.S. Coach Sigi Schmid said it is imperative that Adu learn from what happened in the tournament.
"I'm a big believer that there's a positive in everything," Schmid said. "Right now it's how Freddy takes the information on the performances he had in the tournament and what he does with it. It can be a step forward. It can also be a step sideways. It's how he processes the information."
Adu said the tournament could prove educational.
"I learned about my movement off the ball and that I have to be better and stronger off the ball," he said. "I have to be more aggressive, I can't go into tackles soft. Everyone plays to win."
Schmid said the pressure on Adu -- both at the tournament and in MLS -- was intense.
"Certainly Freddy received lot of attention, a lot of media attention [in the Netherlands]," he said. "Sometimes I wish I could lift all that off him and allow him to play. . . . He was definitely a known player. He was our most recognized player, people in Holland knew who he was."
Four players received most of the attention leading up to the youth championships, which conclude Saturday. Two of them will meet when Argentina plays Nigeria in the final. Argentina forward Lionel Messi, 18, has four goals in the tournament after scoring once in the regular season for Spanish power Barcelona.
Nigeria counters with forward John Obi Mikel, 18. He reportedly is trying to void a contract with Manchester United so he can play for Chelsea.
Dutch forward Quincy Owusu Abeyie, 20, led his team to the quarterfinals. He has some time off before reporting back to Arsenal, the prestigious London club for which he plays.
Adu was the fourth.
"He gets pulled in a lot of different directions," Schmid said of Adu. "At some point in Freddy's development, some of the pulling in different directions has to stop. That's the difference between him and players like Messi and Quincy. They have notoriety, but they don't get pulled in as many directions. On a media basis, Freddy has a lot more of that than they do, plus he has sponsorship deals."
Adu was a forward for the United States in the tournament. The team advanced to the round of 16 largely because of its defense -- it did not give up a goal in group play. The team lost to Italy, 3-1, in the round of 16.
Adu had played well in two previous international tournaments. In the under-17 world championship in 2003, Adu had three goals in a 6-1 victory over South Korea and the winning goal in the 89th minute of a 2-1 victory over Sierra Leone.
His performance led to a call-up to the under-20 world championship that same year. He started four of five games and had an assist in a 2-1 loss to Argentina. The United States finished fifth.
Adu's chances of playing tonight were helped after forward Santino Quaranta was called up to the U.S. national team to play in the CONCACAF Gold Cup. Midfielder Ben Olsen is also on the team; both will miss at least the next few games for United.
Nowak has many options without Quaranta (two goals, two assists). He could start Adu (one goal, four assists) or Jamil Walker at forward, or move attacking midfielder Christian Gomez (five goals) up front.
"With Santino and Ben Olsen gone that obviously gives me a chance to step in," Adu said. "I'm trying to get back to my old form."
He can be sure that Nowak -- among others -- will be watching.
"One thing is for certain," Nowak said. "He's not going to get anything granted to him."