Freddy Adu ought to be upset. He was played, as the kids say . . . played as in used, manipulated and lied to. We all were played, really. Maybe MLS doesn't think we remember the sweet promises when it signed Adu almost two years ago. But how can we forget; the promises were grand and breathless, to the point of unforgettable.

The league and his team, D.C. United, said Adu was a prodigy and that people should stop what they were doing to buy tickets to see him play. They took out ads.

MLS and United put Adu on the cover of media guides. They put him in television commercials. Adu's first game was carried on network television. They sold tickets to people based not necessarily on how successful United would be but how fabulous the prodigy would be.

Way too often, it's like going to see "The Producers" without Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick. No, you don't always go to see the team, even if it's a championship team; you go to see the star.

The league and the club sold the star, and for the most part they have failed to deliver. Of course, Adu is disappointed. We should all be . . . for being played. The league and the team, at the very least, are guilty of false advertising. It's reasonable to suggest they've perpetrated a fraud.

Let's review what the league's position was when Adu was drafted. "Not one person in the world soccer industry, from all the naysayers in this country to every major soccer team in Europe, thought that we would sign Freddy," MLS Commissioner Don Garber said. "This says strongly that we are serious about the business of growing the sport of soccer in this country."

The league's deputy commissioner, Ivan Gazidis, who was critical to the negotiations with Adu, said: "Freddy is a supremely talented young player, probably the best young player in the world. . . . For us Freddy is a unique and precious jewel."

See, when I hear "growing the sport of soccer in this country" and "Freddy is a unique and precious jewel" I'm not expecting to arrive at the stadium to see Adu on the bench. You don't make a 14-year-old one of the highest-paid players in your league for what he might do down the line.

Clearly, the league expected him to deliver, to some degree, right now.

When the commissioner and his deputy (who I'm certain meant every word of what they said) talked so glowingly of Adu's impact, they weren't just addressing the 16,000 people who were already buying United tickets; they were talking to tens of thousands of more casual sports fans they hoped would allow the prodigy to introduce them to soccer.

The soccer people who don't like reading a critical word about their sport can save their e-mails, because this isn't about soccer as much as it is about keeping your promise, about truth in advertising, about bait-and-switch tactics. I know, I know, I promised you Adu . . . but you'll be happy with a winning team, right? No, not necessarily.

United had already won championships. The promise was to, as Garber said, "grow the sport." You think it's going to grow very much when the prodigy is sitting on the bench much of the time? You think a guy is going to bring his family back if he heeds the league's call to come watch Adu, then can't see him?

The person I blame the least is the coach, Peter Nowak. Coaches have one job: win. By necessity they're myopic. If they don't win they get fired. Nowak doesn't market and he shouldn't be growing anything. I dismiss his notion that nobody's bigger than the team, because people are bigger than the team all the time, even championship teams, in every sport. In many cases, it's the coach who is bigger than the team, who wants to gather all the power and make certain his authority can trump even the popularity and marketability of a prodigy. And Nowak seems to wear his inflexibility with pride. Still, I blame the people who made the promises. I understand Kevin Payne's quotes in The Post yesterday.

The club president said: "The issue with Freddy is that he's on a good team and he's competing for playing time with very good players. There are not enough starting positions to go around."

I get that. Makes total sense. And I presume Payne, who very much knows what he's doing when it comes to putting together a championship-caliber team, is right on the money with that assessment.

Then you know what? Don't promise. Don't sell. Call the league people and say, "League people, shhhhhhhh! We don't know if this kid is going to be in the lineup every night or not, so let's not SELL PEOPLE A BILL OF GOODS!"

Not only did all this hype surely turn off some people who might want to simply go and watch a prodigy, but it had to jack up Adu's expectations as well. No kid, no matter how great he is (LeBron James is Exhibit A) needs to hear how great he is all the time. Undoubtedly, Adu has his own set of expectations, which include making the 2006 U.S. World Cup team. And now that it appears unlikely, he's upset. What's happening to his timetable? How could this trip to the top be derailed so early?

I like Adu. He's stunningly mature and composed. And he's a damn good player who has the charisma to indeed sell his sport. But like all 16-year-olds who have been made a fuss over since age 4, he's a little self-centered, moody now and then, petulant once in a while. And he joined a team with, probably, the most talent in MLS. Talk about too much too soon. These kids should never be playing professional team sports this early.

Adu and Michelle Wie, another 16-year-old with too many people slobbering after her, both learned the most important lesson in sports recently: the sting of disappointment.

I hope Adu doesn't leave. I hope he stays here until he can realize his primary ambition of playing for a major European club. I hope the sycophants around him leave him to sort most of this out for himself. I hope his coach finds it in himself to develop this young phenom and not just sit on a pat lineup, which truly is what the MLS needs. I hope Adu has learned that the eve of the playoff season isn't the time to make certain points or think primarily of self. While the kid is not without a little blame in this dispute, it's the grown folks who deserve most of it.