Midway through the second half of its MLS playoff opener Friday night in Chicago, D.C. United was straining to mount an eloquent attack.
It seemed like the perfect time to insert the club's electrifying 16-year-old forward, Freddy Adu, who on many occasions during the past two seasons has demonstrated the ability to change the complexion of a match.
Except on this chilly night at Soldier Field, Adu wasn't on the bench or warming up behind the goal. He was high above the pitch, dressed in a sharp black suit and red tie watching his teammates settle for a 0-0 tie with the Fire.
Adu had been suspended for what sources close to the situation said was his refusal to formally apologize to the team for complaining to the media earlier in the week about playing time. It's uncertain whether he will be available for Game 2 of the playoff series Oct. 30 at RFK Stadium.
Team officials declined to discuss the matter further, but those around the club, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the dispute, said they are miffed that Adu has not taken bigger steps toward resolving the issue.
Adu has declined all interview requests since making his comments after Tuesday's practice and the other players have become reluctant to talk about it. Coach Peter Nowak's decision to suspend Adu was supported by team president Kevin Payne and technical director Dave Kasper, both of whom attended Friday night's match.
Those who have spoken to the teenager in recent days say he reached out to some teammates and was prepared to address the team as a whole Friday in Chicago. But at least one player apparently told him that wouldn't be necessary at that time. Nowak, however, wanted Adu to step forward on his own and make a greater effort toward rectifying the situation.
"Sometimes you have to find things out by making mistakes," said one person close to the player and the team, who didn't want to be identified. "He will grow wiser from this. It's unfortunate it reached this point, but he's learning what the club wants from him and where he fits in."
In his comments Tuesday, Adu suggested that he might be better off playing for another MLS team next year. However, United officials have said they have no plans to trade him.
Ultimately, Adu would like to play in Europe, where several major clubs have expressed interest in acquiring him. But until he turns 18 (in June 2007), he is not allowed to sign a contract overseas.
Adu's mother, Emelia, said this week that her son's agents have been working on a solution that may result in him leaving United this offseason. Adu's chief representative, Richard Motzkin, had no comment when reached Friday night.
Motzkin and his partner, Dan Segal, have been in regular contact with United officials since Tuesday's incident.
Meantime, United has turned its attention to the finale of the two-game series against the Fire after securing a coveted tie on the road. If the teams play another tie, a 30-minute overtime and, if necessary, penalty kicks will decide the winner.
A pair of scheduling quirks -- Chicago hosted Friday instead of yesterday because of an NFL game scheduled for today, and United will host a day later than usual to accommodate national TV coverage -- have given the teams more than a week to prepare for the decisive match.
Despite exhibiting a clumsy attack in the opener, United is feeling better about itself than the Fire, which now must win on the road in order to advance. D.C. is 13-1-1 all-time in home playoff games.