Something was clearly bothering Freddy Adu. D.C. United had just completed the regular season with a meaningless tie against the Columbus Crew two weeks ago at RFK Stadium and was beginning to turn its attention toward the playoffs and defending its MLS championship.
That evening, Adu, the 16-year-old jewel of American soccer, had spent the first half sulking on the bench and the second half trying to spark United's sputtering attack.
Afterward, while dressing in front of his locker, he waved away a reporter and remarked, "Maybe I'll say something in a couple days."
He had a lot to say. Three days later, as United was gearing up for its postseason opener against the Chicago Fire, Adu expressed disappointment with the amount of playing time he was receiving and suggested he might be better off playing for another team next year. He also said he thought the situation with United was ruining his chances of making the 2006 U.S. World Cup squad.
It wasn't the first time Adu had vented frustration about playing time since signing with the fledgling league almost two years ago to become the youngest member of a U.S. pro team in more than 100 years. But this latest episode exposed a deeper level of unhappiness and triggered an unprecedented reaction from the team.
Coach Peter Nowak, supported by United's executives, wanted Adu to apologize to the team as a whole -- not necessarily for what he said, but for the timing of it and the distraction it caused so close to the start of the playoffs. Adu spoke with individual players and was under the impression he had done enough to remedy the situation. Nowak disagreed and, a few hours before the playoff opener in Chicago on Oct. 21, suspended his young forward.
Adu will be back in uniform this afternoon, when United and the Fire conclude their first-round series at RFK following a 0-0 tie in Game 1. With United at full strength, Adu will probably not be in the starting lineup, but depending how the match unfolds, he could make an appearance in the second half.
Long-term questions linger, however. Will everyone involved be able to put the commotion behind them? And will Nowak, the no-nonsense coach from Poland, and Adu, the Ghana-born prodigy who grew up in Montgomery County, be able to coexist after this season?
"The thing is over and we don't go backward," Nowak said Friday, declining to discuss the issue further. United's players have also become reluctant to talk about it, but those around the team say Adu's teammates have moved on and hold no ill will toward the teenager. At practice sessions this past week, Adu was in a playful mood, interacting normally with the other players and listening to Nowak's instructions.
Adu has not granted any interview requests since making his surprising comments, but his agent, Richard Motzkin of SportsNet in Los Angeles, agreed to discuss the situation.
"Freddy is very much a team-first player and he is very much focused and motivated to do whatever he can to help the team win a championship," he said.
Asked his reaction to Adu's complaints, Motzkin said: "It came from a frustrated young adult. The timing of the comments certainly wasn't good, but in terms of the substance, Freddy is a person who speaks from the heart, and to me, it sounded like he was speaking from the heart.
"It's not the first time an athlete has expressed frustration with playing time and it certainly won't be the last time. On a relative scale, they certainly were far from the worst comments I've heard a professional athlete make."
Over two seasons, Adu has played in every regular season game for which he was available. This year he started in 16 of his 25 appearances and averaged almost 60 minutes (two-thirds of a game) per outing. He followed his five-goal, three-assist season in 2004 with four goals and six assists this year. Most importantly, many observers agree, he became a more complete player.
Motzkin was critical of the way United handled the recent controversy.
"Did Freddy do enough to remedy the situation?" he said. "I would flip it and say, 'Did D.C. United do enough to remedy it?' Because, at the end of the day, while Freddy is extremely mature, articulate and intelligent, he's still 16 years old. If someone is looking for adult-like behavior, whether that's in the form of an apology or the request for a meeting, it's reasonable to ask the question, 'Shouldn't the adults also swallow some pride, act in an adult-like fashion and reach out to someone who maybe isn't comfortable clearly doing things they want him to do?' "
United President Kevin Payne didn't want to respond to Motzkin's comments, saying: "As far as we are concerned, it's over with. It's my hope Freddy learned some things from what occurred and will now help us move forward and win a championship."
What happens after this season remains uncertain. Adu's ambition is to play professionally in England, but until he turns 18 in June 2007 he is forbidden to sign a contract there. Even if he were permitted to go, MLS would have to agree to sell his rights. Adu's contract with the league runs through the end of the 2007 season, with two option years to follow.
Presumably, most, if not all, of the other MLS teams would be interested in trading for Adu, even if he were available for just one or two seasons before heading to Europe. But United officials have insisted they have no intention of dealing him.
Adu's mother, Emelia, said recently that Motzkin and his associates were exploring the possibility of her son playing elsewhere next year. Motzkin wouldn't comment on that, but did say: "As with all clients, you are going to go through an end-of-the-year evaluation. We certainly intend to sit down with the family and the appropriate team officials and review the season, both on and off the field, and discuss the good and the bad, and also the future."