If everything had gone exactly according to plan, Freddy Adu would have been in a soccer stadium in Europe on Saturday afternoon, in his prime at age 28 starring for a big club, tormenting opponents with exciting bursts and preparing to guide the United States to the World Cup next summer.

Rather, the one-time teenage phenomenon was on the field’s edge at RFK Stadium, greeting former D.C. United teammates while standing some 20 steps from where he made history 13 1/2 years ago. It was there, amid the bedlam of a 2004 MLS opener in which he was the star attraction, that Adu, age 14, stepped onto the pitch and became the youngest U.S. athlete in a century to enter official team competition.

He was destined for superstardom. Instead, he ended up bouncing around the planet like mislabeled luggage: 12 teams in eight countries, plus countless tryouts and promising leads that never panned out.

This weekend, Adu is back where it all began, a player facing the premature end to his career participating in festivities saluting a stadium in its twilight. He might play in Sunday’s alumni game, then he’ll watch United lower the curtain on 22 seasons at the old venue on East Capitol Street with the 2017 finale against the New York Red Bulls. United will move into Audi Field next year.

“It just brought back memories, great memories,” Adu said of returning to RFK, his workplace from 2004 through 2006. “Everything comes to an end and I’m glad to experience it one last time with the rest of the guys.”

Adu, born in Ghana but raised in Montgomery County, lives in Rockville. He has been without a contract since making five appearances (one start) for the second-division Tampa Bay Rowdies last year. He works out regularly with a former United fitness coach and, in an effort to resume his career next year, plans to enter an intensive conditioning program in Arizona or Florida this winter.

In other words, he has not abandoned hope.

“I’ve still got a lot,” he said after signing dozens of autographs for fans attending United’s open practice at RFK. “I’m just really looking forward to getting back on the field soon. I am not taking things for granted as much as I did when I was a little bit younger. Hopefully, I will get the opportunity and make the most of it.”

Once billed the next Pele — and once a co-star with the Brazilian soccer icon in a TV commercial — Adu never fulfilled the massive potential that he displayed excelling with U.S. junior national teams. He was, he admits, too young for a pro career. He became spoiled and didn’t work hard enough, and found himself in bad situations with various teams and coaches.

This past summer, Adu was prepared to join a Polish team. The technical director wanted him but the coach didn’t. So he turned down the offer.

“I can’t afford to go to another team and not play again,” he said. “That would be it for me. You can only have so many chances.”

So he’ll try getting himself into tiptop shape and await a fresh opportunity. Given his track record, there aren’t many options left, especially for someone who will not have played competitively in more than 18 months.

“When people know you, it’s a good thing but it’s also a bad thing,” Adu said. “When you’re playing and playing well, you’re going to get a lot of praise. But when you’re not playing, you’re going to get destroyed. That’s what has happened to me the last couple years. I’ve gone through a lot of criticism — and rightfully so because I haven’t played well and haven’t played a lot.”

Asked what he would’ve done differently over the years, he said: “A lot. A lot. Because there’s a lot of things that I think back on and I’m like, ‘I was young. I was naive.’ When you get older, reality hits you at some point and you’re just like, ‘Man, did you ever think you would be in this situation, going a whole year without playing soccer?’ I never thought that in my whole life. Now you’ve got to change a lot of things. I have had a year to reflect on everything.”

He has leaned on family members and Trevor Moawad, his longtime sports psychologist, to get in the proper frame of mind.

“There are a lot of things I would change: the way I approach everything. I think I came off, especially when I was younger, the wrong way to a lot of people, especially to my teammates. Those guys are important. These are things I wish I would’ve done better.”

Almost half of a lifetime ago, Adu stood on the same RFK pitch, waiting to replace Alecko Eskandarian.

RFK is fading out. Adu isn’t quite ready.

“I can’t believe it,” he said. “It just flies, man, it flies. I was 14-15 when I came here. I’m 28 now. It’s just weird. It went fast. Now I understand [when he signed], people were like. ‘Don’t take it for granted, it goes by quick. I’m like, ‘Goes by quick? I’m only 15. I’ve got a long time.’

“And then you blink and you wake up, and it’s like, ‘Oh, man.’ It does go by quick. You have to make the best of it when you can.”


D.C. United vs. New York Red Bulls

Where: RFK Stadium.

When: Sunday at 4 p.m.

TV: NewsChannel 8.

Records: United 9-19-5, 32 points; Red Bulls 13-12-8, 47 points.

More on RFK Stadium: