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Tactics: Adu in the right place against Crew

Photo: Paul Rudderow

It was The Usual Suspects before Saturday’s match against Columbus: 1) What kind of crazy will be on the lineup card? 2) Is it worth hanging the netting on the PPL Park goals anymore? 3) Where will Freddy Adu play? 4) What will Freddy Adu do? And, depending on which side you come down on, 5) Why doesn’t anybody else realize how amazing/awful Freddy Adu is??

Today we’re talking about number three.

It belongs in a museum on the wing!

Cards on the table: Freddy Adu is not a central midfielder (sorry, Kevin). Why? Take your pick: a) Too slow, b) Poor off-the-ball movement, c) Keeps his head down. Want some Union-specific reasons? We’ve got those too: i) 34 center midfielders on the roster, ii) Michael Farfan, iii) Michael. Far. Fan., iv) Adu more useful on the wing.

The above list could lead to the conclusion that Freddy Adu is not a good player. That is not true. He is. Let’s close the book on that argument.

But Adu is limited. And what he does best is not run an offense a la Roger Torres, skipping around the midfield dinking passes back and forth with teammates, running the practice circle until the right gap opens or the right run catches his eye.

Soccer is like…

If you were in the first grade chess club, you heard the saying, “Knights on the rim are twice as dim.” Putting a horsey on the edge of the board cuts the potential number of squares he can move to in half. In a strategy game this is often a bad plan.

The same logic explains when players with Freddy Adu’s technical ability default to the middle of the park. But with the emergence of deep-lying midfielders who can track playmakers then start the attack (Ola, Gavilan. Hey, Amobi), and an increasing reliance on fullbacks who sprint upfield at the slightest provocation (Hi, Kofi!), intelligent managers have been looking to hide their playmakers near the touchlines. Franck Ribery emerged as a £60 million player when Munich found him space on the edge; Arjen Robben followed his lead (or started the trend at Chelsea).

It’s no coincidence that more central players like Kaka have given way to playmakers like Ronaldo and Messi who work from the wings. Cutting inside from the touchline changes the angles for center halves, forces the defensive midfielder to cover more ground, and pins the outside backs in their own zone. The catch? Players with great technical ability have a touchline behind them and an endline looming nearby. Knights on the rim have fewer options.

Also, it isn’t easy for players who have spent their careers in the middle to move wide. It can feel like a demotion. You couldn’t make the offense chug, so now you’re stuck out in left field punting crosses.

But it doesn’t have to be like that.

Don’t put a round Freddy in a square… tactical predicament?

Case in point: Freddy Adu reclaimed the international spotlight by dominating the right side of the field in the Gold Cup. The defense couldn’t double him, so Freddy took them on. If they backed off, he moved inside to open a channel up the touchline and showed off a passing skill set that the Washington Redskins would trade seven No. 1 picks to draft.

Adu was at it again during the Olympic qualifiers. Operating on the right (with little coherent support from Kofi Sarkodie, who brought his track and field game to a soccer match), Adu was consistently dangerous with both crosses and his powerful left foot. In fact, Freddy finally found that space he craves in the middle by sneaking inside for a quick turn-and-shoot, then drifting back to the edge before anyone could figure out how to track his run.

Portland vs Columbus

In the Union’s season opener against Portland, Adu was ostensibly employed in that same right midfield/attacker role that he thrived in on the international stage. But both the Union’s tactics and the match stats show that Adu was doing something else.

Against Portland, Adu was on the wing but still trying to be a center midfielder. He comes inside in the middle third of the field instead of stretching down the wing to open space and pin back the defense. Freddy has a playmaker’s mindset, and against the Timbers he was playing the way a playmaker would… if said playmaker was deployed on the right but thought he should be in the middle.

Adu completed 26 passes, only misplaced four, and was quite involved in the closest thing the Union had to build-up play. Sounds good, right?

It was a different story against the Crew. Adu was deployed high up the left side of the pitch, and when he did drift back into the middle he was playing quick, short passes and getting back upfield. Adu only completed 13 passes against 11 incomplete (a few attempted low crosses mixed in), but it’s generally agreed that he was much more effective in his second outing of the year.


For the Union, it’s always been about getting out of the middle of the pitch. Since the days of Australian Fred, Philadelphia has bopped the rock around the midfield while struggling to establish possession in the final third. Suddenly, against Columbus, there was Adu. The playmaker found space, diddled on the ball to freeze his defender, and generally made good decisions.

Most importantly, he established possession deep in Columbus territory. Now the center backs are deep in the box. Now Michael Farfan and Keon Daniel are shaping up the umbrella twenty-five yards out. Now Gabriel Gomez is so far up the pitch he has to raise his voice for Carlos Valdes to hear him.

The next step, of course, is for Adu to realize that he can be even more dangerous if he’s willing to make the short pass and gallop into the box. Everyone from Philadelphia to Madrid can tell Freddy that Michael Farfan has a sweet chip in his arsenal that’s just waiting for the right run.

And as Adu’s passing chart against Columbus shows, getting on the end of crosses isn’t the Union’s strong suit. Adu should be looking to draw a second defender and then move the ball quickly to his support. If the team can move the ball side to side in the final third, gaps will open up for players like Marfan and Keon Daniel to slice through the defense and receive the ball in the box. Then it’s just a matter of, you know, actually shooting the ball.

Going forward, Adu may find himself switching sides of the field. But whatever side he is on, Freddy Adu should be much closer to goal than he was at Portland.

For Freddy Adu, the past weekend was a nice start. This Saturday against Chivas can be even better.


  1. T of the U says:

    Very good analysis! I like the chess analogy…heady. Thanks for taking a very detailed look at Adu for the fans on either side of the fence.

  2. Next week:
    3-5-3-, Adu playing Center Forward.

  3. I for one thought Adu was very good v. Columbus. He had many crossing type plays into the box and one resulted in our goal. In my opinion Pajoy is the issue. His first touch is awful, and he lacks both speed and quickness. If we can get someone up there who can just receive the ball properly more SOG will come immediately.

  4. I disagree, Adu is best in the center attacking mid role, or as a withdrawn forward with freedom to move to the sides, and this has been established throughout his career. He’s always looked best in the middle, I also specifically disagree with your statement that “what he does best is not run an offense a la Roger Torres, skipping around the midfield dinking passes back and forth with teammates, running the practice circle until the right gap opens or the right run catches his eye”

    From my observation, that’s exactly what he’s best at.

    Adu’s main skills are pass accuracy, and dribbling, his main weaknesses are sprinting speed and power.

    Being in the middle allows Adu to have more options, if defenders get to close he can dribble them, if they’re too far he can play a through ball.

    On the wind he’s far more limited, on the right wing he loses his cross, as his right foot is not nearly as good, leading defenders to expect him to have to dribble in to take a shot or lay it off.

    On the left wing, his dribbling is diminished, leaving defenders to expect a cross.

    The only place where he is a duel threat, opening up space for both of his prime skills, is in the middle. He’s also very good, as you noted, in spraying the ball around and making accurate short passes, which also helps when playing in the middle.

    • johnstocktonshorts says:

      I completely disagree for reasons I will not reveal at this time.

    • The Black Hand says:

      Fully agree with Music. Adu is better suited for the middle. He doesn’t have the speed to play outside. He would pull the ball back to slow down play, killing any fast paced attack. Marfan and Keon are better options for the outside. Both can attack with speed. Adu would be nice in the middle where he could distribute to the flanks and striker, or drop off to Gomez. The options will make him more threatening to opposing defenders. My question is; where the hell is the German going to play?

      • I love Adam, but I also firmly disagree. We would be best off if Marfan and Adu swapped positions. Adu’s inability to make those runs is the very reason why he is better in the middle. Marfan is also better on the outside, despite the talent to play anywhere in the midfield. I still think a 4-3-1-2 with Adu underneath Mwanga and McInerny makes the most sense for this team.

    • “Adu is best … as a withdrawn forward with freedom to move to the sides, and this has been established throughout his career.”

      Quite frankly, that is the only time he’s dominated as he’s been given a ton of freedom in that role. At the U20s under Rongen, he was an absolute beast roaming side to side and finding space as a withdrawn striker. In truth, to me, that is the ONLY role he should ever play.

      He’s a GOD AWFUL winger because he lacks pace and is a well-below average defender.

  5. I completely disagree Adu in the middle, but not necessarily just staying in the middle the whole game. The optimum position for adu would for him to have the ability to roam as a 10 like messi does all over the field. Your reasons are dumb, Adu ball movement is one of his best qualities and his head isnt always down he plays perfect through balls all the time. FInally the most ridiculous thing you said was about his speed, yes he is not very fast but this makes him even more of a inside midfielder. Look at any team, the fastest players in the world all play outside because they can blow by there man, not as many defenders outsides so it works. I swear soccer writers in america have no idea what they are talking about. On the other hand you did make one good point for the union adu may not be best suited to play on the outside(maybe) bc Michael Farfan cannot play there and he needs to be in our starting XI but in now way would this be adus best position

    • Adu should play in the middle

      • T of the U says:

        Quick question…did you honestly just compare Adu to Messi? Explain why you think that Adu has the quality to perform as a roaming #10? Messi may not have incredible top-end pace, but his quickness and acceleration in tight spaces is second to none…something that Adu lacks all together.

        Adu loses the ball far too often. Yes, his through balls are decent, but he’s lucky to get a couple in a game. I think for the Union’s purpose he is most valuable outside where we can use his crossing ability…one attribute that is sorely lacking from the rest of the team.

      • The Black Hand says:

        Keon, Farfan and Gomez can all play quality balls into the box. It wouldn’t make sense to take away many aspects of Adu’s game, simply for crosses. Also, having him play centrally does not mean he can’t carry play to the outside. It’s just that he has far more options, to utilize his skillset, playing in a central role. I don’t think that giving the example of Messi’s positioning, to relate to where Adu would be most useful, was that out of line. No one is trying to say that Adu is anywhere near Messi in skill.

      • Of course adu is not messi but his top attributes are the exact same as messi’s. He may not be as quick or have the acceleration that messi has but he isnt playing in the La liga either, so in the MLS he could look very similar use his skills and play somewhat like messi (of course not up to the same quality). Losing the ball to much, are you kidding? Messi loses the ball more than anyone else in the world(Ronaldo second, when players try to make things happen they lose the ball or create a scoring opportunity), cough cough yesterday prime example leading to the goal.

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