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Freddy Adu: The first year

Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz

Freddy Adu played his first game with Philadelphia Union a year ago this month.

The honeymoon is long since over.

Today, Adu is a lightning rod for the Union. When he loses the ball after a series of stepovers, fans boo him. If the next series of stepovers results in an inch-perfect cross, people say that’s what he’s supposed to do.

This is life for Adu.

“When I score goals and assists, I’m not playing defense,” Adu told me last week in the visitors locker room at RFK Stadium after the Union’s 1-1 draw with DC United. “When I play defense, I’m not getting goals and assists.”

It’s clearly a frustrating time for Adu. He carries the scorn of those who view him as the failed American soccer prodigy. That’s made worse by the fact that many now view him as a failed designated player, with an undeserved salary that dwarfs most of his teammates’ paychecks.

Sure enough, Adu hasn’t produced at the level expected of designated players. He has three goals and one assist this year. The number of great matches he’s played has been outpaced by the number of mediocre ones.

But there’s a clear, simple fact his critics often overlook: He has rarely played the position most view as his best.

“I thought I was going to play the No. 10 when I signed,” Adu said. “I talked to Peter Nowak. That’s what he said.”

Adu said he doesn’t understand why he never got that chance.

“I don’t know,” Adu said. “I’ve talked to the coaches about that. That’s my natural position. You see the ball more. I wish I played No. 10.”

To Adu’s credit, he didn’t bring up the issue that day in Washington. I did. It’s something I’ve wondered about, because I’ve followed the Union enough to realize Adu, whatever his own faults are, may also be one more broken toy that Peter Nowak left behind.

A No. 10 in a No. 7’s world

It’s something we’ve said so many times about so many Union players that it’s easy to overlook when it comes to Adu because, quite frankly, he’s Freddy Adu.

How many other players did Nowak deploy out of position, only to see them flourish when returned their comfort zones? Andrew Jacobson, Sebastien Le Toux, Michael Orozco Fiscal, Michael Farfan (at right back) — the list goes on and on.

Just because Adu has the fatter paycheck doesn’t mean he got a pass on Nowak’s lineup lunacy. He didn’t.

Adu was never a traditional winger. Yes, he might send in a beautiful cross from the flanks, but that doesn’t make him a winger. For one, he lacks the speed. And he lacks the comfort zone, much like those other Union players Nowak played out of position.

What he has is great passing vision, when he looks to pass. He has great ball control, when he plays within himself. He provides good dead ball service that will only get better with time. PSP’s Adam Cann made a David Beckham comparison (or contrast?) that was very apt and worth reading.

How long did it take for Gabriel Farfan to develop into a good left back? He’s still getting there, and if he ever does, he could end up the only intentional Nowak position switch that ever works. (Don’t count Amobi Okugo. That was an emergency position switch forced in the US Open Cup because the roster was devoid of center backs.)

If he’s not the only one, then the other will be Michael Farfan. And if you’re looking for a reason why Adu hasn’t gotten a shot at the No. 10 role this year, look no further than the current No. 10.

As good as Michael Farfan has been as a central attacking midfielder, however, many still feel he belongs back on the wing.

It might seem ridiculous to say Adu hasn’t gotten a fair shot on the field with the Union.

But he hasn’t, in the same way so many other Union players didn’t, because Nowak played them out of position or buried them on the bench.

Some of those players have broken through under Hackworth. For others, it’s too late. They’ve been released, traded, or otherwise sent off.

It could be too late for Adu too. Michael Farfan is just that good.

Adu was a good signing, but …

Adu was a good signing when he played his first game for the Union in August 2011. The Union needed a central attacking midfielder. Adu had shown well with the U.S. national team and in Turkey’s second division.

He just wasn’t worth what the Union agreed to pay him. A $400,000 base salary with a fat signing bonus for a fringe international who last played in Turkey’s second tier? That’s Benny Feilhaber was available for less.

But Nowak chose Adu at a salary that is superstar level for MLS. The pressure on Adu rose accordingly.

Had he come in with a $175,000 salary, then the Adu acquisition — independent of his teenage hype — would not be a disappointment. He’d be just another young Union player with an upside not yet fully tapped. Instead, he’s the team’s first designated player, with a salary high enough to pay two good MLS veterans, who is not performing to that level.

Expectations of superstars

What prompted me to talk to Adu after that D.C. United game was a conversation with John Hackworth. I had pulled Hackworth aside in the locker room to ask him a few questions about the game, and the conversation turned to Adu. Hackworth gave an example of a play I only vaguely remembered, around the 35th minute, when Adu had tracked back to make a good play on defense. People don’t notice those plays, Hackworth said, but they matter.

So I asked Hackworth if he thought Adu’s salary prompts more scrutiny on Adu. Hackworth shook his head.

“I think it has to do with the expectation of, ‘He’s Freddy Adu,’ that he’s going to be the superstar,” Hackworth said.

Hackworth said he thought Adu put in a good shift that game. “Freddy fits into our system because we want players who have technical ability,” Hackworth said. But as Hackworth has said to others — and Adu clearly recognizes — he wants more. “I want Freddy’s work ethic to be the same every day,” Hackworth said.

Adu then sat on the bench till the 82nd minute in the Union’s next game.

The first, right coach ever for Adu

Adu was right to return to MLS. He was right to view Philadelphia as a good fit because they needed a central attacking midfielder.

But unless he gets a chance to play in an optimal situation for him and legitimately prioritizes the team’s performance over his own, everything else about his signing will prove wrong. A failed tenure in Philadelphia doesn’t just hurt Adu. It also hurts the Union, MLS and American soccer.

Adu will never be the American Messi. There’s nothing wrong with being the next Brad Davis though. Adu is too talented and expensive to produce this inconsistently.

Good coaches put their players in situations in which their strengths are accentuated and weaknesses downplayed. They set their players up for success, rather than failure.

Adu never had such a head coach during his first eight years as a pro. In Hackworth, he may finally have one.

Hackworth has tried to give his young team some semblance of consistency and normalcy after Nowak’s chaotic and despotic tenure, so the fact that Hackworth hasn’t swapped Adu and Michael Farfan is very defensible.

If Hackworth is (deservedly) retained next year, however, expect him to think long and hard about where Farfan belongs on the pitch and then sort it out in next year’s training camp. If it’s in the center, Adu is expendable. If it’s on the flanks, Adu gets his shot.

At 23 years old, Adu still has plenty of time. Sooner or later though, his time is going to run out.

(NOTE: And yes, I intended to finish this post last week, but life got in the way.)


  1. I completely understand the frustration with Adu, but this piece perfectly illustrates my point of view. Give the guy a chance in the middle – I don’t think he’s as limited in terms of decision making as others have made him out to be. Put the guy in a position to succeed, and stick with him, as long as he’s willing to put in the effort.

  2. James "4-3-3" Forever says:

    I agree. This is where I have questions about Hackworth and tactics. It’s quite clear Adu is bad on the wing, and it’s also clear Marfan has a ton of skills that would help on the wing. Yet forever HAckworth has continued to play Marfan centrally and Adu on the wing. A simple swap seems obvious to most of us, except the coach.

    • Well, I think it’s also obvious to Hackworth that it’s an option. I think he’s chosen the path of giving his guys more consistency for this season. It also gives him more time to evaluate whether the Marfan position switch was right or not. Marfan has been very good this season. The question is just whether he’d be even better back on the wing, and I can’t blame Hack for taking his time in evaluating that, as well as whether Adu can hack it on the wing.

  3. Good read. I still have high hopes for Adu’s tenure with the Union and all along have wanted him to be play closer to goal. Even though Adu sends in a good cross, the team doesn’t have the personnel at forward to take advantage of that. Combine that with a lack of speed and his lack of success taking defenders on, and you have a waste of a wing spot.

    While Farfan has done well in the middle, he’s an asset out on the wing. He can take people on and play a precise ball into the box. This also draws defenders out to the sidelines instead of completely marking Jack Mac out of the game.

    Since playoff aspirations are all but gone, Hackworth might as well see if he can get anything out of Freddy or else cut bait in January.

  4. WilkersonMcLaser says:

    This is unbelievably generous. I see what’s trying to be communicated here, but the notion that Freddy can only — ONLY — succeed as a #10 (and nothing else, damnit!) is such a cop-out.

    Everyone on this team, for good reasons and bad, have been asked to be versatile and give their all at multiple positions in multiple formations. If it seemed like Freddy was showing some grit and work ethic on the wing, that would be one thing, but that hasn’t been the case (can you imagine Clint Dempsey hyperventilating that he’s best as a CAM?).

    OK, Freddy isn’t a perfect winger, but being a winger has nothing to do with his unbelievably frustrating inclination to turnovers, needless episodes of twinkle toes that slow down momentum, and a lack of defensive integrity (Hack’s example is mainly exceptional for its rarity).

    Love your optimism, PSP, but this is just as kind a write up as kind can be. Man.

    • Guilty as charged. It is generous. I didn’t want to redundantly stress all the points Adam made or that I made in my postgame analysis last week, so I glossed over them pretty quickly. I agree with all your points, save in the first line: I don’t mean he can ONLY succeed as a No. 10. But it would be a good way to evaluate whether he’s worth all that money or not.

      • WilkersonMcLaser says:

        Dan, I see what you’re saying, but my point wasn’t to say that he shouldn’t be tried out as a number 10, but that the lack of effort showed in any other position makes the idea that he’ll suddenly shine as a midfield hub dubious. I could be wrong — let’s give it a go, especially since our playoff chances are nil at this point — but I’m not holding my breath.

      • I follow you. Hard to argue with that point. We’ll see.

      • It’s hard to put him as a #10 if all he does is dribble aimlessly around without incisiveness. He is a wasted acquisition and the sooner we get rid of him the better off we are. There is a good reason why he does not last greater than a year with a club

      • It’s hard to put him on the field anywhere if that’s all he does. But on a young team that isn’t ready for prime time yet, you might as well comprehensively determine what you have before you go throwing it away.

  5. Great post- timely and important.
    I agree 100% with the Adu / Marfan positional switch.
    It must be tried before the Union can fully assess Adu’s value to the franchise.

  6. Adu has two huge glaring weaknesses: he’s completely one-footed and he is really slow. I used to scoff at the questions about his age but I don’t any more.

    For him to have a chance to succeed you need to build a team around him and I don’t think he’s good enough to force the Union to do such a thing. We’re not talking Pirlo or Beckham here.

  7. I have been critical of Freddy Adu in several of my posts, but it is always tempered by noting that he is young. I can’t imagine what type of games the hype and press have played with his mind since he was fourteen. He has heard that he was American Soccer’s Gretzky, and he has sat on benches here and in Europe sometimes with no idea of whether he can break into the lineup. Now, on his umpteenth team with a second coach here, and in a position where he both was welcomed as a bona fide DP and expected to be a savior, I can understand his confusion. However, this is where the pressure should actually lead us to learn about what this player can do. If Freddy is as good as he must believe himself to be, despite his small stature and lack of speed, he needs to assert himself on the field at all times. One of the reasons that the Farfans have attracted attention is that they tend to be single speed, high revving engines out there, and mistakes of commission are much more easily accepted by the fans than the mistakes of omission that we think that Freddy is committing out there. Coach Hackworth is correct in noting that tracking back is vital; we also have the goal line clearance that Freddy saved last week. Are we seeing him mature and actually realize that multiple stepovers to a left footed shot CAN’T be the sum total of his game? Did the benching last week allow him to conclude that limited effort will be met with limited playing time? With Coach Hackworth’s background as the young men’s national team coach, and his one on one contact with Freddy, I only hope that he is playing this kid correctly. I would hate for this to be one more stop on a journeyman’s career, since Freddy has had the potential identified, and has shown flashes for so long. I cannot imagine that any player can operate at the levels that he has and still believe that the game only goes so far back for him on the field, and that he can only serve a single function. For that matter, there are very few true number 10s that actually play that way anywhere, until you get to the highest of levels, i.e. EPL, La Liga, Serie A, because there they have the other players fulfilling their roles so traditionally. For better or worse, once Freddy understands that he needs to play here wherever and whenever he gets the call, at the highest energy level, he will have taken the step toward maturity and leadership that have always seemed to be right in front of him and just beyond his grasp.

  8. Sean Doyle says:

    Full disclosure: I may be Freddy Adu’s biggest and loudest detractor. Here’s my explaination as to why.

    1. Work ethic – It’s sorely lacking. Mr. Freddy drifts in and out of matches, it feels like he plays when he wants to.

    2. Doesn’t fit Union brand – I’ve always believed that the Union were built as group of hard working individuals focused on the collective goals of building the best soccer brand in the US and more importantly, winning games as a team. Freddy displays outward distain toward the fanbase and plays with a diva’s attitude of ‘me first’. Think about these few things, when was the last time you saw Freddy walk with his teammates after a match and clap the fans. Does Freddy ever sign autographs for the kids in the Stadium Club after the match? Is Freddy a good teammate? (Privately, I’m told no) How often have we seen Freddy fail to support a teammate in attack? How many times has a plethora of flash stepovers resulted in a negative pass or a turnover? Or when Freddy chooses to selfishly attack a defender when a pass to an open teammate was the better option (see RSL match). Give me a team filled with players like the Farfans, Ray Gaddis, Antoine, Brian Carroll, Sheanon, Amobi and Valdes and I’ll beat a team of Freddy Adu’s all damn day. Our team is gritty and selfless, they are humble to a fault. Freddy Adu is all about Freddy. Jungite Aut Perite, Mr. Adu.

    3. The Salary – The highest paid player on our team needs to produce, period. Three goals and just a single assist are not enough to justify the bloated $400K salary Freddy hauls to the bank. One assist is laughable for a player with Freddy’s “great passing vision”. Freddy should spend some of his money on LASIK surgery to improve his “passing vision”. I also feel a player that merits Freddy’s salary needs to be on the field for every match, regardless of who the Union line up against. What does it say when Freddy sits against a team that has some size OR when a supplemental draft pick is subbed on for Mr. DP to start the second half?
    As it stands, the Union have a sizeable portion of the salary budget being eaten up by one player whose production fails to meet the lofty expectations of a such a big pay day.

    Let the Freddy Adu Drinking Games reconvene at 8pm this evening!

  9. Philly Cheese says:

    Found myself agreeing with several posts, but will comment independently. Expectations are high for the highest salaried player, and Adu has to acknowledge that is life he has chosen. I am not at practices, but if he practices like he plays most minutes of most games, I fully understand why he gets only limited playing time. Being on the field as a 10 would not solve, slow speed, unnecessary individual ball control, head down, losing most challenges, easily dislodged from ball, and inconsistent service to other players who have been “trained” by Freddy to stand and watch his wonders, rather than move waiting for service. Flashes of brilliance show capabilities, but shear number of mistakes and inconsistent performance explain why there is fan wrath.

  10. I am kind of sick of talking about this guy. It seems like no matter what he isn’t gonna make the players around him better and now it seems our roster is in the budget mode his salary can be best used for some steady hands who will help right the ship let alone some exotic DP>

  11. Richie The Limey says:

    Adu is a waste of space.

    He NEVER tracks back to play defense – his complaint that (I am paraphrasing) “If I play defense I get criticized for not being an offensive producer” is a complete cop-out. Look at all the wingers / CAMs in the world and you will see them getting behind the ball and tracking back, and making tackles, and tracking an opposition winger/fullback all the way down the line deep in to their own half, and then busting a hump to get back up the field to support / start an attack. When you watch the Premier league this weekend try and focus on the wingers / CAMs and see what kind of defensive work they do, then get back to me.

    He is too selfish / slow / lazy / big-headed / lacking in ambition / lacking desire / etc. to ever be a success. If he is still on our roster come next season I will spontaneously explode in a righteous rage.

  12. Nate Emeritz says:

    Good analysis. I’d add that Adu played for (and won the MLS Cup with) Nowak in DC. Adu didn’t have stellar numbers, but it could explain why Nowak took him rather than Feilhaber. Presumably Nowak thought the price was right according to his sense of Adu’s potential in MLS. At the very least, the Union had several years of inside information on Adu’s potential talent and off-field habits. It could also explain why Adu thought he could trust anything Nowak may have told him regarding where he would play on the field.
    I’m unsure if the right inference is that (a) Adu’s had (and failed to capitalize on) an opportunity to play for a coach who supported him, or (b) Nowak was never the right coach for him and Adu has spent most of his MLS career stuck under him.

    • I think it’s a bit of both, but much more heavily the latter. Yes, Adu has to man up, but every player needs a coach who will get the best out of him. Maybe it’s Hackworth, or maybe Hackworth’s patience with Adu has already run out. We’ll see.

  13. Well, if they can’t him playing well or if he can’t get himself playing well. The bottom line is that he needs to be cut, or his salary needs to be cut.

  14. Has anyone ever done the stats on whether teams score more points or lose more when adu is ahi g vs when he is sitting? That’s not the same as winning or losing games, mind you. But in watching Adu over the past few years it seems to me (without having the actual stats) that his teams simply do better when he is on the field than when he is sitting. Again, that’s not the same as winning. A dramatic case in point was the comeback tie by El Salvador in the Olympic quals: it happened after Adu was taken off. That’s just one example, but it seems to me there are many more. My question is simply whether Adu brings something intangible that is of value. (I did see one stat that his pass-completed number is very high, which may have something to do with it.) all in all Adu is an enigma! But I’d like to see that stat if anyone can figure it out.

    • I knew we were not going to do well in the Olympics when he was first named to the team and second made captain. He is awful and dribbles with no apparent objective. Getting him and losing Le Toux as a result is almost unforgivable.

    • Union played much better with Adu on the field AGAIN last night. The game actually transformed and resembled entertaining soccer even though we lost. At one point, bonehead Gomez insisted on taking a free-kick from Adu on the left side during a crucial point at the end of the game. This indicates that Adu’s clout is dwindling maybe because of what is now becoming common wisdom that Adu is sucking. Gomez skyed it over everyone’s head and OOB. Threat over. Freddy sent in several threatening free kicks before and after that. Take Gomez out and put Adu in for the whole game, I think. Otherwise, it’s less entertaining soccer for Philly. I’m not sure why Adu needs to be soccer savior to see the playing field while I am watching, but I am losing interest without best players on the field.

      • Are you serious? We lost the game because we put Freddy on the field…..The sooner he goes, the quicker wwe can bring good players in.

  15. Chris Rudderow says:

    Freddy takes a lot of heat (both warranted and not). I am certainly guilty of it. I think, especially this year, he gives a singular human face to embody our collective sense of frustration in wasted potential. He is underachievement personified.

  16. Robert Proebstle says:

    There is one glaring mistake that the Union and Hackworth are making and that is not giving Freddy a chance at No. 10. The team made a big investment in the Freddy Adu experiment and they need to follow through otherwise it is definitely a mangement and team failure and not a Freddy Adu talent failure. There is nothing to lose in giving Freddy the chance he desires until the end of the season and quite frankly a smart assetment move. Come on Union Get M. Farfan and Adu playing together and we got a good team!

    • Nate Emeritz says:

      Agreed: (a) nothing to lose, and (b) Union’s best potential for offensive development is with Marfan and Adu working together.

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