As the Crew prepare to take on the Philadelphia Union this afternoon, I am reminded of one of the more polarizing phrases in the history of U.S. Soccer:
"I admire Freddy Adu."
Not only is that a phrase you will rarely hear a American fan say; it is also a phrase that very few coaches have uttered - and meant - over a very tumultuous five years for the soccer prodigy. Starting with his decision to skip a scheduled match while playing with Real Salt Lake in July 2007 so he could board a plane and sign with Benefica of the Portugese first division, Adu's vibrant glimmer of a career has turned into a flickering bug lamp.
To be clear, I don't admire what Adu did to Real Salt Lake. Nor do I admire Adu's European resume, which started with a Champion's League contender and ended with teams from the Greek league and the Turkish second division. I don't even admire his performance in the recent CONCACAF Olympic qualifying effort for the U.S., which some point to as Adu's re-awakening (or re-re-awakening, if you count his 2011 Gold Cup play) - despite his good play, the team he captained failed to qualify for the Olympics.
Instead, I choose to look at Freddy Adu's career with much lower expectations. Few if any people not named "Messi" could have lived up to the hype that young Adu received in America after he signed with MLS as a 14-year old. True soccer fans had their hopes, which were tempered by the long list of prodigies who wilted on the vine over many decades. But the sports talks shows, newspaper columnists, and talking heads on networks like ESPN, who had little familiarity with soccer? All they knew was that Pele wanted to be in a commercial with this kid.
Suddenly, grown men three times his age were waiting to see Adu do something they'd never seen before in a game they barely understood. Anything less than jaw-dropping spectacularity, and they stood at the ready to bury this U-16 player who wouldn't be legally allowed to vote for 4 years after his pro debut.
I don't say these things to excuse Adu's failures as a player; and it certainly isn't forging new territory to say that expectations were unfairly given to a dominant youth player. In Europe and South America, a new Pele is christened nearly every weekend. Adu was no different.
But given the lofty heights that the American Hype Machine dropped him from, I am impressed that Adu still actually wants to play soccer.
Forget for a minute that every normal cubicle dweller would likely kill to experience for one day the lives people like Adu take for granted - the travel, the food, the salary, the attention. Pretend that you had been through the grind that Adu has. Would you get back up for more after getting knocked off your pedestal more times than you could remember?
My guess is that many of us would say no, and we would do that because we are normal.
Freddy Adu is not normal. Many decisions that were made for him, or at the least, with some help from adults in his life, are still affecting how he lives today. Yet now, at only 22 years old, Adu could probably afford (if he wished) to ditch soccer, head off to college, get a degree, and become whatever he wants. Imagine getting your taxes done by "Fred Adu, CPA."
Freddy Adu won't be doing your taxes any time soon, nor should he. At the very least, he will likely remain a competitive professional-level player for at least 10 more years, barring injury. At best, he could be leading a new generation of American soccer players to unprecedented success in the next three World Cups. The future likely lies somewhere in between.
But despite the checkered performances that make up his career, there is still plenty of time for him to realize a large balance of the potential he was given.
To give up on such potential, faded though it may be, would be a crime. It would also be a commonly committed sin by many in today's 24/7 sports culture. Yet, Adu continues to plug away.
U.S. Soccer fans should be proud.