Freddy Adu: the ultimate case of unfulfilled potential

    What were you doing at 14 years of age? Courting your schoolyard crush during those boring maths lessons? Deciding what subjects to pursue for examination years? Not too many life-altering decisions are made at that age – not unless you’re Freddy Adu.

    At 14, the Ghana-born teenager was putting pen to paper on a sponsorship deal with Nike worth more than $700,000 and making his debut in professional football in the USA’s Major League Soccer. Even by that stage, he had already declined multiple offers of a money-spinning move to one of Europe’s big leagues.

    Born in June 1989, Freddy and his family moved to the U.S. when he was eight after his mother won a Green Card Lottery to relocate from Ghana. Growing up in Maryland, he showed exceptional promise from a single-figure age and came to the attention of European scouts during a youth tournament in Italy in 1999. At 11, he was offered a lucrative contract by Internazionale, but his mother turned it down as she wanted her son to maintain his development organically.

    Adu’s talents could only be kept under wraps for so long, though, and at 14 he went from prodigious wide-eyed hopeful to handsomely-reimbursed professional. He became the youngest ever full-time sportsperson in America when he was the first pick from the MLS SuperDraft in 2004, allocated to DC United to keep him as close to home as possible. The records kept tumbling during his first season with the Washington club – in a two-week spell in April 2004, he became the youngest MLS player of all time and then its youngest goalscorer. His was no gentle introduction, either; he played in all 30 of DC United’s regular season games that year.

    Having been modest and level-headed in his early teens, though, the trappings of fame would soon get to Adu’s head. He began a glitzy relationship with well-known singer JoJo, another who shot to fame early in her teenage years, and he complained openly about a lack of playing time with DC United, much to the chagrin of coach Peter Nowak. He even appeared in a soft drinks commercial with Pele, a player with whom he was ludicrously compared. In late 2006, at the age of 17, he trained with Manchester United but couldn’t gain a work permit to play for the club. Upon returning to the U.S., he was traded to Real Salt Lake for the 2007 MLS season.

    He would only spend half a season in Utah. In July 2007, the long-awaited move to a famous European name finally materialised. Less than two months after turning 18, Adu signed for two-time European champions Benfica – not quite the Hollywood move for which he had previously been touted but a huge step forward in his career nonetheless. He would play Champions League football in his first season in the continent.

    Many young footballers have used the Lisbon club as a springboard towards the biggest names in world football and Adu was widely expected to do the same, but things didn’t quite work out like that for the USA international. Having struggled to gain regular first-team football with Benfica, he was loaned to Monaco for the 2008/09 season, but the Ligue 1 club did not take up the option to sign him permanently at the end of that campaign. He returned to Portugal for the following season but was again farmed out on loan, this time to Belenenses. An unfortunate injury meant that the loan spell was confined to just two months. In January 2010, he was dispatched on loan again, with Aris in Greece the latest club to give the now 20-year-old an opportunity to deliver on his potential.

    By his 21st birthday, Adu’s career was already in severe danger of entering terminal decline. A fourth loan spell from Benfica took him to Caykur Rizespor in Turkey. It proved to be the most productive of his temporary moves from Benfica but it still wasn’t enough to earn him a crack at breaking into the Lisbon giants’ first team. Instead, in August 2011, Adu was going back home.

    Philadelphia Union was the eighth club he represented in his professional career and it turned out to be the one where he played his best football, earning a surprise recall to the USA national team and rekindling hope that he would get a second chance at making it big in Europe. After all, he had just turned 22 when he came back to MLS. It wasn’t as if the sands of time were quickly running out on him.

    However, he would reach his footballing peak before turning 25, the age at which he openly stated in 2011 that he wanted to be playing regularly in the Premier League or La Liga. In April 2013, after falling out with Philadelphia manager John Hackworth, he ventured south to Brazilian club Bahia, with former Manchester United midfielder Kleberson moving in the opposite direction.

    He lasted only seven months with Bahia before embarking on a multitude of trials with various clubs in Europe, including Blackpool. He was out of work for eight months until Serbian outfit FK Jagodina offered him a contract. His appearances tally for the club amounted to the humiliating total of one and, by the end of 2014, he was again a free agent.

    The next step on his increasingly diverse world tour was Finland, where he joined KuPS Palloseura. During his three-month stay with the club, he had the ignominy of playing with their reserve team, who were then in the Finnish third tier. This was at a time when Adu was approaching his 26th birthday, when one would have imagined he would be at the peak of his career. He took his burgeoning collection of career employers to 12 in July 2015 when signing for Tampa Bay Rowdies of the North American Soccer League, the USA’s joint second-highest level of club football.

    After a steady yet undistinguished 18-month spell in Florida, he spent most of 2017 on the hunt for another club, traversing between both sides of the Atlantic Ocean once more. Indeed, the manager of the Polish club where he was on trial referred to Adu’s fleeting stint as “a joke”. Last year, he played with Las Vegas Lights in the United Soccer League in what was the club’s first full season. The year would end with Adu once more out of contract and, at the time of writing, he remains without a club.

    On 2 June, Adu will celebrate his 30th birthday on the same day that Sergio Aguero turns 31. While the Manchester City striker continues to astound at the highest level of the game, fellow teenage prodigy Adu, one year his junior, might never play football professionally again. His career has taken in 13 clubs across eight countries, with that first season at Benfica the closest he would get to the pinnacle of the European game.

    Football is rife with stories of teenage sensations failing to deliver upon their youthful potential, but the ratio of promise to delivery has been especially vast for Adu. His is perhaps the ultimate example of how premature hype can kill a career and heap enormous pressure on a player’s shoulders long before he is able to handle it. Yes, the hyperbole was no great fault of his own, having been thrust upon him by excitable agents and corporations, but Freddy Adu’s footballing legacy will be that his name acts as a watchword for unfulfilled potential, rather than becoming the all-time U.S. footballing icon that many thought he would.