Freddy Adu was once the golden boy of Championship Manager and Football Manager, after setting records as the MLS’ youngest ever player and goalscorer at the age of just 14.
Naturally tipped to become “the next Pele”, Adu made his debut for the United States national team while still only 16-years-old, but, after leaving DC United in 2006, he became a journeyman. Playing for 15 teams in nine different countries, Adu failed to live up to the superstar potential he had promised.
Former Blackburn Rovers, Tottenham Hotspur and QPR defender Ryan Nelsen played with Adu when he broke through at DC United. Witnessing the teenager in action first hand, Nelsen explains Adu’s early success actually hindered his career, rather than benefited it.
“He was going backwards – I called him [at Benfica] and asked, ‘Freddy, how are you doing?'” Nelsen exclusively told FourFourTwo.
“He said, ‘I want to be in the Premier League, this is crazy,’ and that was kind of the thing with him. What he wanted he had to earn, and I remember thinking, ‘Maybe focus on where you are – get back to basics, big guy’. But the damage had been done in terms of what people were saying to him.
“If I’m brutally honest, why Freddy didn’t go further is that he didn’t learn the values of hard work and failure at 14, 15 and 16,” Nelsen lamented.
Still only a 26-year-old himself when Adu broke through, Nelsen also explains the constant media attention certainly didn’t help Adu fulfill what he was capable of.
“Everything he did on the field, whether we lost the match or not, was reported as a success – everything he did was amazing and everyone in the media over here was too scared to criticize him.
“He never understood the extra margins of work ethic, how you react to failure, the learning process of what it takes to get to the top. If you don’t have the ability to get better and better, you soon get caught up.”
Alexi Lalas, who played 96 times for the United States between 1991 and 1998, doesn’t have much sympathy for Adu, though. After all, the former defender explains, Adu still received plenty of opportunities off the back of his early career success.
“There seems to be this desire for Freddy to be a victim of the times and circumstances, although I don’t think he’d look at it like that,” Lalas explains.
“Were there difficulties and unique problems he had to face relative to other American players? Absolutely. But don’t cry for Freddy Adu, because the opportunities he got were incredibly beneficial and he was in rarefied air that lasted for many years – and in some ways continues to last.
“It’s not a unique story for a young player not to live up to expectations, and perhaps he couldn’t have done it unless he became the best player in the world. But nowadays, an infrastructure exists to maybe protect him and give him the skills and tools to deal with the pressure and expectation.”