A bust at 21 years old.
That's what some would have you believe Freddy Adu is. The one-time soccer prodigy burst onto the scene eight years ago as a can't-miss kid with bags of skill and marketability. He was supposed to rule the soccer world by now, or at least be lifting trophies for some powerhouse European team. He was going to be Lionel Messi before we ever heard the name Messi.
Seven years ago, Freddy Adu was a 14-year-old kid sharing an MTV green room with the Black Eyed Peas (who he was more well-known than at the time) and starring in commercials with Pele. It mattered little that he was expected to not only handle the rigors of stardom, but also the truly difficult challenge of trying to be a professional athlete before his 15th birthday.
"Sometimes I think about it and I do wonder how it all happened," said Adu, who will turn 22 next month. "One day I'm just a regular kid in Bradenton trying to play with the (U-17s), trying to make my way, and then the next day I'm all over the place. I'm on David Letterman. I'm here, I'm there, I'm everywhere."
Seven years later, Freddy Adu is nowhere closer to fulfilling those crazy expectations of his early teens, but he's also nowhere closer to having the final chapter written on a career that has seen more ups and downs before his 22nd birthday than most players see in an entire career.
Try to keep up with the moves. After starting out with D.C. United, Adu was traded to Real Salt Lake after three seasons, who then sold Freddy to European powerhouse Benfica (Portugal), which promptly sent him on a string of loans to Belenenses (Portugal), AS Monaco (France) and Aris FC (Greece). Whether Benfica still believed in Adu the prospect is debatable, but he spent the next three years bouncing around Europe before he had even turned 21.
Adu's roller coaster ride of a career has led him to the small Turkish town of Rize, where he joined second-division side Rizespor in January. The move smelled of desperation when he first made it, but what seemed like a questionable shift at the time has worked out well and has him enjoying a bit of a career renaissance.
Rather than going to a more established league and playing as a left winger, Adu took a leap of faith by signing with Rizespor, which let him play as an attacking midfielder. He was determined to get games and do so at his natural position, so he passed on a handful of offers in bigger leagues to play in the Turkish Second Division.
That might seem like rock bottom for Adu, but rock bottom was what he was running from when he moved to Rize.
Adu went into the summer of 2010 feeling great. He was coming off what looked like (by all accounts) a strong run with Aris FC. He figured to be a part of the team's plans in the new season, but Adu realized pretty quickly that what he thought was a great situation had turned ugly.
Adu returned to Aris last June and was promptly told that he would have to take a major pay cut or become an outcast. Adu was still on loan from Benfica, and Aris didn't want to keep paying Adu's considerable salary. But rather than cave to Aris's ultimatum, Adu called the team's bluff.
It was no bluff.
Aris not only dropped Adu from the team's plans, the club wouldn't let Adu train with the team or use the club's facilities. Adu was reduced to working out in a hotel gym to try and stay in shape.'
"Freddy had done pretty well in his first six months with Aris," according to Adu's agent, Richard Motzkin, "and he truly was looking forward to building up on it when he returned to the club in the summer of 2010.
"For reasons known only to Aris, the club decided Freddy was not in their plans and literally did everything possible to break Freddy so he would quit."
"It caught me off guard because I thought everything was fine," Adu said. "I thought I was working hard and helping the team, then all of a sudden that happened.
"I would have been okay with taking a little bit of a paycut, because I know how things were," Adu said. "It's just the way everything went out, the whole thing just got out of control."
Adu eventually returned to the United States to regroup and figure out an escape plan from Aris. He weighed several offers, including an unlikely one from Rizespor, a small Turkish second-division club with aspirations to gain promotion.
With the help of Adu's work as an attacking midfielder, Rizespor heads into the Turkish League Promotion playoff semifinals this weekend. Adu has proven to be a goal-scoring threat while also providing quality passes and set pieces. He will play a key role in Rizespor's chances of winning its way into the first division, and he is open to the possibility of staying with Rizespor if the clubs succeeds in gaining promotion.
Here scoring for Benfica in late 2007, Freddy Adu is still young enough to prove his best moments are ahead of him. (Image: Francisco Leong/Getty Images)
The most important thing for Adu now is that he is playing regularly for the first time in years. And he's having fun. He doesn't even let things like being labeled a bust bother him, though he admits he used to let criticism affect him.
If his seven topsy-turvy years as a professional have done anything, they have forced Adu to grow up more quickly than most others have by the age of 21. He acknowledges making plenty of mistakes along the way, and looks back on the crazy beginning to his professional career and admits that, in some ways, it overwhelmed him.
"Honestly, as a 14-year old I wasn't ready to handle all that," Adu admits. 'At the time I just thought it was cool, I was happy to be a professional soccer player. If all that happened right now, I'm obviously much more mature and could handle it better. At the time I just let everything happen. It definitely got to my head."
"When you look at all of us, we had success early, but the key is not to accept average," Adu said. "For me, at times, I settled for less than my best, and I was okay with it. Those other guys never settled for less. That's why they're where they are right now.
"That's something I had to figure out the hard way, but hey, I'm lucky that I'm still just 21 years old and I can still put all this together and I still have time on my side to really, really put everything together."
That's the thing that is easy to forget about Adu. While it certainly seems like he has been around a long time, and his career should be coming to a close, he is still just 21, and he is still maturing as a person and as a player. Calling Adu the player a bust is misguided, though calling the myth created around him as a 14-year-old a bust certainly is not.
Adu the player still has a long way to go, but he's making progress, and while he may not be the player so many dreamed of him being when he first stepped on the scene, he could still wind up being a player good enough to shake off any bust label.
Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering Major League Soccer and the U.S. national team.