MEDELLIN, Colombia (AP) – Freddy Adu couldn't stop smiling on Saturday night.
Not after taking the field for the Philadelphia Union for the first time to a chorus of cheers, nor after leaving his Philly debut in the 62nd minute to another round of applause. Even as a media throng surrounded him after the match, Adu maintained the look of someone relaxed and content, and as he capped the memorable night by spending time with his closest friends, the US national team midfielder wore the look of someone who couldn't be happier.
It might sound strange to some that a 22-year-old would be so happy about leaving behind Europe for a return to MLS, but it's not when you consider the ups and downs Adu endured across the pond and realize that he has joined the club that is arguably the one in MLS best suited for him.
"I'm really just happy to be back in America playing, and Philly feels like the perfect place," Adu said. "I've been through a lot the past few years in Europe, and I really feel that stuff has made me stronger, but now I'm back and I'm ready to show people the player I am now."
Adu has changed considerably since he last played in MLS in 2007. Along with having been forced to grow up fast amid a whirlwind of failed loan moves and disappointing stints in multiple countries, Adu has also shown in the past year that he is still capable of being an impact player.
Unfortunately for Adu, that didn't keep Aris from putting a halt to his career by refusing to play him or even let him train in the second half of 2010 when he refused to be strong-armed into drastic changes to his loan deal from Benfica.
It was the low point of Adu's career, but one he eventually overcame. His desperate search for playing time led him to Turkish second-division side Rizespor, where he enjoyed enough success to catch the eye of then-US national team head coach Bob Bradley.
"I really have to thank Bob because he gave me that chance and helped get my career back on track," Adu said. "I know there weren't many people thinking about me for the national team at that point and he called me in and it's a reason I'm here now."
All Adu did was turn in impressive performances in the Gold Cup semifinal and final, which brought him right back to the forefront of the minds of American soccer fans. It also showed Union manager Peter Nowak that the player he coached when Adu first turned pro eight years ago had grown up, both as a player and person.
"I know people think we have problems but that was a long time ago," Nowak said. "I know he's more mature, we have talked many times and I believe that he knows now that soccer has to be the top priority in his life.
Freddy Adu's return to MLS sees him reunited with Peter Nowak. (Photo: AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
"He can play, he has the ability, if he as the focus he will help us," Nowak said. "It will be important for him to give a good example for our younger players."
"It's kind of funny to think that I'm only 22 but you've got to be a leader on the team because you have eight years in," Adu said. "I'm blessed because with everything that I've gone through, most players would be 29 right now trying to get their careers back on track. I'm 22 and I get to have a second chance and it's great."
This is where Adu finds himself, a 22-year-old grizzled veteran. While some of his younger Union teammates watched in awe as the media throng surrounded Adu following Saturday's 2-2 tie versus FC Dallas, Adu didn't bat an eyelash. Having faced heavy media attention going back to when he was a 14-year-old prodigy promoted by MLS as a future world superstar, Adu put on a clinic on how to answer media questions.
The fact that Adu is even still here, still plying his trade as a pro, is a testament to his perseverance. The ridiculous expectations and exposure that surrounded him as a 14-year-old would have been enough to make other athletes crumble. Adu has survived it and has still managed to keep the playful and friendly personality he had before a television camera had ever been pointed his way.
"The first time around it was crazy, it really was," Adu said of his first stint in MLS. "Having people tell you that you're going to be a star was a lot to handle, and having everyone know who you are was fun, but this time around I'm better equipped to handle that sort of stuff.
"I knew people were excited about me coming to Philly because of Twitter messages, but it was amazing to see it in person," Adu said. "It brought back memories of when I first came in the league. It was great.
"This time, you know what, it's all about handling it the right way," Adu said. "Not thinking you're better just because everybody loves you. You've got to work hard to get to where you want to get to, and that's all that matters."
Nowak will do his part to keep Adu on the right track. Adu acknowledges that while his immaturity early on led to clashes with Nowak during their time at DC United, he eventually realized that everything Nowak tried to teach him was for his own benefit. Eight years later, the two have a mutual respect that is clear to see, with Adu going as far as to call Nowak a father figure.
"Peter and Freddy always loved each other, but it's tough for a young kid to listen sometimes," said Alecko Eskandarian, Adu's teammate with DC United and current Union academy coach. "Peter was always trying to help make Freddy better and now they have a great relationship, so it's perfect that Freddy winds up coming here."
Freddy Adu battles with FC Dallas left back Jair Benitez (Photo: AP Photo/Michael Perez)
The reunion almost didn't happen. Adu was all set to go to Chivas USA, and as recently as Wednesday Adu believed that was where he, Philadelphia and MLS thought he was heading. Only when Chivas USA owner Jorge Vergara pulled his team out of the deal at the last minute did the Union get their chance, and Nowak notified Adu on Thursday that he would be playing for the Union. Just two days later, Adu was in the starting lineup, soaking in a rousing welcome from Union fans excited about their team's new playmaker.
Adu's first match for the Union on Saturday was promising. He started and played 62 minutes, and showed glimpses of the vision and creativity the Union are hoping will help jumpstart a struggling offense. He will need to work on his fitness first as he tries to catch up with his Union teammates, who are in the thick of a race for first place in the Eastern Conference.
Adu's return to MLS has been greeted with loud cheers at PPL Park, but the US national team midfielder will need to start working his magic quickly if he's going to keep tough Union fans cheering for him. Adu is confident he can do just that, because not only has he matured off the field, he believes his game is much better than it was when he left MLS in 2007.
"I'm really excited because a lot of people haven't seen me play in a while and hopefully people see the hard work I've put in over the years, and see the improvements that I've made to my game," Adu said.
We will find out soon enough if Adu can live up to a fresh batch of expectations, but hearing him talk, and seeing him be so happy to be back in MLS, makes you believe he's ready, willing and able to make the most of his return to the league where it all began.