Luke DeCock

12 years later, soccer prodigy Freddy Adu starts over

Freddy Adu of the Philadelphia Union dribbles against the Seattle Sounders at CenturyLink Field on May 5, 2012 in Seattle, Washington.
Freddy Adu of the Philadelphia Union dribbles against the Seattle Sounders at CenturyLink Field on May 5, 2012 in Seattle, Washington. Getty File Photo

If there was ever any small part of Freddy Adu’s imagination that envisioned playing at WakeMed Soccer Park, surely it was for the U.S. National Team, perhaps during one of its pre-tournament training camps in Cary.

If not that, then surely for an MLS team visiting the Carolina RailHawks for a U.S. Open Cup match, or with some foreign team playing the RailHawks as part of a preseason American tour.

Surely it was not against the RailHawks in an NASL league game, playing for the Tampa Bay Rowdies, his career in tatters at age 26.

And yet the player who was once the most promising star in U.S. soccer, the first true American teen soccer prodigy, comes to Cary on Saturday night in exactly those circumstances, home from overseas in hopes of jump-starting a career gone sideways.

“Trying to reach my goal like a round-ball/Freddy Adu anything for the crown ya’ll” – Lil Wayne on “Haterz” by Glasses Malone feat. Birdman and Lil Wayne

Soccer, perhaps more than any other team sport, chews up and spits out prodigies without regret. Because there are no high-school teams or college teams or minor leagues internationally, a promising teenager can be the subject of a multimillion dollar bidding war between colossal clubs at 14. Some make it. Some don’t.

The United States had never generated one of those players in soccer, in part because American team sports tend to inhibit that kind of progression. LeBron James didn’t make his NBA debut until he was 18. No one plays wide receiver in the NFL at 16. When teens make an international impact, it tends to be in individual sports like golf or tennis or gymnastics or figure skating. Just like soccer, some make it. Some don’t.

Adu was different. At 14, he was playing against adults, and holding his own. He came of age at a time when MLS was firmly established, and ready for a homegrown teenage star, even if he was born in Ghana and moved to the United States as an 8-year-old. Adu cashed in. He was name-checked in rap lyrics, dated a singer and collected multimillion dollar endorsement deals with Nike and Pepsi, among others.

“Off or onstage, whatever/still kick it with the footwork of Freddy Adu, it’s all new” – GZA on “On The Eve Of War” by Jedi Mind Tricks feat. GZA

Adu’s public profile always exceeded his impact on the field, but he was young. Surely better things were ahead. Not surprisingly, moderate success at DC United and Real Salt Lake led to the inevitable big-money move overseas, at which point Adu dropped off the face of the earth.

Unprepared for the rigors of European soccer as an 18-year-old with Benfica in Portugal, Adu was loaned from team to team to team, from France to Greece to Turkey, in search of a place where his skills would be appreciated. At the same time, there were rumors that his commitment to the game no longer matched his talent, something Adu would later acknowledge. He returned home for two more so-so seasons in MLS before heading back overseas, to Brazil and Serbia and Finland.

He hasn’t played regularly since 2012. He hasn’t appeared with the U.S. National Team since 2011. And now he resurfaces in the NASL, playing for Rowdies coach Thomas Rongen, his former coach from the U.S. Under-20 team, where Adu had, arguably, the most success of his entire career.

“And then I bid you Freddy Adu/Prodigal child, y’all not ready for the future/Then I disappear in the Bermuda Triangle” – Jay Z, “American Gangster”

Adu is not the first to follow this path. The RailHawks had one of their own a few seasons ago. Gale Agbossoumonde skipped college and went overseas at 19, perhaps not with the same fanfare as Adu but with similar star potential. Traffic, the agency that held his rights and also owns the RailHawks, moved him from Portugal to Sweden to Germany but the big central defender never found a fit.

He landed in Carolina in the summer of 2012. He made more first-team appearances that season (20) than he has in any other single season of his career. That exposure led to MLS opportunities with Toronto FC and the Colorado Rapids, but nothing panned out and he is now back in NASL with the Rowdies, an ironic teammate of Adu.

This is not where Freddy Adu expected to be at 26, but there is still hope. Michelle Wie went from the future of women’s golf at 10 to washed up at 17 to U.S. Women’s Open Champion at 24. Adu is still young, still talented, still trying to figure out where his life and career are headed.

Adu may not have made it as far as he thought he would, as far as he thought his unquestioned talent could take him. He has made it only as far as Cary. It could be the beginning for him. It could be the end.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947

Want to go?

RailHawks vs. Rowdies

7:30 pm, Saturday

WakeMed Soccer Park, Cary

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