Freddy Makes the Jump
By Tim Froh
Contributing Writer – Climbing the Ladder
Oh Freddy, Freddy. Your name alone inspires passionate opinions from both passionate and casual soccer fans. Never before has one American player inspired so much hope, only to be labeled a failure at seventeen, before being once again heralded as the great American hope. His recent transfer to Portugese club Benfica has sparked debates about everything from Freddy's skill, to transfer terms, to his impact on MLS. No American transfer, save perhaps Landon Donovan's return to Bayer Leverkusen in 2004, has caused as much anxiety, heated discussion, and antipathy as the Adu deal. But what does it mean?
For some, the move to Benfica is Freddy's chance to thrive without all of the pressures and distractions that came with being the poster child of MLS. For others, Benfica will be Freddy's true character test, a chance for him to excel under the media scrutiny and pressures of European professional football. The move, of course, is both of these things. Freddy will be leaving one kind of pressure and encountering another of a completely different kind. No longer is he being asked to become the face of an entire league. Instead comes the pressure of performing at the highest level week-in and week-out with the kind of media scrutiny that Freddy never had to deal with while in MLS.
Freddy though, whatever one might think of his talents, is an incredibly smart young man, who has proved himself more than capable of dealing with various kinds of press off the field. Whether he can deal with the intense gaze of the European soccer media remains to be seen, but unlike Landon Donovan (who I admire precisely because he's willing to put other priorities ahead of soccer, as much as it pains me to see him play at his best only occasionally), Freddy has long relished the chance to play in Europe, and I imagine that he was smart enough to realize the unique challenges that it poses (although he did seem genuinely surprised by the reception he received when he arrived in Portugal).
More challenging than dealing with the European media though will be the fight for first-team football and the pressure that comes with replacing the team's most talented player (one fan at the airport held a sign that read: "Who needs Simao when you have Adu?"). This is where the fans are most divided, and understandably so. Freddy has long displayed talents far above his age-equivalent peers, whether at the youth level, with the U-17s, or with the U-20s (most recently in the U-20 World Championship). However, he has struggled in MLS, against players older and more physically imposing than he. While with D.C. United and with Real Salt Lake, Freddy was played out of position on the left side of midfield. His success there was mixed, with occasional flashes of brilliance. Surely our barometer for midfield "success," the assist," would suggest that Freddy never truly excelled in MLS, but this is not entirely true (and numbers can lie).
Freddy's struggles in MLS were partly his own fault and partly the fault of his coaches. But why should his coaches have started him, a teenager, in a central attacking role? Ultimately, Adu made tremendous gains under the tutelage of D.C. United coach Peter Nowak, even if the two never saw eye-to-eye. Freddy's fearlesness and leadership in the recent U-20 Championship was something we hardly saw from the wide-eyed 14 year-old. What was most impressive though was that Freddy clearly had not abandoned his trickery with the ball nor his cockiness with the ball at his feet, a criticism that had long been levelled both at Nowak and then at John Ellinger. What Freddy has become, to the chagrin of MLS bashers, is a well-rounded attacking midfielder who can play well on both sides of the ball. Would Freddy have developed more abroad? Perhaps. But then again, perhaps not.
Now comes the biggest test of Freddy's life. He will be asked to contribute already this season, whether he's ready for that kind of responsibility or not. Surely Adu will not be starting for Benfica when their season begins in a few weeks, but with the long European season and with Adu's price tag (still a modest $2 million), there's little question that he'll receive some significant minutes with the first-team. He'll surely struggle, but he'll have to pick himself up and try again. But Freddy is a tough kid, and smart. Whether he has the talent at eighteen to win a starting spot with one of Europe's most storied clubs remains to be seen, but I wouldn't put it past him.