America's Major League Soccer season kicks off here in Washington Saturday, when D.C. United hosts the San Jose Earthquakes at RFK Stadium. But the big focus of the game will be on Freddy Adu, a 14-year-old phenom and top overall draft pick, who is making his professional Major League Soccer debut.
The start of the MLS season has been tailored around Adu. The match is the only regular-season game scheduled for network television broadcast this season. The banner promoting the game on the home page of the official MLS Web site features Adu's picture. His team, D.C. United, has been selling tickets to the game as part of a "Freddy Four-Pack." The match is sold out.
While Freddy is just 14 years old, he projects a maturity far beyond his years. He has appeared on any number of magazine covers and television shows, has made a soft-drink commercial with soccer legend Pele, and is constantly swarmed by the media. But Freddy says he likes the attention.
"It's fun, I enjoy it and I try to do whatever I can do to be the best player I can be and help my team win," he said. "And I know if I keep doing that and play well in the field, the media stuff will be there. After all, it is part of my job."
Some predict that Freddy Adu could change the face of American soccer. His winning smile and charisma, along with his flashy ball-handling skills could make the young man a global sports superstar. Team president Kevin Payne is sure Adu will help D.C. United.
"There is no question that Freddy is going to bring interest from areas that we might not otherwise enjoy it," he said. "Whether it is young fans or general sports fans or in some cases, people who are not even sports fans, they are intrigued by the story and are following Freddy's adventure with our team."
Freddy's life has been an adventure since he moved from Ghana to the Washington area in 1997 along with his mother and younger brother. But the 14-year-old, who became a citizen last year, has good memories of his birth nation.
"I am never going to forget that place, you know. I remember exactly what everything was like," he said. "I mean, it is probably a little bit different now, because, it has been, you know, six and one-half years. But I can't wait to go back. I should be going back by the end of this year to visit. I can't wait."
Though they were comfortable in Ghana, his mother Emelia believed her dreams for her sons' futures could only be achieved in the United States. When they settled in Potomac, Maryland, Mrs. Adu had to work two jobs to make ends meet.
By the time Freddy Adu was 10, his mother was already getting calls from European clubs who had heard of his skills and were interested in signing him. Though the money would have allowed Emelia Adu to reduce her exhausting schedule, she refused to let him leave home. It was not until Freddy was 12 that he was allowed to join the U.S. Soccer Federation's developmental program in Florida.
Now Freddy is ready to make his debut and see if he can live up to the hype. The young soccer prodigy says meeting Pele was a treat, and that the Brazilian legend is a great role model.
"I mean, the guy is the greatest player to ever play the sport and to get a chance to shoot a commercial with him and to hang out with him, hey, not everybody gets to do that," he said. "So you might as well take full advantage of it and enjoy yourself. And to see how great he was and he treated everybody with the same amount of respect and all that stuff, you can't help just want to become just like him, you know."
Assuming he takes the field for Saturday's opener, Adu will become the youngest player for a major American team since 14-year-old Fred Chapman debuted for Philadelphia of major-league baseball's American Association in 1887. But Freddy Adu says he is not nervous, just anxious. In his words, "I have been waiting for this for a long time."