They're banking on Adu

Soccer: Major League Soccer is keeping its fingers crossed that the gifted and charismatic 14-year-old is the answer to its prayers.

Pro Soccer

April 02, 2004|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - The grass on the practice field just off Oklahoma Avenue is richly green, English green. In fact, with a heavy sky dominating the gray, misty morning a couple of days before Major League Soccer begins its regular season, the unfolding scene looks more suited to a London suburb, where soccer is life, than the field just across the street from RFK Stadium.

There is a soccer team on the field, and the sidelines have disappeared beneath the feet of a media contingent usually seen around here only for the Washington Redskins.

The reason for all this attention is the 5-foot-7, 14-year-old jogging in the middle of the pack. Surrounded by taller, lankier teammates, Freddy Adu is the latest child superstar - the phenom whom the MLS hopes will help lift soccer in the United States into the kind of major pro sport that it is everywhere else in the world.

"There are just a few players - Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan, Barry Sanders when they played - who, when they get the puck or the ball, can cause people to inch to the front of their seats every time, just waiting to see what's going to happen," said D.C. United president Kevin Payne.

"Freddy is like that. He's not going to dominate the league as a rookie, but he has the ability and willingness to do things other players wouldn't have the courage to do, and our coach, Peter Nowak, is encouraging him to do those things."

United has been using Adu's picture on fliers, posters and in mailings to promote ticket sales because, Payne said, "There is no point in avoiding the obvious."

Local newspapers and national magazines have been carrying stories about him - about his incredible talent, his fascinating life story (his family won a visa lottery in Ghana that enabled them to move to the United States when he was 8) and his gleaming smile.

Adu is a player built much like Pele, wide-beamed, with a close-to-the-ground center of balance. And his skills bring back memories of the young Pele, too. Adu is fast and quick, has good field vision and his ball-handling skills are enviable.

"These are his strengths - he's very mobile and very skillful and he can finish and score goals," said Nowak, who wouldn't designate a playing position (forward or midfield) for Adu. "It really doesn't matter what position he is going to play. We're going to use his strengths within the team concept."

"Freddy hasn't stepped on to the field yet," said Stu Crystal, MLS vice president of marketing, "but we're all excited about his potential."

So far, Adu's potential has United headed for an opening-game sellout tomorrow at RFK Stadium, where it will kick off the season at 4 p.m. against the 2003 MLS-champion San Jose Earthquakes in a game carried live nationally by ABC.

RFK holds 52,000, but only 24,600 tickets are being sold for United games this season. When Adu came on the scene, Payne said, the club decided to create a situation in which tickets "are scarce and hard to get."

That news broke Tuesday morning and over the next 24 hours nearly 5,000 tickets were sold. By yesterday afternoon, the game was sold out except for 100 tickets as part of a full- or half-season plan.

"I'd say we'll derive enough increased revenue from home and away games to offset his contract for the entire length of his contract this season," Payne said of the guaranteed deal that will pay Adu $500,000 a year for four years. "But there are two other components that make the deal a good one.

"Another part is that sponsorships will increase. Sponsors are intrigued by Freddy and showing a lot of interest. And the third part is that in three or four years, when Freddy has progressed, he'll likely be sold to a team overseas, and that will mean a significant windfall for us and for Freddy."

All this and more are being said about a youth who hasn't even played his first pro game.

Nike chairman Phil Knight said in Sports Illustrated last week: "Freddy has the potential to bring soccer almost for the first time into the public's consciousness.

"Soccer in the United States isn't really part of the culture. What it needs, I think, is a superhero, and he clearly could be it. Now, that's putting a lot of pressure on him, but the kid's got all the potential to do that."

Knight has signed Adu to a $1 million Nike endorsement contract. Nike is in the planning stages of an ad campaign. EA Sports is developing a promotional program. And a Sierra Mist commercial has made national news by uniting Adu and Pele, 63.

When Pele came into the North American Soccer League in 1974, he was already an international superstar. His presence momentarily ignited that league and began the growth of American youth soccer, which continues to thrive.

During a break in the filming of the commercial, Pele said he was impressed by the teenager and compared him to Mozart. "If you're good, you're good," he said.

Now the question becomes, is Adu good enough to make soccer take off?

Adu tries to deflect the question.

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