Whatever Happened To America’s “Pele?”

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Freddy Adu, the Ghana-born American was once dubbed America’s Pele following a child-prodigy-style start to his footballing career before becoming a poster boy for those who have catastrophically failed to come anywhere near living up to their potential.

At just 14 years of age, Adu’s name was on everyone’s lips as one of the hottest talents in World football following his blistering performance in the U-17s World Cup. This was a World Cup that saw Uruguay represented by Luis Suarez and Edison Cavani, Brazil represented by Willian and Marcelo yet it was the U.S. young gun Freddy Adu who stole the show and who, in a world without social media, had the footballing universe speaking his name as a future superstar.

freddy adu.
Freddy Adu.

Now 26, Adu has achieved next to nothing in his career, he has spent the last 5 years of it floating around the lower leagues of obscure European football, searching for success and more importantly, the talent that catapulted him to fame during his teenage years. So what happened to the youngster, how did his career go so far off track and what will become of him now?

Following that outstanding World Cup performance, Adu was drafted in the first ballot by DC United. In the three years that followed, Adu would be picked twice for the All-Star team. His stats of 11 goals and 17 assists during those three years may seem unremarkable, that is until you realize that he was aged just 15 when the Washington side snapped him up. Along with footballing success came media success as the U.S. latched onto him as their hope for the future.

During those years, it was rare for talented Americans to remain in the MLS with many such as Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, Michael Bradley and Brad Guzan heading for the bright lights of the European leagues. Adu followed the same path, and in 2007 headed to Benfica for what most expected to be the beginning of a footballing legend. Things could not have gone more wrong.

Whether the weight of expectation was too heavy or perhaps even the young Adu’s career had already peaked remains unclear. What is certain though, is that after failing to impress in his first season with the Portuguese champions, Adu’s career began a downward spiral like never seen before. In his 4 years at Benfica, the attacking midfielder was loaned out 4 times, to Monaco, Belenenses, Aris and Caykur Rizespor, notching up just 28 appearances and 4 goals collectively.

Philadelphia Union looked to have saved Adu’s career in 2011 when they snapped him up and gave him regular playing time, or at least comparatively to his European nightmare. Adu scored 7 goals and had 12 assists during his 35 appearances for the club but things turned sour when head coach Peter Novak was fired. It seems that Novak was the one who had faith in the former prodigy and Adu followed Novak out of the door shortly afterwards.

The list of clubs that follows for Adu would be Brazilian side Bahia, making 2 appearances and leaving after 6 months, Serbian club Jagodina, where he would make 0 appearances and leave after 6 months and Finnish side KuPS where Adu cancelled his own contract after making 5 appearances in 5 months.

Adu has been on more than 14 trials for various European club sides, failing to impress at each and in 2015 he was given another lifeline by the Tampa Bay Rowdies, his 12th professional club. So far the Ghanian, as expected, has not set the World alight at Tampa Bay, but at the age of 26, there is still a chance that the midfielder can still have a strong career in the game. The likelihood of him coming anywhere near to the potential he showed as a youngster is around the same as him hitting the state lottery jackpot.

The fault of Freddy Adu’s gargantuan failure to succeed is his, by his own admission, and his alone:

“Everything that Ive been through and everything that hurt my career, I brought it on myself because I didn’t dedicate enough time to it, Adu said. You can say, Oh, I had a lot too early, or say whatever you want. But at the end of the day we all need to grow up at some point, and that has just all hit me this offseason. It really did.”

The unfortunate tale of Freddy Adu is a tough lesson for American sports fans and their high expectations. But sadly for Freddy – it seems he’s going to go down in history as one of the biggest overhyped footballers of the modern era that never was.

Anne Lawson is a British writer who keeps her eye on business and trending issues that affect us all. She loves to delve into the real story and give us interesting tidbits we might otherwise miss.