Remember when U.S. men’s soccer was so full of hope?

You don’t? Watch this …

That ad is so much better than the ads we see for the U.S. women’s team today. The field-level ad isn’t bad, but so much of it is over-the-top hero worship. If we keep putting the women on pedestals and exalt them as flawless, we can’t be too surprised when critics pounce on any crack in that facade. (And then we prolong the discussion by claiming that the criticism is sexist, even though it’s not the least bit inconsistent with what we see in men’s sports, and it’s painfully ironic that the knowledgeable women who question the narrative are bullied worse than people who speak up about women’s soccer pay. You’ve read this, right?)

(Also, the band that provided the soundtrack for that ad is an indie duo called Joy Zipper, and the NYT writeup of their wedding is cute.)

But this isn’t a rant about advertising. The focus here is the young man who pops up at the 44-second mark to do some stepovers, flip the ball up and smash a volley into the net.

He’s Freddy Adu, one of the most talented young players this country has ever seen.

No, really …

No, really …

No, really.

One of the disappointments in the soccer media of the last 10 years has been that no one ever quite captured the story of how Adu plummeted from such heights to where he stands today, unable to stick with a second-division U.S. team.

Until now. See the ESPN story by Bruce Schoenfeld, who not only landed a rare interview with Adu himself but chatted with people who’ve known him at the beginning and the (almost certain) end of his playing career.

For the latter point, the definitive comment comes from the ever-candid Eric Wynalda, who took over the USL’s Las Vegas Lights team and declined to invite Adu for another season with the team.

The reason that Freddy’s not here now, there are six or seven guys getting their first chance or their second chance. He’s on his fourth or fifth. It’s their turn, not his.

Wynalda and Isidro Sanchez, son of the legendary manager Chelis and temporary coach at Las Vegas last year, also put into words what others have not. Adu’s skill was as good as anyone’s. His work ethic was not. By this point in his career, he simply won’t be able to do the work he didn’t do when he was younger.

One problem is that, despite a couple of ludicrous scouting reports to the contrary, he was never fast. He could create space with a deft touch and beat a defender that way. He was never going to run past a typical professional defender.

What were the makers of Football Manager looking at?

Adu also suffered from bad advice and a string of bad luck with his club teams. At D.C. United, Peter Nowak was widely considered to be the perfect coach for a prodigy, but his mismanagement peaked in the 2006 playoffs. With United trailing New England 1-0, Adu was the best attacking force United had on the field. Nowak pulled him in the 65th minute in favor of Matias Donnet, who contributed absolutely nothing. A little while later, Christian Gomez cramped up — an accomplishment on a cool fall day — leaving only Ben Olsen to inspire the attack through sheer force of will. (Yes, this is all in my book. The first one.)

On Adu went to Real Salt Lake, which was always going to be a brief stop on his way to Europe. He wound up at storied Portuguese club Benfica, which turned out to be a mess.

Then it was Monaco’s turn to mess up, spurred by Franco-American club president Jerome de Bontin’s proclamation that Adu could represent U.S. soccer in France the way Greg LeMond represented U.S. cycling. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a player the coaches didn’t even seem to want. A whirlwind tour of Europe akin to something Chevy Chase did in the movies followed.

At this point, Adu got a lifeline. He came back to MLS to play for Philadelphia. And he wasn’t bad. Had he embraced the shot to be an above-average MLS starter at this point, he could have spent the rest of his 20s as a productive professional player.

Instead, he embarked on another round of globe-trotting and another return to the USA. The player who was a strong MLS player in his teens was a mediocre USL player in his 20s.

So why is this a story of optimism? Let’s go back to the ESPN story.

Adu believes that several of the players at Next Level have significant potential. He knows now, though, that potential only sets the starting line. “Growing up, I was always the best player,” he said. “Guys who were way below me at the time, you’d say right now had better careers than I did.”

If he’d had a Freddy Adu working with him, an elite-level player there to explain what it meant to succeed, he would have developed a different attitude. “So when I see a kid who’s really talented, clearly above the rest, and he’s just coasting, trying to get away with his talent, I say, ‘No, no, no. That can’t happen! You can’t let that happen! They will surpass you.’ Because I was that kid.”

He’s the perfect coach. He’s charismatic. He has good attacking vision.

And kids can learn so much from people who’ve failed. Many of the best coaches in the world are people who never panned out as players. They faced adversity, and they pass those lessons along to those players.

We’ll never see Freddy Adu representing the U.S. again. Not on the field.

But off the field? We’ll see.

It’s too late to take advantage of the potential he had as a player. Maybe he’ll take advantage of the potential he has now.


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