Sub Text: Adu’s Debut No Cause For Alarm

Freddy Adu gets ready to sub into his first MLS match in 2004. Photo by Andy Mean/YCJ.

If you take nothing else away from the first appearance of 14-year-old Freddy Adu on the Major League Soccer stage last Saturday, let it be this:

Playing professional soccer is hard.

When the future finally arrived last Saturday and Adu jogged onto the field at RFK Stadium in the 61st minute of MLS’ season opener against San Jose, some in the stands and watching on ABC expected him to fail miserably, and some expected him to dominate. Both were disappointed.

He did some good things, like any soccer player. He did some not-so-good things, like any soccer player. Some good touches, some bad touches, like any soccer player. He ran into a defender and hit the ground, then looked up to the referee, arms outstretched, looking for the foul call that never came, like any soccer player. The fact a 14-year-old couldn’t have his way with the nine-year-old league is a testament to the notions that this is not an easy game to dominate, no matter your age, and that Freddy still has a way to go.

So, the teenager got a half-hour run in, and didn’t embarrass his team or himself. The two other guys who started at his position each scored a goal, and his team won against the defending league champions. Everyone went home happy.

That is, unless you sample what some in the media and on message boards had to say in the aftermath. Instead of concentrating on the fact that a young man not far removed from Mother Goose was holding his own with Jeff Agoos, many started in on United Coach Peter Nowak for not starting his phenom.

“Which genius came up with the idea of not starting Freddy? If it was the D.C. United coach, he should have been fired in the second minute of the game. If it was the D.C. United president, he should have been fired at halftime. If it went all the way up the ladder to the commissioner of MLS, that man should be sued for false advertising and fraud. MLS hyped Adu all over the place — then sat him on ice like a shot of Stoli? That’s bait and switch. That’s fraud. Nowhere in any of the literature MLS put out did they say Freddy Adu would hardly play in his debut. It’s an outrage that Adu didn’t get in the game until the 61st minute.”—-Tony Kornheiser, Washington Post

Now, I like Tony Kornheiser, and I realize that a lot of his bombast is just that – designed to be over-the-top and cut through the clutter. It’s part of his whole act. But, really, can you guess which way I’m leaning on this one? Outrage? An outrage to whom, exactly?

“Nowak could not work him in until the game’s 61st minute? Are you kidding? Adu is entrusted with a $500,000 salary, the league’s highest. He has been paired with Pele in a TV commercial and interviewed by Sports Illustrated. I’m guessing he could handle starting, even in his first game.”— Rachel Bachman, The Oregonian

Okay, so let me get this straight: on one hand, we have a sports columnist in Portland who allows that she played soccer through her childhood, then “fell away from it,” and on the other hand we have a coach (Nowak) who started a pro career in his childhood. Whose judgment are you going to go with when it comes to whether or not a player could “handle” starting?

And while some decried the decision, at least one genius let us in on the real thought process behind it.

“The Major League Soccer season has started up, and the first weekend was marked most notably by the short appearance of Freddy Adu in the D. C. United game. It’s a marketing strategy to give just a little taste of Adu around the league before letting fans soak themselves in his splendor.” —-Kent McDill, Arlington Heights (Ill.) Daily Herald

No, Kent, it’s a soccer strategy. How you could have covered the Fire and Peter Nowak for a while and not know that nobody’s going to tell him who to play and when and for how long is beyond me.

The preseason hype, fueled only partially by MLS and partially by a media constantly looking for these types of dog-bites-man stories, was supposed to result in a huge amount of interest from the “casual” fan. I would submit to you that there’s a big difference between interest and curiosity. Most of the “non-soccer folks” who some are so hot to attract to our game were curious to see how a 14-year-old would do against grown men, but most of them would much rather have read about it in the paper the next day or watched the highlights on Sportscenter because the alternative would have been to actually sit through a soccer broadcast. Most likely they echoed these sentiments:

“With apologies to soccer moms everywhere, I have never watched a soccer game in its entirety and even Freddy Adu is not enough to make me start.”—Joe Biddle, The Tennessean

Luckily enough of the curious did tune in (a 1.3 final national rating, with an estimated audience of 1.9 million people) to see if Freddy looked like a good player. That’s good for the league, good for the sport, and good for Freddy. Of course, it’s better for the league, the sport, and Freddy if he actually becomes a good player. To do that, letting Peter Nowak decide when, where, and how much he plays is going to be a little more important than whether or not we poll sports columnists from Oregon and Tennessee or listen to the rantings of the message board ignoscenti.

Fortunately, even while headline writers around the country were patting themselves on the back for being the first people anywhere to come up with beauties like “Much Adu About Nothing,” some whose stuff appears under the headlines were proving they can see past their next deadline.

“One of the few people with perspective was Peter Nowak, the D. C. United coach who did not start Freddy or play him in the first half. A national television audience and nearly 25,000 who filled the lower bowl of RFK Stadium did not appreciate this gesture. They wanted Frodo in cleats, moving his little legs like bat wings. But this was a physical, no-foul, no-ambulance game that featured two ejections.”—- Mike Wise, Washington Post

“Freddy Adu gives MLS everything it wants: talent, charm and American citizenship. He could be crucial to the league’s survival and professional soccer’s future as an American spectator sport. But the emphasis here should be on the long term. Adu is 14 for goshsakes, with all the emotional and hormonal baggage the age carries with it. There was little to gain and much to lose by rushing him onto the field in his first professional game just to sate the thirst of the curious.”— Ken Goe, The Oregonian

“The fact that Adu didn’t start was an example of D. C. United coach Peter Nowak putting his team ahead of the hype. The move paid off as forward Jaime Moreno and Alecko Eskandarian scored goals. Those skeptics that thought it was disastrous to have Adu start the match on the bench might be not realize that, for all the hype, Adu is not ready to come in and dominate.”—Ives Galarcep, North Jersey Herald News

“Washington residents, admitting their knowledge of soccer is elementary, felt short-changed when United Coach Peter Nowak sensibly held back the protégé until the sting had gone from the game.”— Rob Hughes, International Herald-Tribune

But don’t just take these writers’ words for it – why not ask the veteran defender who saw the kid up close, or the executive who oversaw signing Adu to the richest contract in the league?

“The kid is 14 years old, you guys have to give him some time,” Agoos told the Washington Times. “He came in, he touched the ball, he played some balls back, it’s going to take time. He’s not going to score three goals in his first game. The worst thing that can happen is that the media puts a lot of pressure on him. I think today he made an impact as much as a few other guys – probably not as much as everybody would have liked, but he held his own today.”

“This is not the savior for soccer; the sport doesn’t need to be saved,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber told reporters. “This is just a young, neat man who’s come onto the scene and captured the attention of the general public.”

But, as we know from experience, the general public can’t keep its attention focused on anything for very long, especially if it involves soccer (how long did that whole Women’s Soccer Boom last in 1999? A month?) Maybe those of us who love the sport will just have to be content with us loving the sport, and not worrying so much about whether or not it becomes mainstream (and I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but lately, mainstream is seriously messed up).

Or, we could just adopt the attitude of the protagonist of this whole drama.

“I had fun out there,” said Adu after subbing on and setting off a week of controversy.

Fun. Imagine that. A kid plays soccer on a Saturday afternoon with his mom looking on proudly. His team wins. There’s a festive atmosphere. Don’t we all want that?

Kenn Tomasch

Kenn Tomasch