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SOCCER GRAHAME L. JONES

A 13-Year-Old Already Is in Plans of U.S.

March 02, 2003|GRAHAME L. JONES

On June 2, 1989, slightly more than five months before Paul Caligiuri scored the goal that put the United States into the World Cup for the first time in 40 years, a young woman named Emilia gave birth to a son at the Bengali Hospital in Tema, Ghana.

U.S. soccer has not been the same since.

Caligiuri's goal against Trinidad and Tobago in Port of Spain, Trinidad, set off a breathtakingly improbable chain of events. For instance:

It earned the U.S. a place in Italia '90, which opened the doors for American players in Europe, who helped the U.S. reach the second round of the 1994 World Cup, whose success led to the creation of Major League Soccer, which inspired a new generation of players such as DaMarcus Beasley and Landon Donovan, who helped the U.S. reach the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup.

Now consider this: Emilia's delivery might have even further reaching consequences.

Think, for instance, of the U.S. actually winning the World Cup in, say, 2010 or 2014.

But that's getting ahead of the story.

Back up, a moment, to 1997, when the young mother, now with two sons, again enters the picture, this time by winning an immigration lottery in Ghana that allowed her family to move to the U.S.

Fredua Koranteng Adu, the elder of the two boys, was 8 at the time.

Freddy Adu is 13 now, and today he will board an aircraft that will carry him and the rest of the U.S. under-17 national team to Guatemala. It will be the second-most important flight of his life, right after the one that brought him to the U.S.

On Wednesday, in Guatemala City, Adu very likely will become the youngest player to wear a U.S. jersey, when Coach John Ellinger's team plays Jamaica in the first of three regional qualifying games for the FIFA Under-17 World Championship in Finland in August.

After that, for those peering into the Adu crystal ball, comes a probable FIFA World Youth Championship in a year or two, a first-round pick in the MLS draft, a call-up to Coach Bruce Arena's full national team and, possibly, a World Cup spot even though he will be barely 17 when Germany 2006 rolls around.

That's what stargazers see, but is it all hope or is it all hype? These days, it's difficult to tell.

Certainly, judging from the comments of those who have coached him, Adu is the real thing, an honest-to-goodness star in the making.

"Where he is, athletically and skill-wise, is light-years ahead of anyone before him at this age," Ellinger told the North Jersey Herald News.

This, remember, comes from a coach who produced the most valuable player, Donovan, and second-most valuable player, Beasley, when the U.S. finished fourth at the 1999 FIFA Under-17 World Championship in New Zealand.

Then there is Ray Hudson, who allowed Adu to train with his D.C. United team for a week just to get a good look at the Potomac (Md.) youngster.

"His movement, quickness, balance and awareness are natural gifts, Wayne Gretzky stuff," Hudson told the Miami Herald. "If he started in an MLS game tomorrow, he wouldn't be out of place."

Adu has been in the under-17 team's residency program in Bradenton, Fla., since January 2002 and is on an accelerated track that will allow him to graduate from high school at 15. Ellinger is afraid he might lose Adu to the professional ranks as early as next summer.

Already, Adu has shown that he can take on the best MLS has to offer while playing for the under-17s against the Chicago Fire and the New York/New Jersey MetroStars, who are in spring training in Florida.

He scored twice in a victory over the Fire, a feat that impressed Chicago Coach Dave Sarachan, an assistant on the 2002 U.S. World Cup team.

"You get some kids who might shy away, playing against pro players, but it's almost like the challenge inspired him," Sarachan told the North Jersey Herald News.

While looking forward to joining MLS, Adu, even now, makes no secret of his desire to play for a big European club, and several already have come calling.

He was only 10, for instance, and playing in an under-14 tournament in Italy, when Inter Milan offered Emilia $100,000 to get him under contract. She turned Inter down, wanting to keep her son at home.

More recently, Inter's offer jumped to $750,000 -- this for a 13-year-old who is a mere 5 feet 8 and 150 pounds and who has never played an international match.

That will change this week. Adu became eligible to represent the U.S. on Feb. 13, when his mother, who supports her family by holding down two jobs -- testing computer boards and working as a cashier -- obtained her U.S. citizenship at a ceremony in Baltimore.

Adu flew home from Florida that weekend, it being Valentine's Day, after all, and heard the news.

"I found out from my mom when she picked me up at the airport," Adu told the Washington Post. "She was so happy and she said, 'You're an American citizen now.' And I just looked at her and smiled and gave her a big hug."

Because of his unquestioned skills and remarkable maturity and poise, there are those who have questioned whether Adu really is 13.

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