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RANDY HARVEY

He's Just a Boy, Playing at the Men's Level

October 12, 2003|RANDY HARVEY

A BBC World Radio reporter sat down in the area reserved for perhaps the largest media contingent ever to see the U.S. under-20 men's soccer team play an exhibition game and asked, "Where's the golden child?"

"On the bench," he was told.

Thomas Rongen is the only coach ever to stop Freddy Adu, playing him for only the final minutes Wednesday night of a 2-1 loss to Japan.

The U.S. coach must have realized he was disappointing a crowd of 250 or so soccer aficionados who watched as best they could on a hazy night from the other side of the chain-link fence surrounding the dimly lighted practice field at the Home Depot Center in Carson.

The game wasn't open to the public. Even Sigi Schmid, coach of the MLS champion Galaxy, had to talk his way past the attendant at the gate. Neither was it publicized by the U.S. Soccer Federation.

That didn't prevent the word from spreading that Adu would be here, although the word didn't mention anything about his spending so much time on the bench.

Not that Rongen was wrong.

Adu is a mere four months past his 14th birthday, four years younger than every other player on the U.S. and Japanese teams except for one.

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Adu's family came to the United States from Ghana after his mother won an immigration lottery and settled in Bethesda, Md. He was 8. By the time he was 10, officials from one of the world's richest soccer clubs, Italy's Inter Milan, were offering him $250,000 if he would allow them to guide his career.

When his mother turned them down, because Freddy was just a boy, they offered $750,000. She turned them down again. He was still just a boy.

So sophisticated are his skills that he was called a man among boys when he played in the FIFA Under-17 World Championship in August. Even before, there were suggestions that he was older than his family claimed. But media organizations that have investigated have found no such evidence.

With the U-20s, he was a boy among young men. He is equal to any on the ball, but he is at a disadvantage in size and strength. He appears to be neither the 5 feet 8 nor the 150 pounds listed by the USSF.

"I can't get into a wrestling match with these guys," he told reporters after Wednesday night's game. Most of the dozen or so reporters at the game, including the one from the BBC in London, were here for this weekend's games in Carson of the Women's World Cup, but they couldn't resist the chance to see Adu.

Rongen said Adu was disappointed when the coach told him Tuesday he wouldn't be on the team for the FIFA World Youth Championship in the United Arab Emirates in November unless there was an injury to an attacking player. Rongen said it wouldn't be fair to players who had been together for 18 months to replace one with someone who hadn't joined the team until Monday.

"He told me I had tonight to prove him wrong," Adu said. "Hopefully, I did something tonight that made him change his mind."

He added, "It's hard on coaches to replace somebody. You have to stay loyal to the guys who went through qualifying. I respect that. I don't have to agree with his decision. But I respect that."

It's that sort of maturity that causes people in the sport to say he can handle the extraordinary expectations, such as comparisons to Pele and Maradona.

Watching Adu on Wednesday night, I felt the way I did when I saw Tiger Woods play at Riviera when he was 16. Or the way people in Akron, Ohio, no doubt did when they saw LeBron James play in the AAU summer leagues three or four years ago.

We might someday recognize Adu as even more wondrous. There was a sense that Woods was the next great golfer and that James was the next great basketball player. Adu could become the first American male soccer superstar.

"No player in this country has ever come close to getting as many accolades as this kid," Galaxy assistant Ralph Perez said. "That's not new to the rest of the world, but it is to us."

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Like James, Adu has a Nike contract. Adu was four years younger when he signed his.

It seems as if everything he does is accelerated. He will graduate from high school in Bradenton, Fla., where he is in the U-17 residency camp, before his 15th birthday next June.

"I've got to graduate and get out of there," he said.

He said that people he respects have told him that if he is to continue developing at the same rate as young players from other countries, he needs to start playing professionally. Inter Milan, Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and PSV Eindhoven reportedly are courting him.

Others wish Adu would slow down, fearing that the uncompromising world of professional soccer, especially in Europe, might steal the fun of the sport from him at too young an age.

"He has so much passion and joy for the game that it's contagious," Rongen said, explaining why even older players enjoy Adu's presence.

"Sooner or later," Rongen added wistfully, "a coach will take that from him."

But, for now, it's all fun for Adu. He said he was "very excited" that Manchester United even knew about him.

"I've loved them since I was a baby," he said.

He flashed his Magic Johnson smile.

"I'm still a baby," he said.

A U.S. Soccer official joked before Wednesday's game that Mia Hamm would be there.

"She asked about you," the official teased Adu, having not spoken to Hamm.

"What'd she say?" Adu asked.

"She said you were cute," the official said.

Adu was embarrassed. He's no baby, but he is most certainly a teenager.

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Randy Harvey can be reached at randy.harvey@latimes.com.

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