Originally created 03/04/03

Future of U.S. soccer could rest with a 13-year-old player



BRADENTON, Fla. -- All of 13, Freddy Adu is already being trumpeted as the future of American soccer.

Agents keep calling his coach. The famed Italian club Inter Milan once expressed interest in signing him - when he was 10.

Adu, who was born in Ghana but became a U.S. citizen last month, is blessed with that rare blend of speed and skills, savvy and strength. Many predict he will be on the U.S. World Cup team in 2006.

"When he steps between the lines, he's not 13. I think that's what amazes everybody and makes them say: 'How is that kid 13? Look at what he can do,"' said John Ellinger, coach the U.S. under-17 team.

"He brings a different game than what you think you would see from a 13-year-old. It's like he's been through a world championship and qualifying, just with his poise and his physical attributes. You just don't see that in an average 13-year-old. He's a remarkable young talent."

Adu came to the United States after his family won an immigration lottery in 1997. He will become the youngest player for a U.S. national team when the Americans face Jamaica on Wednesday in regional qualifying for the under-17 world championships in Guatemala.

"I can't wait to put on that jersey because I've never worn it before," Adu said in response to a question submitted to the U.S. Soccer Federation, which has closed media access to the phenom since January. "I know it's going to feel special putting it on and I know I'm going to have a great time."

The 5-foot-8, 140-pound scoring marvel cleared a critical obstacle Feb. 13 when his mother, Emilia, became a U.S. citizen. Freddy flew home to Potomac, Md., to sign his citizenship papers on Valentine's Day. Ellinger presented him with his passport a few days later.

"I handed it to him before practice and he goes over and announces it to the team: 'Guys, I've got my passport. Come look.' That's when you know he's 13," Ellinger said.

"His passion has been to get the citizenship and help us qualify. It's one of those things that gives you goose bumps just talking about it."

The coach got his first opportunity to see the youngster play in July 2001 when Adu, then 12, led his Maryland team to a national youth championship.

Ellinger had heard stories about how Adu had played so well in a tournament in Italy that Inter Milan offered him a six-figure contract, but his family rejected it because the boy was only 10.

"When you hear about him, you think of a monster sizewise. He wasn't that big at all, but he plays big," Ellinger said. "Physically, he's very gifted with speed and changes in gears. Technically, he's very sound when he's got the ball. But he's very good without the ball, too. Tactically, he's very aware. This kid plays way beyond his years."

Adu has been living and training with the under-17 team at the IMG Academy in Bradenton the past year and is on an accelerated academic schedule that could enable him to get his diploma by next February or March, when he's 14.

While the original plan called for him to graduate at 15, Ellinger knows the pressure to turn pro will only increase if the United States qualifies for the world championships in Finland and Adu plays well there.

"The agents are calling like crazy," the coach said.

For now, Ellinger is concentrating on the regional qualifying. He has talked to his older players about helping Adu, the youngest member of the team by two years, handle the spotlight.

After Jamaica, the Americans will play El Salvador on Friday and Guatemala on Sunday. The big concern is Adu will put too much of a burden on himself to prove he's as good as advertised.

"You talk to him and people say how mature he is, but this is going to be a new pressure," Ellinger said. "He hasn't had to deal with this one yet because this one is real. It'll be interesting to see how he reacts. I hope his teammates will be there for him, and it can be special."