WASHINGTON Freddy Adu's smile shone through the rain as he stretched with his D.C. United teammates. He directed traffic during one drill, looking older than 15. Later, he turned and predicted victory in a post-practice sprint. ''Right here, baby, right here!'' he said, tapping his chest. ''Watch this!''
Only a few reporters were watching. No ''60 Minutes'' crew was anywhere to be seen, as was the case a few times a year ago. He looked more like one of the guys and less like a sideshow.
''That's so awesome,'' said Adu, his teenager's vocabulary still intact. ''I can't even explain to you how comfortable that makes you feel. You don't feel like the whole world is looking at you. I thought I was ready to deal with all that stuff, but I wasn't.''
In 2005, Adu is no longer the latest thing, no longer the subject of endless profiles about the youngest U.S. athlete on a major league team in more than a century whose rookie salary was a league-high $500,000 in addition to hefty endorsements.
''It was almost as if I was made out to be the superstar of the team, the superstar of the league, but I wasn't playing,'' Adu said. ''That psychologically just kills you. It took some time dealing with it. ... I felt really awkward, and in a way I felt used. That's just how you feel, and it just drains you. You don't work as well and you don't play as well.''
Adu played in all 30 regular-season games for United last year, but he was often nothing more than a token substitute early in the season. He vented his frustration publicly and needed a visit from his Florida-based mental conditioning coach, Trevor Moawad. Adu cut his off-the-field schedule, focused on making the most of limited playing time and played well over the second half of the season. He finished with 14 starts, mostly due to teammates' injuries, and five goals and three assists.
United went on to win the league title, although Adu was a substitute who made little impact in the championship game. Four days later, he had another session with Moawad, essentially to declare a tougher-than-expected rookie season over, with the slate clean for year No. 2.
''My preparation's different now,'' Adu said. ''At first, I blamed too many other people instead of myself. And now I just sit down and blame myself for everything I do wrong and also give myself credit for everything I do right.''
Adu added another goal for this year, perhaps the most important: ''I want to integrate myself into the team a lot more.
''I've gotten used to the guys, and I've matured as a player and as a person,'' Adu said. ''My teammates trust me a lot more with the ball. They don't yell at me anymore. It's more just like, 'We know what you can do, Freddy, just do it.'''
The presence of a 14-year-old phenom made for an awkward locker-room dynamic at times last season. There are sports fans who can cite a fact or two about Adu yet are unaware United won the championship. Still, teammates sympathized with the expectations placed on the youngster and look forward to a more normal year.
''There's a lot less on his shoulders,'' midfielder Ben Olsen said. ''There's a lot less of the initial big deal of Freddy coming into the league. Hopefully, he'll be able to settle in a little bit better with the team and not have to worry so much about outside stuff.''
Experience and maturity will make Adu a better player this year. He's also added some bulk in the weight room though he's still an easy-to-push-around 145 pounds. He's determined to earn a starting job, but there's no room up front on a United team that includes Jaime Moreno and Alecko Eskandarian, so midfield will be his best option.
Coach Peter Nowak took a lot of heat for not playing Adu more last season, but the coach's team-first approach is hard to question now that there's a new trophy in the lobby. Just as last year, Nowak isn't going to name his starting lineups until game day, starting with the opener Saturday against expansion team Chivas USA.
''Nothing is going to change,'' Nowak said. ''The team is more important for me than anyone. I'm very honest with Freddy. Saying you want to be a starter means nothing if you're not going to put the work behind it.''
Even so, there's little doubt that Adu is the real thing, that he will lead the United States in World Cups for years to come. Last month, Nowak uncharacteristically let slip a word of high praise about Adu during a meeting with the president of Poland.
''I think he's going to be one of the greatest in the world,'' Nowak told President Aleksander Kwasniewski, with Adu nearby.
''That was a rare thing,'' Adu said. ''But coming from Peter it makes you feel a lot better.''
Meanwhile, a milestone approaches: Adu turns 16 on June 2, and he can't wait to get his driver's license and his own car.
''I don't know which one yet,'' he said, ''but it's sure to be souped up a little bit.''
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