Adu makes debut

Posted: Sunday, April 04, 2004

WASHINGTON Chants of ''Freddy, Freddy'' echoed throughout the stadium Saturday whenever a D.C. United player missed a scoring chance early in the second half.

Finally, in the 61st minute, the moment arrived.

Flashbulbs popped amid the roars as 14-year-old soccer prodigy Freddy Adu entered the game and became the youngest athlete to play in a major American league in more than 100 years.

No one in the stadium sat down for the next 10 minutes. Fans waited for magic that never came. Adu had few quality touches and never took a shot in Saturday's 2-1 victory over the San Jose Earthquakes in the MLS opener, but the ice was broken on the career of soccer's next great American hope.

''When I got out there, I just felt I was a step slower than normal,'' Adu said. ''But that was probably because of the whole atmosphere. I got some playing time. I didn't get as much as I'd like, but I got it out off the way, and now I'm ready to go. ... I'm glad it's over.''

Adu's debut created interest never before seen in the history of the nine-year old league. Reporters from Europe and Asia claimed some of the 250 media credentials issued for the match, the only regular-season game scheduled to be broadcast by ABC this season. Adu has already appeared on ''60 Minutes'' and ''Late Show with David Letterman'' and his salary is a league-high $500,000.

''We never expected that it would turn into Freddie-mania,'' commissioner Don Garber said, ''that this guy would have the personality that he has, to be as comfortable as he is in front of the cameras, be such a crossover so soon. He seems to really thrive with the attention.''

But all the hoopla might have been a little too much, and that's why coach Peter Nowak had Adu on the bench at the start of the game. Nowak said Adu's performance was ''so-so.''

''He was really nervous before they even kicked the first pass,'' Nowak said. ''I told him to play more in the middle to get more touches and enjoy the game. He did all right. For the first time, he did very well.''

United sold out the game at RFK Stadium's MLS-downsized capacity of 24,603. The stadium holds 53,000, but United has closed the upper deck this season to create a greater demand for tickets and encourage advance sales.

''I'm definitely here to see Freddy,'' Washington resident Dickinson Gould said. ''I'm not a huge soccer fan, but I've heard and read so much about Freddy that I was really interested to see what he's all about.''

When his name was announced before the game, Adu responded with a wave and shared a laugh with teammate Santino Quaranta, whom Adu eclipsed as the youngest-ever MLS player. Quaranta was 16 when he debuted three years ago.

''Before the game, I wasn't sure if it was Ringling Brothers or an MLS game,'' San Jose forward Landon Donovan said. ''I couldn't tell. There was just so much stuff going on, but it's good.''

United was already leading 2-1 when Adu entered the game, and he had only one open-field opportunity to display his creativity and talent. He had U.S. national team defender Jeff Agoos one-on-one in the 84th minute, but the 35-year-old veteran held his ground.

Adu dribbled five steps against Agoos before flopping to the turf some 25 yards from the goal. When Adu made a meager plea for a foul, the referee told him to get up and keep playing.

''I don't care if he's 15 or 55, he signed a contract with the league,'' Agoos said. ''We're not going in to hurt him. But if he steps on the field like Jaime (Moreno) or Bobby (Convey) or anybody else, we don't want him to score, so we've got to do what we've got to do.''

Said Adu: ''Obviously the fans were booing the ref, but I thought it was great defense. Next time I know what I've got to do do it a little quicker.''

Ironically, the game's best player was the one who had wanted Adu's number. Moreno, who has been with the league since its inception, scored on a header off Stewart's free kick in the 12th minute and played a beautiful long pass to set up Alecko Eskandarian's goal in the 39th.

Moreno, acquired in a trade with MetroStars, wasn't allowed to have his customary No. 9 because that is Adu's number. The 30-year-old Bolivian, who is more than twice Adu's age, settled instead for No. 99.

Ronnie Ekelund scored on a penalty kick in the 19th minute for the Earthquakes.

Both teams finished with 10 players. San Jose's Craig Waibel received a red card for a high-cleat tackle on Moreno in the 76th minute, and Dema Kovalenko was expelled for hitting Brian Mullen in the face in the 80th.

Adu is the youngest person to play for a major American team since 14-year-old Fred Chapman debuted for Philadelphia of major league baseball's American Association in 1887.

Adu grew up playing on rocky fields in Ghana and moved to Maryland at age 8 when his family won an immigration lottery. His talent was discovered by a local coach, and European clubs tried to sign him.

He opted instead to spend the last two years in Florida training with U.S. national youth teams. He became an American citizen last year and scored four goals for the U.S. team in the under-17 world championship. A deal was struck for him to be selected No. 1 overall by United in this year's draft, an arrangement that allows him to live at home with his family in Potomac, Md.

Last month, Adu completed high school in an accelerated program at the Florida academy and will receive his diploma in May.

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