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Further Adu Is MLS phenom Freddy Adu ready to live up to his hype? He says he is

Talk about surreal. Just as Freddy Adu was welcoming a visitor to
his Washington, D.C., hotel room last week before the MLS
All-Star Game, former U.S. star Alexi Lalas was on the TV dialing
down the hype on ... Freddy Adu. After Lalas had finished
pointing out that the 15-year-old Adu is no sure thing and that
he'd have to win a World Cup to meet his outsized expectations,
Adu shook his skull-capped head and smiled. "I'm going to prove
to everybody that I deserve to be here," he said. "I will make a
difference in this league, and sooner than anyone thinks."

Halfway into his debut season, Adu is still seeking to bridge the
chasm between his promotion and his production. Despite being the
league's highest-paid (at $500,000 a year) and most visible (seen
those Sierra Mist ads with Pele?) player, at week's end he had
contributed two goals and one assist in 18 games, including seven
starts. Though Adu has easily earned his paycheck--with an
average road attendance of 22,644, D.C. United is the league's
most popular draw--he is still a work in progress. "He's had some
brilliant moments," says United midfielder Ben Olsen, "and he's
had times when he looked lost."

Adu has the requisite pieces of flair: stepovers, seeing-eye
passes and occasional one-on-one dribbling shows, some of which
he flashed in his second-half All-Star appearance at RFK Stadium
last Saturday. But he's still figuring out the no less important
tasks of tracking back on defense, giving constant effort and
making runs to avoid contact with stronger defenders. "I could
get away with stuff at the youth level that I can't in the pros,"
Adu says. "These guys are so experienced that the way to succeed
is to put yourself in the right spots."

Adu says he's "on track" to meet his goals for the season
(cracking the starting lineup, helping United reach the playoffs
and scoring five or more goals), but he acknowledges that the
pressure has been enormous. Only six games into the season The
Washington Times ran the headline FADING FREDDY. After Adu
publicly complained about his lack of playing time in June, he
got a visit from Trevor Moawad, his mental conditioning coach
from the U.S. under-17 residency program in Bradenton, Fla.
Moawad reminded Adu of the criticism he received from college
coaches upon arriving in Bradenton at 12--and how he was scoring
hat tricks against those coaches' teams two years later.

As Adu has discovered, though, the Darwinian world of pro sports
isn't like the nurturing environment he had in Florida. "It's not
easy when you come in as the highest-paid player and you're 14,"
he says. "Some people aren't going to be friendly, and some
people are. That's just how it is. It was tough for me the first
half of the season to adjust because every time I went in, there
were negative comments. When I heard that from professionals, it
got to me, but I've matured a lot since then, and I don't care
about that stuff anymore."

In fact, Adu says, his improvement before the All-Star break has
him bullish about the rest of 2004. In a 5-1 loss at Dallas on
July 24 he was D.C.'s most dangerous attacker, creating its only
goal. "I think I'm really close to breaking through," he said
last week. "I've gotten better, stronger, faster. And most
important, I'm a hell of a lot more comfortable."

COLOR PHOTO: ALLEN KEE/WIREIMAGE.COM Veteran defenders like Jeff Agoos have held the young Adu to two goals in 18 games.

Here are the three other top stories from MLS's first half

--Who needs Preki? Thanks to a stingy defense, the Kansas City
Wizards had the league's top winning percentage (.605) without
the reigning MVP, who's set to return from a left ankle injury
this month.

--Heady Eddie. At 17, MetroStars midfielder Eddie Gaven was an
All-Star starter after racking up four goals and six assists for
the Eastern Conference leaders.

--Building for the future. MLS announced two expansion teams for
2005 (in Los Angeles and Salt Lake City). Soccer-specific
stadiums are planned for the Dallas Burn (to be up and running by
2005), Chicago Fire ('06), MetroStars ('06) and Colorado Rapids