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Original Issue

A First Step Toward Greatness

Freddy Adu proved worthy of the hype in his first pro season--and he promises even better things next year

Every once in a while, it's important to remember just how young Freddy Adu is. Earlier this season a group of giggly teenage girls called the 15-year-old D.C. United star in his hotel room on a road trip in San Jose. "Ever since then, the team manager changes my name when we go on the road," Adu said recently. "My name right now is 'Blutarsky.' Who's that?"

Oh boy.

All things considered, though, Adu is doing just fine from a pop-culture perspective. He easily earned his 500-large salary (MLS's highest) during his rookie season, bringing unprecedented mainstream attention to the league. (United had MLS's highest average road attendance: 23,686.) Adu was profiled on 60 Minutes, did a national TV ad with Pelé and got his name dropped in a Jay-Z rap lyric. Can you say that about any other U.S. soccer star?

From a soccer perspective, of course, Adu still has a ways to go. "I'd give myself a C-plus for the season," he said before playing the final 25 minutes of United's 3--2 MLS Cup victory against the Kansas City Wizards last month. "I didn't play to my capabilities. I played well in certain games, but I was just too inconsistent."

At least the School of Freddy doesn't suffer from grade inflation. The stats tell part of the story. Adu started 14 of United's 34 games and was a substitute in all but one of the rest. He scored five goals, which tied for third on his team, and among MLS rookies he trailed only 21year-old New England Revolution midfielder Clint Dempsey, who had seven. Not least, Adu won an MLS championship ring, becoming the youngest player in an American team sport ever to be crowned a champion.

Granted, Adu had his down moments. His movement away from the ball and his defensive effort were wanting sometimes. He lashed out publicly about his lack of playing time after a June game in Dallas. And a University of Maryland student paper found him attending a keg party on campus in September. (Adu, who went with two acquaintances, one a Maryland student, swears he didn't consume alcohol. "That taught me a big lesson," he says. "Don't put yourself in that kind of situation in the first place.")

At the same time Adu made major strides. He scored a crucial goal in United's 1--0 late-season road win over the MetroStars. He had some sick highlights on the ball. Without complaining, he accepted his September demotion to a sub's role after D.C. signed Christian Gómez, a 30year-old Argentine veteran. And he buried a monster penalty kick in United's Eastern Conference championship victory against New England.

"The atmosphere of that game was awesome," Adu says. "I love stepping up in pressure situations. With a lot of people watching, I want to be the man."

By season's end D.C. had transformed itself from United and the Freddy Sideshow into a championship team. "Freddy has come an amazingly long way from where he was," says D.C. midfielder Earnie Stewart. "He was already a fantastic soccer player, but now he does it on both ends of the field." Adds United coach Peter Nowak, "His soccer education was part-by-part, class-by-class. Like a school."

Adu's first off-season will be a short one. The qualifying tournament for the Under-20 World Cup takes place in January, and United's training camp begins in February. "I can't wait for next year," Adu says, "because that's the year I feel is going to tell people--and myself--a lot about me. I'll do whatever I've gotta do to make it hard for Peter not to play me. I told him a couple of weeks ago, 'Next year you're gonna have the hardest job in the world. It's going to be so hard for you not to put me on the field.'"

In the final analysis we'll cut Adu some slack for not knowing the main character in Animal House. He certainly recognized The O.C.'s Mischa Barton when she asked to see him after an L.A. Galaxy game, and he was psyched about the possibility of meeting Jay-Z at Tiger Woods's annual A-list golf shindig. Who knows? He might even hit the mother lode . "You know," Adu says, a smile creasing his face, "I'm just dying to meet Lindsay Lohan."

Hex Appeal

Save the dates: North America's best international sports rivalry resumes next year when the U.S. meets Mexico in the final round of World Cup qualifying on the weekends of March 26--27 (in Mexico) and Sept. 3--4 (in the U.S.). Last week's draw for the regional tournament--six teams each play 10 games, with the top three finishers automatically advancing to the Cup finals in Germany--sends the Yanks packing for their first two matches, at Trinidad and Tobago on Feb. 9 and at Mexico, before playing four of their next five at home. The U.S. has never won in Mexico, and fans there are no doubt planning a rude welcome for the Yanks, who eliminated the Tricolores with a 2--0 second-round victory in World Cup 2002. --G.W.




Adu improved over the course of the year and finished with an MLS title.



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