Adu, August 2011, Featured

Adu returns to MLS, his senses?

Adu is returning to the MLS, but why would he spurn the Spanish, Swedish or English leagues to return home?

By Andrew Villegas

Freddy Adu is coming, er, staying, stateside. On the outs at Benfica, and after four unsuccessful loan stints, Adu has decided that it’s probably a better bet to keep his place on the U.S. Men’s National Team by seeing the field and getting some meaningful playing time in MLS.

And who could blame him? Adu could have easily been swayed by the contributions of MLS’ers on the roster for the USMNT/Mexico friendly earlier in the week that included Kyle Beckerman, Robbie Rogers, Brek Shea, Landon Donovan and Juan Agudelo, who all played in that friendly, as well as the inclusion of MLS’ers on the Gold Cup rosters.

Even more swaying could have come from advice from new USMNT coach Jürgen Klinsmann – if given – and former USMNT coach Bob Bradley – certainly given, see Charlie Davies’ situation – that it matters less where Adu plays, but that he actually does so. There’s also no doubt that Adu’s strong play in the Gold Cup was a determining factor – certainly he saw that form matters more than what club owns you, especially in U.S. Soccer’s eyes. And heck, sometimes there’s just nothing like home sweet home, especially when you’ve spent four years away from it.

Details of the Adu-to-Philadelphia-Union became official Friday morning, and Adu had been training in the Washington, D.C. area (his home) after his loan with second-division Turkish-side Rizepor ended. In all Adu had three unsuccessful loan stints while with Benfica – AS Monaco (No goals, nine appearances), Belenenses (No goals, three appearances), Aris (one goal, nine appearances) – and a better one at Rizespor (four goals, 11 appearances). In the end, Benfica let Adu go on a free transfer.

Still, if what Steven Goff writes is true, that Adu was also being pursued by a Spanish club, in the top division no less, as well as one in England and one in Sweden, the move is odd but indicative of Adu’s mindset. Once in Spain, if Adu decided to go that way, he’d likely be loaned out to the same sort of clubs that he’s spent time at. Let’s face it, he’s just not a La Liga player right now. That means, if he went to Spain, he’d either bounce around to other clubs around Europe just like he’s been doing for four years as a marginal player at one of the biggest clubs in soccer in the world or he’d ride the pine.

Will Adu ride his good form into superstardom in MLS? (photo by Jarett Campbell via Flickr)

Of course there’s always the English Championship or the Swedish league to consider: Many Americans have found lots of playing time in lower European leagues of late including Alejandro Bedoya (Sweden), and Clarence Goodson (Denmark). And no doubt Adu took what happened to him in Portugal at Benfica, added it to what happened to Jozy Altidore in Spain at Villarreal (sporadic, uneven playing time) and decided that he’d rather be a big fish in a little pond than a little fish in a big pond. In MLS, Adu is a name; in Europe, Adu is a 22-year-old journeyman – as bizarre-sounding as that is. Altidore, himself eager to play, eye-balled by former USMNT’er Earnie Stewart, moved to Dutch side AZ Almaar this summer and scored for the famed Dutch side in his first appearance.

What can we take from Adu’s move, and indeed, from other moves like it? First, there is tremendous pressure on Americans who play soccer to move abroad. The drum beat is constant: You. Can’t. Be. Great. Here. You. Can’t. Be. Great. Here. It pervades nearly all soccer thought in America from the Arsenal, Manchester United, Barcelona shirts that Nike sells at every major sporting goods retailer in America to what matches are on TV. A move to Europe is like a move to the land of milk and honey, and if you don’t go there, you’ll never get there.

Second: This MLS is much different from the one Adu left in 2007. For one, six teams have joined the league since Adu left. The quality of play has improved. True, the league still suffers from problems, attendance (it’s not the NFL) among them, but the league has gained popularity at home and is at least understood to exist abroad (unless we’re really deluding ourselves).

In Philadelphia, Adu gets a means to an end. Indeed, Adu may moving to Philly with one eye on Europe. He’s seen MLS’ers/USMNT’ers turn MLS stardom into big club European contracts and playing time (recently, Stuart Holden), and he’s even done it himself once, at least the contract part. But when Adu left MLS the first time, he did so on potential, not on proven skill. If he’s to leave MLS again for greener pastures in Europe, he will do so on proven skill alone.

And the MLS? It gets yet another infectious personality to notch on its belt. Beckham, Donovan, Henry, Davies, Angel, Marquez and Adu. It’s like the Super Friends out there. Chivas USA did pass on Adu, though it was first in the allocation order for new designated players, but that certainly didn’t stop Philly’s enthusiasm to add him.

It’s said too often, so forgive me, but it’s a new start for Adu, who has turned a negative situation that could have lasted as he languished in lower divisions and clubs in Europe into a positive one. And all through the way Adu has kept his head up, which certainly has had something to do with his resurgence. Or as Adu recently tweeted, albeit for his trip to Philly for the USMNT/Mexico game this week: “Philly. #Aduit”

Andrew Villegas writes about Major League Soccer for The Yanks Are Coming. You can follow him on Twitter at @ReporterAndrew and you can e-mail him at

Andrew Villegas

  • Jon

    Excellent perspective on Adu’s road, and his decision to come back here. He will still have that eye on Europe as you wrote, and even if the MLS standard of play is similar to the English Championship, he’ll get a lot more exposure to the national team playing stateside.

    “It’s like the Super Friends out there.” – very true. But you know that means there’s a Barry Bonds/Randy Moss on the way. Law of averages and all.

  • RNG

    Is that hashtag  “Adu-it” or “Adult”?
    Let’s hope both are true!

  • Love the RNG comment. The largest thing to remember about this move is that it is yet another sign that Adu has changed. This was a kid who was so easily distracted at every stop along the way. Research what his managers said about him- about his talent being prodigous but his work-ethic and training habits being dreadful, his mind and sometimes his body partying when he should be resting, arriving late when he should be early. Life is strange and it is hard to be humbled sometimes, but the fact is for a good number of people that’s the only way to get your act together. This seems to be what happened to Adu, who perhaps finally in nowheresville Turkey figured something out. It took rock bottom in a place with no distractions to get it right.

    Now he’s on to Philadelphia. But I think he’s different now. Certainly Bob Bradley, a fine manager and at the very least a great judge of character, thought he was. It was telling how he reacted after the Panama match. “Adu earned this opportunity. He came to camp, put his head down and earned every minute.” It took seven years plus for Freddy Adu to EARN his spot on the byline. Maybe now he’ll earn his way into our hearts and into the lore of US soccer, just as we thought he would all along.

    Best piece on this on the internet, I think. Well done.

  • Anonymous

    The drumbeat about not being great here is heard all the time, but has MLS exactly proven it wrong? 

    • Probably not. Would be interesting to examine that question at length with a list or some sort of format on “excelled in MLS” —> Europe, then results.

      • Anonymous

        Well, you’d need to compare three groups: 
        1) people who stayed in MLS throughout a career. 2) people who went from MLS –> Europe. Definitionally, the second group is tough to fence in, because it lumps a Clarence Goodson in with a Maurice Edu, and their development experiences are different. 3) people who went to Europe as a youth player. To me, if you look at at-one-point-US-eligible players,* the third group is best–Rossi, Subotic, Cherundolo, Davies (pre-accident, obviously). Among the best US youth players, I’d say it’s roughly evenly divided, which is not exactly an endorsement of MLS, since it gets the majority of professional-grade US players in its hands at one point or another. 

        * Some might object that this is unfair. I don’t think so. Subotic is an easy case in my eyes–his development path looks a lot like the typical American player–he spent three years at South Florida!–and just happened to take off at Mainz. Leaving aside the issue of whose fault it is or whether Subotic is a big mean jerk, he’s an example of development paths, which is what we’re interested in. That Rossi got so good by completely forgoing the American development path isn’t an endorsement of the American development path, though MLS can with some justice claim it’s being lumped in with the rest of the path as opposed to being examined on its own. 

        • All excellent points. We’ll throw Holden and Kljestan (group 2, group 3) into the mix and see what comes out of it..

    • Probably not. Would be interesting to examine that question at length with a list or some sort of format on “excelled in MLS” —> Europe, then results.

  • Anonymous

    Sure! Donovan’s a great player. On the other hand, he’s also very much an exception. The best US-eligible young players–Rossi and Subotic–left the US about as quickly as they could and never considered MLS. The players the tier below generally either never played in MLS…or left about as quickly as they could. (Bradley, Edu, Altidore and Dempsey all spent no more than three seasons in MLS.) Again, MLS doesn’t have a great history. 

    The league has changed a lot since even five years ago, and so I’m sure they’d claim things will be done differently and better now. I hope that’s true. Nevertheless, I’d understand if an American player wanted to bypass MLS if possible because he didn’t want to risk it.