Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Resurrection of Freddy Adu

For the first time in my life, I was rooting against the United States of America.

I know such an admission would cause me to be deported under President Palin in 2013, but it's the truth – for the first half of Wednesday night's U.S. Men's National Team's game against Panama, I was rooting against our boys. It wasn't that I wanted the Americans to lose. No, I wanted coach Bob Bradley fired.

As I've gotten more into soccer over the past few years – a combination of getting the Fox Soccer Channel, an exciting 2010 World Cup and the fact I'm 29 going on 60 – I've become increasingly upset with the quality of play from the US team. Even during its solid run in last year's World Cup, it felt like our boys didn't think it was time to play until it was almost over. Landon Donovan's 'Go Go USA!' goal in stoppage time last year was the most exciting sporting event I ever watched on a tiny screen in my office when I should've been working (sorry NCAA Tournament) but it should never have happened. When a talented team, and yes, the Americans have some talented soccer players, makes the same mistake over and over again, there's only one person to blame: the coach.

So as rumors abounded that Bob Bradley was toast if the US didn't make the Gold Cup final, I was already there. After the US came through with a pathetic effort against Panama during the group stage, I wanted Bradley's metaphorical head on a metaphorical platter. As the first half went on the Americans played their thrilling style of doing nothing and I stewed about why Landon Donovan wasn't playing*, I thought that maybe this was the end of the Bradley reign. I don't have to hit up Google to realize that Panama is a) very small and b) not very good at soccer. No offense to Panama, but we should destroy Panama in any athletic contest ever created. This was not happening.

*I watched Wednesday night's game on Univision because I cut back on my sports tier and lost Fox Soccer Channel. It's the longest I've ever gone watching Univision, mainly because I don't speak or understand a word of Spanish. So Landon Donovan wasn't playing and I was just confused. Still, the announcing was better than 99% of the crap I have to listen because of my sports obsession. Even if I didn't understand a word, I could tell simply by the inflection and excitement when I should be paying attention. Did I mention the Spanish soccer announcers are enthusiastic? It's how I imagine myself, if I announced a soccer game after chugging a pot of coffee and eating 12 pixie sticks.

As the second half began, as Donovan returned to the pitch and as the Americans started to get into the flow, it became readily apparent that the US needed a spark. The play from the US team's forwards in the past several years of international competition has ranged from middling to “I can't believe we can't produce one American who can score a friggin' goal when we need one.” During the Gold Cup, Mexico has unleashed Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez on the world and I always think, “Man, I wish we had a guy like that.”

Even as I was thinking this, the camera man to a familiar guy in the #20 jersey – Freddy Adu. His name had been mentioned in passing in a Sports Illustrated article about the US scouring the world for talent as a surprise addition to the Gold Cup roster. In fairness, I think surprise is a bit misleading, since I literally dropped my issue of SI in slow motion upon seeing the name. Freddy Adu? I didn't even know he still played soccer, and that's not an attempt at a joke. We all remember Freddy, the 14 year old phenom that was supposed to save American soccer, save the MLS and become the next Pele. Only he didn't come close to even being a starter in MLS and hadn't played on the national team in ages. Freddy Adu was the poster child for 21st century busts. He made Brian Bosworth look like a Hall of Famer. He made Kwame Brown look like an all-star. Freddy Adu wasn't just a bust – he was an out and out failure of the highest magnitude.

Yet, there was Freddy, bouncing up and down, shaking his head from side to side, and preparing to enter a game the US had to have. They didn't just want to win or it would've been nice for them to win – they had to win it. A loss means Bob Bradley is history. A loss means most of the players immediately see their spots tossed up for grabs. A loss means a lot of hand-wringing, a lot of questions and a long road back to respectability.

As Freddy took the field, you could sense the magnitude of the moment. When you've dropped to the depths that Freddy Adu did, you really only get one chance at redemption. If he comes out and plays terribly in such an important game, do you really think we'd ever see him again in a big spot? Thanks to Adu's insertion, a Gold Cup semifinal against Panama became one of the biggest non-World Cup games in US history.

As if I was watching a Disney movie, Freddy immediately stood out. He was better on the ball than the other US forwards. He made runs down the sideline that looked like they might lead to something. He caused a corner kick. He pushed the left defensive side of the Panama defense back. He had energy. He had determination. My God, he had skills. Where had this Freddy Adu been the past four years as the Americans desperately needed a striker and an offensive threat?

Then came the moment that could (emphasis heavy here on could) change American soccer. Adu lofted a perfect through ball to Donovan on the right side and Donovan did what he always does – step up at the right time by feathering a breathtakingly awesome pass to Clint Dempsey through five (yes, five) Panama players for the winning goal. No doubt, that play doesn't work if Donovan and Dempsey, by far the Americans' best players, don't do their thing. But they don't get their opportunity if Freddy Adu doesn't showcase the skills that made him our country's next Pele oh so long ago.

The day after, American soccer feels in a much better place than it was a week ago. They get Mexico Saturday night in the Rose Bowl for a Gold Cup final that has to be one of the more anticipated soccer games on US soil in several years. It took 90+ minutes for Mexico to score on Honduras, making the Americans' past struggles seem understandable. The Mexicans should win Saturday night but, alas, the game must still be played.

We still have no idea what Wednesday night's result means for American soccer going forward. We still have no idea if Freddy Adu's play was a supreme aberration or the sign of good things to come. All that I know is Freddy Adu was hyped for a reason and he showcased that reason, namely his talent, in Houston. He looked, if only briefly, like the 14 year old phenom that was going to change American soccer.

On Wednesday night, soccer fans witnessed the resurrection of Freddy Adu and his soccer career at the highest level. Time will tell if his moment is fleeting. But for today, we can take comfort in the fact that Freddy Adu has had a moment. Fans of American soccer will now cross the fingers and hope to see many more in the future. And preferably, starting Saturday night with an encore performance against Mexico.

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